The Plight of the Refugee
Examining the Challenges of the Syrian Conflict’s Displaced Persons
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As the Free Syrian Army battles the Assad regime across Syria, Syrians continue to flee their war-torn towns and homes for the relative safety of neighboring countries. However, the circumstances faced by Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt are grim. An overview of the five main host countries to Syrian refugees illustrates the urgent need for increased international assistance for their plight.
Turkey has been one of the most receptive states to Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict. There are now over 150,000 Syrians in Turkey, spread out among fifteen refugee camps in the southeast. These camps provide the best conditions for displaced Syrians, and provide a range of medical and humanitarian services. The Turkish government has reportedly ensured that children residing in these camps have access to education, from elementary to university levels. Organized and carefully logged medical visits are frequent, and the UNHCR has properly winterized these locations. The camps are, however, currently at capacity; thousands of Syrians are still queued and exposed on the Syrian-Turkish border. Because the Turkish government denies foreign journalists access to these camps, details about the condition of the camp’s inhabitants and conditions are provided by independent Turkish observers. Though conditions are comparably livable, there have been reports of rioting and protests.
Despite the favorable condition of the camps, reports indicate that Turkish support for Syrian refugees living outside of them is dismal. Registration as a refugee and access to the aid given by Turkish authorities is only provided to those interned in an officially-recognized camp; therefore, Syrians living and working in Turkish cities are ineligible to receive any kind of government assistance.
The influx of mostly Sunni refugees has stirred social tensions amongst the predominantly Alawite residents of Hatay province, where a large number of camps are concentrated. Religious communalism along with a strained history (discussed in a previous blog) between Hatay residents and Syrians has complicated the already difficult process of adapting to a sudden surge of foreign nationals. However, the Turkish government has taken steps to mitigate this issue.
In many ways, the circumstances faced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon are the direst. The number of refugees in the small country has already reached over 260,000, but the government has set up no formal transit centers or camps. Refugees receive some aid from UN-administered centers, but are largely forced to rely on the generosity of the Lebanese people or to join others in renting small apartments and attempting to secure employment. Given the tense political situation in Lebanon and the country’s lack of resources, the high number of refugees – without adequate support by international agencies – could cripple Lebanon’s already fragile financial and social fabric.
According to the UNHCR, an average of 1,500 Syrians flow into Lebanon daily. About a third of Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon have fled from Homs; another third is from Damascus, Deraa, and Idlib, with the remaining portion coming from Aleppo, Hama, and other parts of Syria. UNHCR-administered sites in Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and Tripoli allow these Syrians to officially register as refugees and to receive UN-administered aid; for reasons detailed below, however, as many as 50,000 Syrians currently in Lebanon have not registered as refugees.
Because most Syrian refugees living in Lebanon have had to seek their own housing, food, and medical aid, one of their most urgent needs is money. Even Syrians who were able to come into Lebanon with some resources have largely spent their savings and are unable to pay for rent or meals. A UNHCR monetary assistance pilot program, recently launched in Tripoli, has helped alleviate some of the needs of the refugees and will be implemented in other Lebanese cities with large Syrian refugee populations. Syrian refugees’ access to health care, especially if they have chosen not to register with UNHCR, has been impaired by high costs of aid and transportation to medical facilities.
A number of other factors have rendered the case of Syrian refugees in Lebanon particularly complex and worrisome. As mentioned above, the severe lack of funding for UNHCR activities has greatly limited the capability of the UN to provide for these refugees. The UNHCR has made increasingly urgent calls to the international community to boost its financial support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Beyond funding challenges, administrative issues and the politicization of the refugee influx have served as obstacles to aid provision. According to a recent report by Doctors Without Borders, many Syrians entering Lebanon are unaware of how to access registration centers, while others do not have the time nor the fare that transportation to these centers requires. Still others lack the proper documentation to adequately register, and some are fearful that registration will allow the Lebanese government to deport them back into Syria. This particular concern is partially a product of the politicization of the Syrian conflict within Lebanon. Since the beginning of the revolution, Lebanon’s own political arena has been strongly divided about its neighbor’s developing conflict. The current Lebanese government, headed in part by many individuals who are friendly to the Syrian regime, has taken no official position on the Syrian conflict and has been unable or unwilling to effectively handle the flow of refugees. These visible political tensions may send a message to Syrian refugees that a government unfavorable to their plight may actually send them back into Syria if they officially register themselves.
Jordan, too, has seen a heavy influx of Syrian refugees since the early days of the revolution. The Syrian province of Deraa, where the revolution first started, lies a mere six kilometers from the Jordanian border. Over 300,000 Syrians have fled into Jordan, with some living in camps set up by the Jordanian government, but most residing in host communities, relying on the generosity of individuals or families who have taken them in. The Jordanian government has been accommodating to a degree. Despite some earlier threats, Jordan’s border with Syria has remained open, and refugees are continuing to pour in to the Hashemite Kingdom. Some refugees reside in the Zaatari Camp, which was opened by the government in July of 2012. This camp, built for 60,000 (but currently housing 76,000) refugees, has seen a number of demonstrations by inhabitants seeking sufficient food provisions and overall better accommodation. Frequently, when Syrian refugees are accepted into the Zaatari Camp, they are not permitted to leave. An additional point of concern is the fact that refugees who register with the Jordanian government are often required to give up their documents, and are merely handed a receipt acknowledging the submission of their paperwork. Without being able to leave Zaatari, and without the proper documentation on-hand, Syrian refugees have been unable to find supportive employment in Jordan. In order to relieve this camp’s overpopulation, the Jordanian government announced in October of 2012 that it would establish a second refugee camp in Zarqa. Details of this camp’s development are still unknown.
Like Lebanon, Jordan’s fragile economy and social fabric have been put under extreme strain by the influx of refugees. Syrians both inside and outside the camps have found it nearly impossible to locate jobs. Those living in private homes in Jordanian towns and cities, where they hope to avoid the conditions and restrictions of the camps, are struggling to pay high rental costs. Healthcare and education services have been particularly difficult to access, and modest monetary assistance programs have not been able to significantly reduce these needs. Despite initial Jordanian hospitality to Syrian refugees, the population undoubtedly feels strained and the specter of tension has risen.
Iraq and Egypt
As the capabilities of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to host additional refugees have waned, many Syrians have fled to Egypt and Iraq. Over 150,000 Syrians are now estimated to be in Egypt, but less than 10% have registered as refugees. The influx has been prompted by lower living costs in the North African nation, the “saturation” of Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, and the open borders that the Egyptian government has provided for Syrians fleeing violence. Syrians in Egypt were largely living off of their savings but are now, like their fellow Syrians in other nations, requiring monetary assistance. No camps have been established in Egypt, and Syrians are struggling to secure steady employment. A recently announced UN World Food Program voucher plan will provide voucher cards for registered refugees on a monthly basis, allowing them to shop in local participating markets. In addition to its open-border policy, the Egyptian government is allowing registered Syrian refugees to access public Egyptian schools. As in other countries, though, most refugees are either unaware of how to fill out the necessary registration paperwork or are unwilling to do so for fear of being deported. Urgent concerns, however, are rising about how the wave of refugees into Egypt will affect the already tense domestic situation.
Syrian refugees in Iraq number over 80,000, with most located in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi government, much like the government in Lebanon, has taken an officially neutral position but has remained unable or unwilling to provide adequate aid to refugees fleeing the neighboring violence. In fact, until July 2012, Iraqi borders were closed to Syrian refugees. Those currently in Iraq are facing harsh conditions in ill-equipped camps, devastating health conditions, and restrictions on their movements within Iraq.
With nearly one million Syrian refugees spread across these nations, it is absolutely imperative that the international community, and the United States in particular, provide additional aid. Although some governments have handled the influx of Syrian refugees well, others have failed to provide adequate assistance to those fleeing violence. In order to prevent the crippling of fragile states like Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq, Syrian refugee communities in these areas must receive more assistance. Increasing the capabilities of UNHCR- or government-administered camps and programs is critical; additional support must be given not only to provide more aid per individual or family, but to ensure that a larger number of Syrians have access to this aid.