Breaking Down 'One Billion'

By Daryl Grisgraber
A Syrian refugee woman walking through snow in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Reuters Photo/Afif Diab

By any standard, one billion is a daunting number. How many grains of sand is one billion? How long would it take to eat one billion M&Ms? For policymakers and others who deal with national budgets on a daily basis, the concept of ‘one billion’ may not be so hard to grasp. But for most of us it borders on the incomprehensible.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently unveiled its latest funding appeal for Syrian refugees, with a price tag of $1 billion for the first six months of 2013. The funds will support the more than 500,000 Syrians now living in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Despite months of hard work and sacrifice, these countries are still struggling to meet the basic needs of fleeing Syrians, with more arriving each day. So after all the time and money expended trying to help this vulnerable population, it’s tempting to ask, “Just what would one billion dollars mean for any of these individual Syrians?”

In late October 2012, a Refugees International research team visited Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to look at the situation for Syrian refugees. At that time, preparations for winter had not yet begun: refugees did not have adequate shelter, heaters, fuel, warm clothing, or enough blankets. The United Nations, the agencies that manage and service the camps, and certainly the refugees themselves, were all aware that winter was upon them. They all had plans in place, but not the money to implement them. In one camp in Iraq, only 3,000 heaters were available for a population of almost 20,000 people. In Jordan, only 2,500 hard-sided containers (which serve as shelters) were available for a camp of more than 40,000 Syrians.

Now we're starting to see the fallout from this lack of support. Winter storms in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have flooded camps and host communities, sweeping away tents and belongings and forcing refugees to abandon shelters or build reinforcements with whatever is on hand. Syrians are experiencing freezing temperatures without adequate clothing – making them more vulnerable to the illnesses that inevitably flare up in winter. In urban refugee communities across the region, many Syrians cannot afford to heat their rented accommodations or get adequate food.

One young Syrian living in Turkey wrote to us last week to say that he may have to return to Syria once his visa expires. Getting by on his own was proving too difficult, and he refused to go live in a camp – especially at this time of year. If he had received some support (like assistance with the rent or food distributions) he might not be facing such a terrible choice. But the bottom line is that where there is no money, there is no large-scale humanitarian response.

If donor countries respond generously to the UNHCR’s appeal, conditions for Syrian refugees both inside and outside of camps could improve significantly. $1 billion might seem like a lot now, but the number of people fleeing Syria continues to grow every day. By the middle of 2013, it’s possible that there will be a million Syrian refugees in need of help. And at that point, $1 billion dollars might be just enough to give Syrians the things they really need: a tent that won’t blow away, medicine for a child recovering from the flu, a second meal once a week, or one more day of shelter before the eviction notice arrives. In short, it will give them some of the security that they deserve.