Syrian Refugees at Risk

By Jeff Crisp
Jordanian and Syrian girls play at a school shared by locals and refugees.

The Syrian emergency has erupted with unprecedented speed and on a scale that no one envisaged when it began less than three years ago.

More than half of Syria’s population is now in need of humanitarian assistance. Six million people have been forced to abandon their homes but remain within the country. Well over two million have become refugees in other states.

The human consequences of this exodus are difficult to comprehend. In a recent visit to Jordan, for example, we met one refugee whose house in the Syrian city of Derra had been bombed in an airstrike. He had left all of his possessions behind, selling what he could and borrowing money to finance his escape. 

Now he lives in a house with 13 other people, several of them with serious medical conditions and none of them working. We asked him whether the refugees helped each other to survive in such difficult circumstances. “No,” he said. “A dead man can’t carry another dead man.”  

The desperate needs of children are a particularly tragic feature of this emergency. More than a million Syrian children have now become refugees, with 75 percent of them under the age of 12. Every day, dozens of Syrian babies are born in exile, their futures uncertain and insecure.

On our recent visit to Iraq and Jordan, we saw how difficult life is for these children. Boys and girls aged seven or eight who are working to support their families. Teenagers who are out of school and who have lost hope of completing their education. Kids gathered at hazardous construction sites because they have nowhere safer to play. 

The word “refugee” conjures up images of large camps, with tents stretching as far as the eye can see. In the Syrian refugee crisis, however, the vast majority of refugees – some 75 percent, in fact – do not live in camps but have settled alongside their local hosts.

Life is tough for these refugees. They have to find their own accommodation, even if it means living in an overcrowded garage or a building that is under construction. They have to find work, even if the hours are long and the pay is low. They have to make ends meet, yet many can only do so by accumulating serious debts.

But we should also think of the local populations: communities in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt who have shown enormous hospitality to their Syrian neighbors, but who are often no better off than the refugees.

In Jordan, we visited a village where two families – nine people in all – were living in a ramshackle two-room house without a toilet, water supply, or any land to grow food.

We asked one elderly woman what was the greatest challenge of living in such conditions. “All of my life is difficult,” she said. “And it is getting worse.”

In the face of such a massive humanitarian crisis, it is easy to lapse into negativity and despair. Yet we should recognize the massive international response that there has been to the Syrian refugee emergency – a response which has been led by the United States. Indeed, the U.S. has now provided more than $1 billion in assistance for displaced Syrians throughout the region.

But we should also acknowledge the support that others are providing. Turkey, for example, has allowed more than 500,000 Syrians to enter the country, accommodating many in camps where the standards are unusually high. In doing so, it has spent some $2 billion.

In northern Iraq, we visited a camp accommodating some 45,000 refugees, all of them receiving electricity free of charge from the state. 

Syrian refugees are also helping themselves. In the Jordanian capital of Amman, we visited a hospital that was established two years ago by a Syrian doctor who had himself become a refugee. Funded by a number of different donors, the hospital welcomes 30,000 patients a year and conducts 3,000 operations, some of them on refugees who have been wounded by bombs and artillery fire inside Syria.

But running such a facility is expensive – around $100,000 a month. And as the number of refugees in Jordan grows, it is proving difficult to raise the necessary funds. In the words of one doctor, “All services are provided free of charge. Our medical staff receive minimal wages. But we are running out of money. And if we close, there will be no alternative treatment for the refugees.”

As the Syrian emergency enters a new year, humanitarians and donors must remain focused on the three key pillars of their response. First, the international community must provide the resources needed to ensure that all displaced Syrians can be properly assisted, especially now that winter has set in.

Second, refugee-hosting countries and communities in the region must receive adequate support, so that borders can be kept open for Syrians who are obliged to flee the country.

Third, all parties to the conflict within Syria must be persuaded to provide safe access to humanitarian agencies, so as to alleviate the suffering of those affected by this atrocious war.