Last week saw the start of a fourth year of conflict in Syria. Some of the primary markers of this event include a death toll approaching 150,000; fully half of Syria’s entire population in need of humanitarian aid; and 2.5 million Syrian refugees living in nearby countries, afraid to return, with more arriving every day. In addition, the UN’s financial requirements for providing lifesaving assistance to Syrians – both inside and outside the country – have risen to an astonishing $6.5 billion for 2014 alone.
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.
When masses of refugees escape from one developing country and find sanctuary in another, they invariably place serious pressures on the people, land, environment, water supply, infrastructure, and public services of the areas where they settle. And yet the needs of refugee-hosting communities are all too often unrecognized and unmet.
This important gap in the humanitarian response to refugee emergencies is caused by a number of different factors.
There is always a convenient excuse. In Haiti, we don't have the time. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we don't have the funding. In the Syrian refugee response, we don't have the experts. Somehow, there is always a pat answer to why we, the humanitarian community, fail to protect women and girls in emergency after emergency.
Just a few years ago, the countries of the European Union (EU) thought they were finally getting control over the flow of refugees and asylum seekers across their borders. Having peaked at 670,000 in 1992, the number of asylum applications submitted in the EU fell rapidly in successive years, slumping to just 200,000 in 2006.
In less than three years, the Syrian refugee population has become the largest in the world, surpassing the number of people who have been forced to flee longstanding conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan.
As Hassan shuffled around the room with my camera in hand, snapping photos of his cousin Juhanah, his grandmother told the story of how their extended family came to share this simple concrete dwelling in southern Turkey. Like the stories of many other Syrian families taking refuge in neighboring countries, hers was one of trauma, loss, and uncertainty.
As the number of Syrian refugees continues to grow and host communities feel the crunch, Lebanon is considering changes to its immigration policies which would limit the number of Syrian arrivals. Lebanon has been very welcoming toward Syrians so far, but with Syrian refugees now comprising roughly 25 percent of its population, there are fears that the demographic balance of the country is in jeopardy. Many here also worry that high social tensions related to the refugee influx could cause internal conflict.
Yesterday’s announcement that the United States will accept 2,000 Syrian refugees is a welcome piece of good news for the nearly two million Syrians now living in exile. Many have spent more than two years trying to eke out an existence in neighboring countries that offer varying degrees of hospitality and support.