The image of a crowded, dusty camp – full of tents and largely devoid of plant life – is probably what comes to mind immediately when you hear the word "refugee." You might think of Kenya’s Dadaab camp, which is currently the largest refugee settlement in the world, or of 80s-era photos of the Sudanese who fled to Ethiopia. You might even picture recent scenes from Zaatari, the camp in northern Jordan that is home to almost 100,000 Syrians who arrived in the past couple of years.
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.
In the second half of 2013, Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union, saw an unprecedented influx of asylum seekers, most of them Syrians fleeing conflict through Turkey. The pace of arrivals quickly picked up, and by the end of the year the country, which usually sees less than 1,500 asylum seekers a year, was confronted with more than 7,000.
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.
Two and a half years after the humanitarian crisis began, more Syrians than ever are displaced, either inside the country or in neighboring states. In the past six months, in particular, we’ve witnessed more and more desperate attempts by civilians to find safety beyond Syria’s borders.
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.
Last week, Amnesty International issued a report on Syrian refugees in Egypt, which revealed that some Syrians are now trying to leave Egypt by dangerous means like sea crossings to Europe. In recent weeks the media has been full of stories of people – including many Syrians – drowning at sea between Alexandria and European ports. Hundreds of others are being held in detention after failing in their attempts or being arbitrarily arrested.