Discussing the Syrian Refugee Crisis and Humanitarian Response at the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development

Credit: Rachel Reyes / CMS

Credit: Rachel Reyes / CMS

In March 2011, conflict erupted in Syria when government forces clashed with demonstrators demanding the removal of President Bashar Al-Assad.  Now in its third year, violence between the government and armed groups has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people and has forced more than 6 million people from their homes.[1]  The number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) has reached historical dimensions.  More than 2.1 million people have either already registered as refugees with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or are awaiting registration in neighboring countries.[2]  UNHCR estimates that around 4.25 million people have been internally displaced.[3]

During the 2013 High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN hosted a side event entitled, “The Humanitarian Response to the Middle East Refugee Crisis.”  The Center for Migration Studies (CMS), the Scalabrini International Migration Network (SIMN), and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services arm co-sponsored the events.  The featured speakers were: Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt (Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN), Donald Kerwin (CMS Executive Director), Najla Chahda (Director of Caritas Lebanon Migrant Center), Donald Rogers (Church Engagement Advisor for Catholic Relief Services), and Grainne O’Hara (Senior Policy Advisor for UNHCR).

Following Archbishop Chullikatt’s welcome to the large audience, Mr. Kerwin delivered an oral intervention on behalf of Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of the Diocese of Brooklyn who had unexpectedly been unable to participate due to illness.  In his statement, Bp. DiMarzio addressed the immense challenges in providing much-needed resources to the displaced populations.  Access to necessities such as food, clothing, and sanitation is limited; and basic services, including health care and education opportunities for children, remained unpredictable and erratic.

Ms. Chahda’s presentation illustrated the difficulties in meeting the needs of a (still growing) refugee population of this immensity.  Caritas Lebanon Migration Center (CLMC) provides comprehensive assistance and legal counseling to migrants and refugees, including persons displaced by Iraqi and Palestinian conflicts.  CLMC is providing many direct services to Syrian refugees, including: social and psychosocial assistance; legal aid; education assistance; winterization; and operation of an information center at the Masnaa border crossing. As a result of the crisis, the country suffers from electricity failure, water shortages, security and protection gaps, and a sewage system that operates in only 30 percent of its territory.  CLMC faces challenges that include: lack of resources; poor coordination among UN agencies and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs); high staff turnover due to higher-paying UNHCR contractors; insufficient time for capacity building; a fast changing operational environment; and severe competition between international and local NGOs.

Ms. Chahda said that official figures appear to vastly undercount the number of displaced Syrians. Ms. O’Hara added that UNHCR numbers only include those who have registered with the agency: the actual number of Syrian refugees is likely much higher.  Many people, whether out of fear or for other reasons, do not want to register with UNHCR, or simply do not know about the process.

Children have been particularly affected by the crisis.  In late August, the United Nations announced that it had registered one million children among the total number of refugees.  Of this number, 740,000 were under the age of 11 and more than 3,500 had either traveled unaccompanied or had been separated from their families.  Children make up around half (roughly two million) of the internally displaced.[4]  As Bp. DiMarzio’s statement pointed out, women and children refugees require special attention due to their particular vulnerability to exploitation. International organizations increasingly warn about the threats of early marriage, child labor, sexual exploitation and trafficking in these cases.[5]

Refugees of Syrian nationality or citizenship have not been the only ones affected by Syria’s conflict.  The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reports that, of the total 529,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, around 63,500 have fled the country and another 235,000 are internally displaced.[6]  The situation of Iraqi, Afghani, Somali, and Sudanese refugees, as well as of the Kurdish population inside Syria, is also of growing concern.  According to the European Commission, 47,000 ethnic Kurds sought refuge in the Kurdish region of Iraq over the course of only two weeks in August.[7]

Surrounding countries host the bulk of the Syrian refugee population.  Of the 2.1 million registered refugees, most have sought refuge in Lebanon (760,000), followed by Jordan (525,000), Turkey (490,000), Iraq (190,000) and Egypt (125,000). [8]  Hundreds of thousands more are either not registered or were already living in these countries as economic migrants.[9] The massive influx of refugees is causing enormous pressure on these countries, not only in economic but also in social terms. UNHCR has stated that a simple increase in humanitarian aid will not be enough to ease the situation in the host countries.  Instead, substantial financial assistance for health, education, housing, water, energy and emergency development assistance, as well as massive long-term investments, are needed. Across the whole region, job markets, salaries and prices have already been affected, leaving refugees and many families in host communities struggling.[10]

In Lebanon, for example, the World Bank estimates that the unemployment rate could double by the end of 2014, which would push some additional 170,000 Lebanese citizens into poverty.[11]  Ms. Chahda stated that the influx of Syrian refugees not only causes great competition on the job market, but also leads to more discrimination and exploitation.  As a consequence, tensions rise not only between the local population and the refugees, but also among families.  Many men are unable to fulfill their traditional roles as breadwinners, adding to the stress they are experiencing.  As a result, the potential for violence against women and children has increased.

Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan hosts the second largest refugee camp in the world (after Dadaab in Kenya), which is now Jordan’s fourth largest city.[12]  The Za’atri camp hosts around 120,000 Syrian refugees and around 1,000 street businesses.[13]  The Jordanian government estimates that the costs for all 525,000 Syrian refugees in the country will reach 1.7 billion U.S. dollars by the end of 2013.  Similarly, the Turkish government has covered most of the two billion U.S. dollars cost from its own budget.[14]

In the circumstances, as Bp. DiMarzio warned, “Without continued international support, host nations might eventually refuse to accept further admissions of refugees, thus exacerbating the dire situation even further.” Several international bodies and human rights organizations have also repeatedly urged the international community to help Syria’s neighboring countries by providing monetary aid or by admitting Syrian refugees.

With few exceptions, countries outside the region have responded tepidly to the crisis. Germany and Sweden host almost two-thirds of all Syrian refugees in the European Union.[15]  Both countries have recently lifted their access procedures for Syrian asylum seekers.  Sweden has granted permanent residence to Syrian refugees, while Germany has started transferring 5,000 refugees from Lebanon, who will receive residence permits valid for two years, including access to health care, educational services as well as the right to work.[16]  Brazil, the first country in the Americas to assist those affected by the Syrian conflict, has begun to issue special humanitarian visas.  The visas will also be provided to family members living in neighboring countries to Syria.  As of late September, around 280 Syrian refugees have registered with Brazil’s National Committee for Refugees.[17]

Yet mass refugee flows continue across the Syrian border.  UNHCR estimates that Syrian refugees and IDPs together amount to 6.1 million people, making Syrians the largest forcibly displaced population worldwide.[18]  During the first three months of 2013 alone, the number of refugees doubled.[19]  At the beginning of September, around 5,000 Syrians left the country on a daily basis, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres estimates that 1.5 million people have fled Syria over the course of the year.[20]  Unless a negotiated peace agreement is reached, refugee and IDP numbers could increase dramatically over the next year.[21]

 

For  news coverage on the side event, “The Humanitarian Response to the Middle East Refugee Crisis,” visit: http://bit.ly/16agPyr.


[1] “UN Chief, United States Secretary of State, Urge Political Solution to Syrian Crisis,” UN News Center, July 25, 2013, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45497.

[2] “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” UNHCR, accessed October 09, 2013, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php.

[3] “Syria Crisis,” UNOCHA, accessed October 15, 2013, http://syria.unocha.org/.

[4] “A Million Children Are Now Refugees from Syria Crisis,” UNHCR News, August 23, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/521621999.html.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Syria Crisis,” UNRWA, accessed October 02, 2013, http://www.unrwa.org/syria-crisis.

[7] European Commission, “Syria Crisis,” ECHO Factsheet, October 4, 2013, 2, http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf.

[8] “UNHCR Head Says International Community Must Share Burden of Syrian Refugees,” UNHCR News, September 30, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/52493c516.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “One Year On: Jordan’s Za’atri Refugee Camp Mushrooms into Major Urban Centre,” UNHCR News, July 29, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/51f698ee6.html.

[13] “Jordan’s Za’atri Refugee Camp Takes off,” UNHCR News, September 27, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/52458ed66.html.

[14] “UNHCR Head Says International Community Must Share Burden of Syrian Refugees,” UNHCR News, September 30, 2013.

[15] “As Syrian Exodus Continues, UN Official Urges Europe to Help Shoulder Refugee Burden,” UN News Center, July 18, 2013, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45442.

[16] “UNHCR Head Says International Community Must Share Burden of Syrian Refugees,” UNHCR News, September 30, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/52493c516.html.

[17] “UN Refugee Agency Welcomes Brazil Announcement of Humanitarian Visas for Syrians,” UNHCR News, September 27, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/524555689.html.

[18] “UNHCR Says It Is “stretched to the Limit” by the Rising Number of Refugees,” UNHCR News, October 1, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/524ae6179.html.

[19] European Commission, “Syria Crisis,” ECHO Factsheet, October 4, 2013, 2, http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf.

[20] “Number of Syrian Refugees Tops 2 Million Mark with More on the Way,” UNHCR News, September 3, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/522495669.html; “UNHCR Says It Is “stretched to the Limit” by the Rising Number of Refugees,” UNHCR News, October 1, 2013, http://www.unhcr.org/524ae6179.html.

[21] “Regional Response Plan 6 (RRP) Strategic Planning Meeting Summary Note,” UNHCR, October 3, 2013. http://www.data.unhcr.org/syria-rrp6/documents.php?page=2&view=grid