GUEST POST | Syrian Refugee Crisis Near Tipping Point
March 9, 2015
Without more international support, host countries could close their doors
Religious minorities at risk
Children are main victims of violence
Following a fact-finding mission in the Middle East, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) has issued a report on the plight of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons fleeing conflict in their countries. There are currently 4 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries fleeing their nation’s bloodshed, while as many as 1.9 million Iraqi refugees are internally displaced, escaping the terror of the Islamic State of Syria (ISIS), which occupies many villages and large amounts of territory in Iraq.
To put it bluntly, neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees are nearing a breaking point and are considering closing their doors — or at least keeping them barely ajar — to the flow. As a result, Syrians are moving beyond the region to Europe and points beyond. Many are resorting to dangerous journeys by boat.
Specifically Jordan, which hosts approximately 1.3 million Syrians, is beginning to show the strain. In 2014, the government began controlling its northern border, returning Syrians from ISIS-controlled areas and keeping others in a “no-man’s land” near the northeastern border. Syrians attempting to enter the northwest border area (near the Syrian region of Dora) were diverted to the northeast, forcing them to travel over a hundred miles to enter Jordan. In the meantime, new governmental policies requiring Syrians to purchase health-care and to obtain permits to work (rarely given) are designed to force them to one of the two Syrian refugee camps in the country—Azraq (15,000 population) and Zaatri (85,000).
In addition, there remain integration challenges with Syrian children being bullied at school (even by teachers) and resource burdens on local communities. In short, the protection space in Jordan is shrinking.
Lebanon, host to 1.1 million Syrians and with a population of 4.5 million, faces a more dire situation. Surrounded by Syria in the east and north, the central Bekaa Valley is dotted with makeshift refugee camps (Lebanon does not maintain formal camps) of tents and temporary shelters. Lebanon, as well, has begun instituting policies to limit the number of refugees in the country, including a visa system which denies entry to anyone without one. Authorities also are denying the start of new temporary settlements, forcing the recently arrived to share with other refugee families. Only recently did Lebanon open its border to 23 Assyrian Christians fleeing ISIS in Syria.
Turkey, which hosts over 1.6 million Syrians, has kept its border open to those fleeing the war and ISIS, but the chances of them receiving permanent refugee status are limited. Refugee interviews are being scheduled for 2022.
Desperate, Syrians are beginning to move beyond their neighbors and to other parts of the world. Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled the region, with Syrians now representing the largest group of asylum-seekers in Europe. Others have fled to parts of Africa and the Near East, and there are reports of others having arrived in South America and the Caribbean. In the Mediterranean, desperate Syrians are resorting to escape by boat to Italy from as far away as Egypt, Greece and Turkey.
Children — both unaccompanied and with families — are primary victims of the violence in their countries. About half of the Syrian refugees are below the age of 18. Because of their displacement and the lack of educational capacity in their host countries, many have not attended school in 3 years or longer. Because their male parents are caught up in the fighting or are dead, boys and girls are forced to scrounge for work to support their families. They are susceptible to recruitment as child soldiers or — particularly girls — to human trafficking. For those without a parent or guardian, there are few mechanisms to identify them and provide them protection. The children of Syria are casualties of this conflict and are becoming a lost generation.
Another group at grave risk are religious minorities — particularly Christians and other religious minorities fleeing ISIS. At least 900,000 displaced Iraqis, a third of whom are Christian, have fled to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Largely Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians, they live on parish grounds, in unfinished buildings or even shopping malls. They have described the onslaught of ISIS in Mosul and neighboring villages, forcing Christians to “convert, leave, or die.” Yazidis, a small religious sect which escaped ISIS in the mountains of Sinjar, did not have the choice of the “leave” option.
A small number of Iraqi Christians (8,000) have moved to Jordan at the invitation of the Jordanian government, with more to come and with 1,200 being hosted in parishes around Amman by Caritas Jordan. About 60 Christians a day leave Kurdistan for other destinations. Said one Vatican official: “Those with resources are able to leave, but the poor and vulnerable are forced to stay.” Of course, the goal is to maintain the Christian presence in the region, but many religious leaders see the United States as the only actor that can dispel ISIS and allow Christians and others to return to their homes. “The Americans created the problem; now they should correct it,” said one religious leader.
In order to protect vulnerable populations and ensure that host countries maintain their welcome, the international community must step up its support. The United States must lead this effort. To be fair, the United States has been a leader in providing humanitarian assistance to the refugee effort, but must contribute more and must exert its influence to increase the support from other nations.
Moreover, the resettlement of vulnerable populations — unaccompanied children, the elderly, women with children, the disabled — should be enhanced. To date, the United States has resettled a minuscule fraction of the need, but has expressed a desire to resettle as many as 10,000 in Fiscal Year 2015 — a good start. The rest of the world should accept the remainder of the nearly 30,000 the United Nations will identify for resettlement this year.
The world can no longer ignore the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East. It needs to share the burden of a lost nation and rescue a lost generation of Syrians.
J. Kevin Appleby
Director, Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs
Migration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
To read the USCCB report, “Refuge & Hope in the Time of ISIS: The Urgent Need for Protection, Humanitarian Support, and Durable Solutions in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece,” visit www.usccb.org/about/migration-policy/upload/Refuge-and-Hope-in-the-Time-of-ISIS.pdf.