As Syrian Refugee Crisis Worsens, Critical Needs Go Unmet

Publication Date: 
Monday, October 20, 2014
Refugees in Lebanon live in very challenging circumstances, as in these makeshift homes in the Beka’a Valley (C) Areej Abu Qudairi/IRIN

As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, host countries and the international community are struggling to meet the growing needs of Syrian refugees, resulting in a significant humanitarian gaps. The ongoing ISIS-led offensive on the Northern Syrian town of Kobani has driven over 150,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees across the border into Turkey since last month, despite US-led airstrikes on ISIS positions. This unprecedented surge adds to the over 3 million refugees who have already fled Syria, over 896,000 of whom had already reached Turkey. Lebanon remains host to the largest number of Syrian refugees at over 1.1 million, followed by Turkey and Jordan. As UNHCR noted in August of this year, “Almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives. One in every eight Syrians has fled across the border, fully a million people more than a year ago. A further 6.5 million are displaced within Syria.”

Despite ongoing humanitarian efforts, these displaced populations remain in enormous need. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are living in urban areas in the region (in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt), where many lack access to adequate food, financial aid, shelter, employment, education, and medical care. According to UNHCR, 1.7 million refugees are currently in need of food assistance, and yet budget shortfalls recently led the World Food Programme (WFP) to significantly scale back its food aid to Syrian refugees.

Shortfalls in international humanitarian aid come at a time when host countries are also struggling to meet the needs of refugees while maintaining domestic stability. The intensifying Syrian refugee crisis, emphasizes UNHCR, “has led to an enormous strain on [host countries’] economies, infrastructure and resources.” Jordan, long a regional host to refugees, including large numbers of Palestinians and Iraqis, has struggled to accommodate the housing, education, healthcare and other needs of Syrian arrivals in host communities. As a result of insufficient access to aid, Syrian refugees in the region have resorted to temporary and cramped living conditions, and fallen into deeper and deeper debt. Many Syrian refugees in Turkey have sought shelter in schools, mosques and parks, reports UNHCR, which has called for significant increases in international funding to cover the urgent food, shelter, medical and educational needs of Syrian refugees. With their families destitute, UNICEF estimates that one in ten Syrian refugee children are working, leading to a massive increase in child labor in Turkey and other host countries. If refugee needs continue to go unmet, many in Jordan fear a repeat of the protracted Palestinian refugee crisis, which gave rise to a permanently displaced population and spawned militant groups that played a destabilizing role in Jordan and the region. Tensions have also erupted in Turkey, where that country’s hesitance to come to the aid of besieged Kurds in Syria has sparked riots and risked upsetting the fragile ceasefire in Turkey’s decades-long conflict with Kurdish rebels.

In addition to the grave humanitarian need of Syrian refugees, an estimated 10.8 million people are also in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria, including 6.4 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). Since the Syrian government has largely refused to consent to humanitarian access, very few humanitarian organizations have been able to operate within the country; those humanitarian workers that have entered the country face security threats, kidnappings and killings. In July of this year, the UN Security Council authorized humanitarian access for cross-border and cross-line operations, without state consent. The Syrian government has thus far allowed these UN convoys entry, increasing aid flows to the territory, yet it has now become difficult for humanitarians to reach the vast areas of Syria under ISIS control.

The Syrian conflict has taken a particularly heavy toll on children, who make up more than half of Syrian refugees. At least 2.8 million Syrian children – both in and outside of the country – are no longer attending school. Outside of refugee camps, 73% of Syrian refugee children do not attend school. Children have also suffered greatly inside Syria. A 2014 UN report documented grave violations committed by Syrian government forces against children, including disproportionate and indiscriminate attacks, resulting in killings and maiming; obstructed access to education and healthcare; arrest, arbitrary detention, ill treatment, and the torture. Armed opposition groups, noted the report, are also responsible for the military recruitment and use of children, as well as disappearances. By late 2013, says the UN, more than 10,000 children were among the over 100,000 civilian causalities in Syria. As noted in a previous ATHA blog post, ISIS forces have also engaged in a brutal campaign of sexual violence against women and girls in Iraq and Syria. Those children that survive the conflict and displacement are likely to have significant ongoing educational, social, material and psychological needs for years to come.

For the millions of displaced Syrians inside and outside of the country, humanitarian assistance has often come too little and too late. As long as this conflict continues, it will necessitate a regional and international humanitarian response. This response must overcome the extreme difficulties of accessing vulnerable populations inside Syria, and meet the ongoing needs of displaced populations and host countries in the region. The humanitarian response must also be sensitive to the particular needs of urban refugees, and the need for durable solutions to protracted displacement. If they cannot return to their homes, Syrian refugees will need more than just emergency assistance; they will need long-term perspectives and opportunities for rehabilitation, reintegration, and resettlement.

In the words of António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Syrian crisis “has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them.”

For a more detailed exploration of humanitarian responses to conflict-induced migration, and the challenges of rehabilitation in host countries such as Lebanon, tune in to this week’s ATHA Podcast.

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