Thursday, August 23, 2012

Syria’s Growing Refugee Crisis

By Laurence Norman

The numbers in Syria’s growing humanitarian crisis speak for themselves.

By March 1, United Nations data showed 11,121 refugees had been registered leaving Syria. The number grew to 67,891 by June 1. The tally now stands at 167,175 and is climbing by several thousands a day as Syrians pour into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq to escape the bloodshed.

In total, an estimated 2.5 million people – out of a Syrian population of 23 million – have been affected by the violence, including at least 1.2 million Syrians displaced from their homes with little or no access to aid, says the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Following the recent violence in Aleppo the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reported that 7,200 people were seeking refuge in 45 schools while many others were staying in mosques and moving from village to village to escape the fighting.

For Kristalina Georgieva, the tireless, plain-spoken European Commissioner for Humanitarian aid, it’s high time major governments put Syria’s “rapidly worsening humanitarian conditions” on top of their agenda.

We must “press on all parties…that killing civilians and killing humanitarian workers… is a war crime that is not going to be left unnoticed,” she told reporters at her Brussels office on Wednesday.

Ms. Georgieva, who oversees the world’s biggest foreign aid budget, says the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still holds prime responsibility for violence against civilians “but killlings and torture are taking place across the country,” including in opposition areas.

And the situation has grown worse in recent weeks as fighting spread to Aleppo and Damascus, removing the last safe havens civilians had from what the UN now officially terms a civil war.

“We are very worried that over the last weeks, capacity to help people inside Syria has worsened,” the commissioner said.  The impact on Syria’s neighbors as the refugee numbers rise “is becoming very serious.”

The UN will debate the humanitarian situation in Syria on August 30. Ms. Georgieva hopes that even while the UN Security Council remains bitterly divided over how to resolve the political and military conflict, it can forge consensus on easing civilian suffering.

On paper, that should be possible. After months of pressure, the Assad regime agreed in June to a plan to ease the humanitarian situation, including greater access for aid workers. But the security situation means the plan has only started to be implemented. Ms. Georgieva, a native Bulgarian haunted by memories of the humanitarian catastrophe that unfolded next door in the former Yugoslavia after the fall of the Iron Curtain, acknowledges other options are limited.

Ms. Georgieva’s preferred solution – a “humanitarian pause” where fighting would stop for several hours a day allowing the wounded and trapped civilians to be evacuated, has found no purchase on the ground.

A humanitarian corridor into the country enforced by the international community and allowing aid agencies easy access to key areas is “not an option” because of enforcement difficulties and Syrian and international opposition, she says.

That leaves what she calls a “last resort” option –the creation of “buffer zones” within Syria where civilians can go to escape the violence.

For this to work, Ms. Georgieva says there must be a clear UN Security Council agreement, a pledge by combatants not to deploy troops in the zones and protection of the zone by international peacekeepers. Of course, such enclaves have failed before– witness the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the Bosnian town of Srebenica in 1995. Ms. Georgieva fears such bloodshed could be repeated in Syria.

“If these conditions are not met, then this might turn more into a risk than a solution. But clearly the situation among the neighbors is becoming such that there has to be discussion on what else can be done.”