Monday, October 29, 2012

The Syrian Refugee Crisis Intensifies

Over three hundred thousand refugees have fled across Syria’s borders to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, according to the latest UNHCR statistics. This number accounts for only those who have registered with the UN or are waiting to register. The UN also estimates that one to one and a half million people are internally displaced within Syria. If correct, then nearly ten percent of the population of the country (twenty-two million) no longer lives in their homes. Inside Syria as of mid-September, the World Food Program increased its target for food rations from 850,000 to 1.5 million people in all fourteen governorates. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Syrian government has authorized eight international NGOs to assist those “affected by the conflict.” The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and its thousands of volunteers have been critical partners in assisting those in need and in the distribution of aid.
As the Syrian civil war drags on, fierce fighting continues between the Free Syrian Army (financially and logistically supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, among others, and based out of Turkey) and the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Asad (supported financially and logistically by Russia and Iran). In this war, the non-combatant population must contend with intense fear and danger, and the UN OCHA asserts that, “civilians – ordinary men, women and children – are bearing the brunt of the violence.” Mortars fired at villages and urban neighborhoods often land on houses, apartment buildings, and shops. Government airplanes and helicopters drop bombs. In addition, summary executions, targeted killings, and disappearances of individuals and entire families have been on the rise since August. In many cases the culprit is unclear or unstated, whether they are proxy government thugs (al-Shabeeha) or militant groups. People walking and driving around their towns and cities also fall victims to sniper fire and checkpoint violence.
To date, the number of people killed in the eighteen-month uprising is more than 23,000, with tens of thousands of people wounded and struggling to find medical care in the besieged areas. The government continues to cut electricity and water supplies, as punishment to rebellious areas as well as due to the challenges of maintaining state services. Heavy fighting in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs in September, along with roadblocks and other factors, prevented some from fleeing to more stable areas. Given the widespread destruction of both homes and business undoubtedly many more will choose, or be forced, to flee for safety.
UN officials suggest that refugees may number up to 710,000 by the end of the year. As a result, the UN issued the second revision of the Syria Regional Response Plan Appeal (to cover March through December 2012) for 487 million dollars in order to provide humanitarian assistance, in particular for the increasingly vulnerable refugees and host communities as winter approaches. As of 27 September, the Appeal had received 141.5 million dollars. Turkey and Jordan host the largest number of refugees, with Iraq and Lebanon close behind. Recently, however, Turkey has closed or limited a number of its border crossings along the 546 mile (878 km) border with Syria, and in Jordan, living conditions in Zaatari camp are miserable. Also, Iraq has either closed or put restrictions on entry through one of its border crossings. Despite these cases, the majority of those fleeing Syria have found zones of safety and aid in surrounding countries.

[Syrians who fled their homes due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels, shout slogans as they march toward the Turkish side of the border, during a protest asking the Turkish government to let them enter to their refugee camps, at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing near the Syrian town of Azaz, 28 August 2012. Image by Muhammed Muheisen/AP Photo.]
In late August and early September, the Turkish government closed the border at Bab al-Salameh in Kilis province for security reasons while also claiming there was no place for the refugees to be housed nearby. Turkey now allows some five hundred refugees to cross this border daily. As a result, according to UNICEF, some fourteen thousand Syrians are massed waiting to cross.  Turkish border guards have allowed aid to be sent across the border into Syria for those trapped between the border and the fighting in their nearby villages and towns.

[A Syrian family, who fled their home due to government shelling, take refuge at Bab Al-Salameh crossing border as they wait to cross into Turkey, 13 September 2012. The days are still hot across northern Syria, but at night there is a hint of a chill -- an ominous harbinger of winter's approach and the deepening of the humanitarian crisis. Image by Muhammed Muheisen/AP Photo.]
As of mid-October, Turkey’s Turkish Disaster Management Agency (AFAD) reported that there are over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkey has fourteen refugee camps and restricts access in and out of the camps. The government maintains tight control on the provision of aid to the refugees but has recently requested financial and material assistance, which prompted the UN along with a number of governments and aid organizations to step forward.

[Syrian barbers shave the heads of other displaced men, as they take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing, in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, 2 September 2012. Image by Muhammed Muheisen/AP Photo.]
Since August, the northern Syrian border area has seen heavy fighting between the rebels and the Syrian government. On 3 October, a Syrian shell fell on the Turkish town of Akcakale, just inside the border, killing five. Turkey responded with mortars. The Turkish parliament then approved a provision that allows it, if necessary, to take military action outside of its borders for the period of one year.
Back and forth movement across some of the border areas has also been reported. This includes stories of those in need of medical care crossing into Turkey and then returning to their homes in Syria either by force or by choice, as well as fighters and others with family members on the other side of the border seeking temporary respite from the fighting.

[Syrians who fled their homes due to fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels line up to collect water from a tanker as they take refuge at the Bab Al-Salameh border crossing in hopes of entering one of the refugee camps in Turkey, near the Syrian town of Azaz, Friday, 7 September 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen).]
Since September, the Turkish government has also been trying to relocate Syrian refugees living in Turkish towns into camps. A number of cases were reported in the Antakya area of officials showing up at apartments where Syrians were living and threatening them with deportation if they did not move to one of the camps.

[A Syrian boy, who fled his home with his family, draws a military tank with the Syrian flag at the UNHCR nursery, in Baalbek, eastern Lebanon, 18 September 2012. Image by Bilal Hussein/AP Photo.]
According to UNHCR, Syrian refugees are concentrated in northern Lebanon (thirty-nine percent of the refugee population in Lebanon) and the Bekaa Valley (twenty-nine percent), with only two percent of those registered in Beirut. In northern Lebanon, refugees have been taken in by Lebanese host families thus straining local and community resources. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “Lebanese border villages, such as Kfartoum and Akroum, also no longer have the capacity to host the growing refugee population and rent options are scarce.” The aid community has decided to relocate families that were living in schools. Pre-fabricated units are being installed in a number of towns in Lebanon, and unfinished houses are being completed to house refugees.

[A Kurdish flag waves as Syrian refugees arrive in the Domiz refugee camp in Dahuk, Iraq, 13 August 2012. Image by Khalid Mohammed/AP Photo.]
Syrian refugees are entering Iraq mainly in two areas – the Kurdistan region (Dahuk), which hosts over 30,000 refugees, and al-Qa’im border crossing. The Iraqi government has been intermittently opening and closing al-Qa’im crossing and restricting the entry of adult men (even with families).  The UNHCR and IOM in Domiz camp in Dahuk, with over 19,000 people, have shifted away from providing hot meals to distributing cooking equipment. In al-Qa’im, a new camp is being constructed that will host 25,000 people. Currently, child-friendly spaces exist for one hundred children and health cases are referred outside the camp to Al-Qa'im Hospital.
The situation in Syria has also affected the Iraqi refugee community that sought shelter there following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. While estimates of the Iraqi population in Syria hover around one million, more than 35,000 have returned to Iraq in recent months, mostly to Baghdad, Anbar, or Diala provinces.

[Newly-arrived Syrian refugee children are helped by Jordanian soldiers after they crossed the border from Tal Shehab city in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, into Thnebeh town, in Ramtha , Jordan, 5 September 2012.  Image by Mohammad Hannon/AP Photo.]
More than half of the refugees in Jordan are from the Deraa province in southern Syria. The Jordanian military continues to help refugees get from the border safely, including transporting them to Zaatari camp. This both protects the refugees from the weather and border dangers, and ensures monitoring of the refugees and their containment in the camp.
[Newly-arrived Syrian refugee families rest among olive trees in a  field  after they crossed the border from Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley , Jordan, Sept. 5, 2012.  Image by Mohammad Hannon/AP Photo.]
Host countries have been acutely aware of the plight of children and their disrupted lives. While it took years for those hosting Iraqi refugees to allow them into local schools, the governments of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey with the assistance of UN and other international and local organizations, are all addressing the issues faced by school-aged children. This has been made easier by the concentrations of Syrian refugees in camps and specific areas. In Dohuk, Iraq, local Ministry of Education offices, along with UNICEF and UNHCR, set up a summer school as well as a child-friendly space. In Jordan’s Zaatari Camp, UNICEF set up “temporary learning spaces” that employ Jordanian teachers teaching the Jordanian curriculum in double shifts for over 2000 children. In addition, UNICEF has built two large playgrounds and a football pitch for older children and youth. The Jordanian Ministry of Education agreed in Ramtha to operate schools in double shifts for refugee children living in the host community.
Inside Syria, the beginning of the school year presents another challenge. According to UNOCHA, over 470 schools throughout the country were used in the summer to shelter internally displaced refugees; this included thirty-four schools in Damascus and another 137 schools in the surrounding areas, according to the Syrian Ministry of Local Administration. In some cases the refugees have been asked to leave, but it is not clear if alternative spaces are being provided for them. The Palestinian refugee camps in Syria have also been seen as safe spaces by those displaced, and UNRWA reported in August that its schools were hosting 11,000 refugees, with twice that number or more being absorbed into the Palestinian host communities in homes, mosques, and other spaces.

[Syrians walk through the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, 13 September 2012. Refugees in the desert camp have expressed dissatisfaction with its harsh conditions, including extreme heat and cold and constant dust-laden winds. Resource-poor Jordan is struggling to deal with the influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war. Jordanian officials estimate that 150,000 Syrians are seeking refuge in their country. Image by Clemens Bilan/AP Photo/dapd.]
Over 30,000 refugees are living in Zaatari camp. It has just opened 176 communal kitchens in order to transition families from the provision of hot meals to dry food rations that they prepare themselves. Water – amount, availability, and hygiene – remains an issue. While aid and governmental agencies provide temporary assistance and facilities for food and water in the camps, refugees are expressing how difficult it is to live in inadequate tent housing in harsh desert conditions. Thus, when they are able, refugees are leaving the camp. UNHCR noted that in October, the number of Syrians registering in the Amman, Mafraq, and Irbid offices has significantly increased.