Thursday, October 11, 2012

We must help shelter Syria’s refugees

As we drove along the Turkish border with Syria last month, 10,000 Syrians were waiting on the other side to cross as new refugee camps were being prepared to receive them. Last week, on that same border, shells landed in a Turkish village.

The epicentre of deadly violence is at its worst inside Syria but it is causing tremors that reverberate into neighbouring countries.

On a recent visit to the countries surrounding Syria, we stood on the Jordanian border and watched as entire families ran for their lives through the desert night. Jordanian government buses rushed to carry them through the barren no-man’s-land that divides the two countries.
Every day, 2,000 to 3,000 Syrians are fleeing their homes across borders into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. These four countries now host 350,000 Syrian refugees, all of whom need life-sustaining assistance. About 75 per cent of them are women and children; half are living in tents.

At this pace, we expect there to be as many as 700,000 Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries by the end of this year. This has far-reaching social and economic consequences for the communities receiving them. And it is compounded by the troubling security implications and disruption of cross-border trade owing to the raging conflict next door.

For as long as this conflict continues, we call on all countries, in the region and beyond, to continue to welcome and extend refuge to Syrians in need. By opening their borders and their homes, the neighbouring countries are showing tremendous generosity and compassion.
But this refugee crisis places a dangerous burden on them. Camps as large as towns are constructed in weeks and filled instantly. Caring for a refugee population of this size is straining local infrastructures and testing fragile communities in areas already struggling with their own economic difficulties and complex social dynamics.

Addressing this requires an immediate response from the international community – otherwise the strain such a large presence of refugees would place on the host communities, their economies and, inevitably, their stability, cannot be overstated.

On behalf of the 52 humanitarian organisations working to support the growing number of Syrian refugees and the countries supporting them, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued an appeal for almost $500m. To date, this is only 30 per cent funded.

But direct support to the victims is not enough. We appeal to all states to support countries of asylum with meaningful assistance to bolster the affected towns and communities. Without this, the foundations of their welcome to refugees may start to crumble.

Life in neighbouring countries is better than what they just escaped: a country in which more than 20,000 civilians have been reported killed and countless more injured. Trapped inside Syria’s conflict are 1.2m displaced people and 2.5m people in need of food, water and medical care. Humanitarian workers, including members of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, have come under attack.

The onset of winter will only worsen their already precarious circumstances and could potentially also cause larger numbers to flee. We appeal to all parties to the conflict to grant unrestricted humanitarian access inside Syria. It will save more lives and might well reduce the numbers forced to flee across borders.

The history of the modern Middle East is marked by human displacement. In the context of the Arab awakening there has been significant short-term displacement in some countries. But the majority of displaced persons in the region first left their homes decades ago.

Last year the Syrians hosted the third-largest refugee population in the world. Forced to relive their worst memories, thousands of Iraqis and other refugees must leave behind the lives they have rebuilt in Syria and again face the painful prospect of starting anew. The Syrian people have a history of welcoming people in need. Now, it is their hour of need.

The writers are, respectively, special envoy to the UNHCR, and the UNHCR high commissioner and former prime minister of Portugal