Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Ones the World Forgot: The Syrian Refugee Crisis

The following is an adaptation of a presentation I gave on April 12, 2014 at the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies conference:

Since last writing on this topic in February, the news emanating from the Syrian refugee crisis has only gotten worse. There are now close to 2.7 million refugees who have fled the Syrian conflict, the majority of whom have settled in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. There are almost 14 million people who are in need of aid in the region as a result of the conflict, and funds from the international community have hardly been forthcoming: the UNHCR’s appeal for 4.2 billion dollars is only 14% funded, while UNICEF’s 222 million dollar appeal is less than 12% funded. Without these desperately needed resources, UN agencies as well as over one hundred other humanitarian agencies can do little to mitigate the devastating effects of the Syrian conflict on the region.

The effects of the crisis on Syria’s neighbors are becoming more acute, and more violent. In Lebanon, clashes not only in the north of the country but also in Beirut have led to scores of casualties and deaths. A Syrian refugee mother recently set herself on fire in front of a UN building in Tripoli because she was unable to feed her four children on the small amount that aid agencies and the government are currently struggling to provide. Lebanon also passed the “devastating milestone” of one million Syrian refugees this month, and refugees now make up a quarter of the population, the largest per capita concentration of refugees in the world.

In Jordan, tensions over overcrowding in the camps and a lack of resources led to a violent clash between protesters and security in Za’atari camp, with one person dead and eleven injured. In Iraq, over 219,000 refugees have poured across the border, and ongoing domestic political violence has made serving refugees in Anbar province nearly impossible. Turkey has fared much better given its greater resources, but still struggles to provide basic necessities and education to Syrian refugees who reside outside of camp settings.

Providing for even basic necessities such as water, food, shelter, and healthcare has been one of the biggest obstacles to aid agencies and host governments alike. The UN estimates that 4 million people in the region, both refugees and host country citizens, will require water assistance this year. To make matters worse, there are now mounting fears of a drought in the region given low precipitation thus far in 2014, which will exacerbate what is already a serious water crisis, especially in Jordan and Iraq.

The sprawling Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan
Water infrastructure in Jordan is in dire need of repair and expansion, and the influx of refugees has been especially taxing on the host communities’ water supplies. Currently, local wells are only able to meet 1/3 of the Jordanian Water Ministry’s daily standards. Unfortunately, only $22 million of the $92 million needed to improve this infrastructure has been delivered. Another issue in Jordan is security surrounding hygiene facilities, and women and girls are scared to go to bathrooms at night due to poor lighting, security, and the danger of sexual and gender based violence in such areas.

Water and sanitation facilities in Iraq have also faced growing challenges due to the sudden floods of refugees that cross the border during periods of heightened violence. In Domiz camp, the largest of 10 refugee camps in the country, there are areas where there is one toilet for 20 people, a luxury compared to areas outside the camp where an informal settlement of 700 people shares just three toilets. When an influx of 60,000 of refugees crossed into Kurdistan starting in August 2013, aid agencies build Kawergosk camp nearly overnight to accommodate them, which has led to understandable shortcomings in terms of water, sanitation, and hygiene (or WASH) facilities. While a bare minimum of WASH facilities are able to minimally meet the needs of the refugee population, they are not enough to meet culturally acceptable standards.

Aid agencies, especially the UN Population Fund and the World Food Program, have been attempting to meet nutrition needs by distributing food parcels, especially to those just crossing borders, but primarily by using e-cards to reload money vouchers for foodstuffs every month. Yet due to the shortfalls in funding, aid is often not enough to feed a family, especially given rising food prices in overpopulated areas in the host countries. In Lebanon, the WFP is reaching 70% of refugees with vouchers, but families are struggling to buy adequate food with only $30/month/person due to rising commodity prices. In Jordan, the WFP is reaching 90% of the population with vouchers, and provides “welcoming” meals for arriving refugees at border crossings such as Rabat al-Sarhan.

Shelter is also a key concern, especially because only 16% of refugees will reside in camps
A boy's makeshift shelter in Lebanon is buried under snow
by the end of 2014.  Providing services to the other 84% of the projected 4.1 million refugees by the end of this year seems impossible given the resources available at this point. There are already 420,000 refugees living in tented, non-permanent accommodations in the region, while 105,000 live in substandard informal settlements. The rest of the non-camp refugees have settled among local populations, placing strains on infrastructure and causing housing prices to spike, in some areas as much as 300% in a year. At least half of refugees living outside of camps in Jordan live in substandard housing. In Lebanon in particular, where no refugee camps have been created, refugees struggle to find adequate shelter and tensions with the host communities are at an all-time high, in part due to rising housing prices.

The health of the refugees, both physical and psychosocial, has been damaged by their experiences in the conflict as well as by the conditions that they live in in the host countries. Thirty percent of refugee children are not vaccinated against the measles and polio, and there have been 26 cases of polio and 229 cases of the measles in Syria already. Aid agencies plan to launch extensive vaccination campaigns in both refugee and host communities, but such campaigns are expensive and lack adequate funding. Unfortunately, these outbreaks could become a public health nightmare given the perfect storm of risk factors in the region: low immunization rates, coupled with overcrowding, coupled with inadequate clean water and sanitation facilities, could quickly cause a small outbreak to spin out of control. There are also fifty thousand pregnant refugee women that aid agencies are trying to serve with basic “birth huts” and “dignity kits” to lower maternal and infant mortality rates in the region. All of the host governments have thus far provided Syrian refugees living outside of camps with free access to their public healthcare systems; as this becomes yet another resource stretched beyond the brink, it is impossible to say how long this generosity can last.

The refugee communities have suffered unimaginable psychosocial traumas, stemming both from their experiences in the Syrian conflict and from the sense of isolation many feel after leaving their homes and trying to cope in a new country. Agencies have begun to address this issue, but it is much easier in the camps than out of them. In Jordan, for instance, over 20,000 children and adolescents in Za’atari camp have received psychosocial treatment. Outside of the camps, much like in other host countries, it is much more difficult to target refugees for psychosocial services even if they are freely available.

Addressing the trauma and situation of children and adolescents is especially important in the crisis, as over half of refugees are children and 2/3 of them are not in school. The UN fears that this generation of Syrians will become a “Lost Generation” if nothing is done to address the refugee children’s traumatic experiences and need for education and life skills training. Again, local communities have struggled to absorb the influx of children into their schools, especially due to language and curriculum differences. Many schools are double-shifting classes and offering special lessons for refugee children. Aid agencies are renovating schools, rolling out enrolment drives, enticing children with meal plans, and attempting to address issues that keep children out of school, such as child labor and early marriage. Many of the children who are not in school are forced to work to earn a living, often begging, peddling goods, turning to or being forced into robbery, the sex trade, and even the illegal organ trade.

Employment for adults is also increasingly difficult to find. In camps such as Za’atari, the informal economy has provided jobs for some, including on the famous shopping street known as “Champs Elysees” or Shams Elysees to the residents. Aid programs to provide adults with life skills that they can turn to a trade are essential. One of the most humiliating aspects of the refugee experience is constantly feeling and being treated like a burden to your host community, and the ability to provide for oneself and one’s family is essential as refugees try to reclaim their dignity and sense of purpose and belonging.

Sexual and Gender Based Violence, or SGBV, has been difficult to address both within refugee camps and host communities. Violence within families has increased, as well as sexual assault and harassment, primarily against refugee women and girls but also against men and boys. Other common forms of SGBV among refugees include marital rape, early and forced marriage, prostitution, survival sex, and other assaults based on gender. Many refugees were also sexually assaulted in Syria, especially by combatants who use rape as a weapon of war, and remain traumatized without adequate psychosocial resources to treat them.

Aid agencies are trying to address these issues both by providing targeted security and by providing safe spaces for survivors of SGBV to report crimes and speak to medical professionals and support groups. UNICEF recently completed a “Listening and Counseling” centre in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, and in Jordan agencies are trying to raise awareness with video campaigns about assault and harassment. In Za’atari camp Siren Associates (a Northern Irish Consultancy), in partnership with Northern Ireland Cooperation Overseas (NI-CO), is working on a Community Policing Program that aims to develop a Community Safety Plan involving residents of the camps which focuses on marginalized and vulnerable groups such as women, children and the elderly in order to afford them better access to justice including the reporting of SGBV.  Trained male and female Community Police Officers now regularly patrol the camp. These projects are steps in the right direction, but much more is needed to address SGBV both among the Syrian refugees and among the host communities.

Strains with the host communities have grown exponentially as the refugee population continues to grow, resources diminish, economies suffer, and the Syrian conflict drags into its third year with no sign of abating. Because refugees now make up significant portions of the population of Lebanon and Jordan, these countries in particular have witnessed high tensions with host communities.

Lebanon’s population is now made up of one million Syrian refugees in a population of just over 4 million Lebanese and . When Palestinian refugees are taken into account, Lebanon’s population is now one-quarter refugees, the highest concentration in the world. Violence in Tripoli has become commonplace, especially along the aptly named “Syria Street” that divides Sunni communities from Shi’a. The assassination of intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan last year and the 11-month caretaker government that was just replaced in February demonstrate how the conflict has spilled into the political realm. Many Lebanese resent the presence of the refugees, which has led to a heightened sense of isolation in refugee communities both due to the hostility of some of their hosts and the separation from other refugees due to the lack of camps. The host communities have reason to feel the strain: the conflict has cost the Lebanese economy $7.5 billion and 170,000 Lebanese will be pushed into poverty this year. If no political solution is found in Syria, and no more funds to address these issues are forthcoming, Lebanon is looking at another civil war of its own.

Iraq is also at risk for heightened armed conflict due to the strains placed on its infrastructure by the influx of refugees. Already politically unstable at the beginning of the conflict, violence has erupted this year in Anbar province and the government has been forced to cede key towns such as Fallujah and Ramadi to rebel groups. One of the ten refugee camps in Iraq, Al-Obady, is located in Anbar, and aid groups have reported that it is sometimes as difficult to deliver goods and services there as it is in Syria. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the KRG has been very generous in accepting refugees and doing all it can to provide services to them despite their scarce resources. Yet conditions in camps and transit areas remain such that many refugees cross the border from Syria to gather supplies from Iraq and then return to Syria, despite the danger from mines and militant groups.

Northern Jordan was already a recipient of aid from foreign donors before the Syrian conflict. As the refugee crisis has grown, host communities have found their aid diverted to the refugee camps, stoking new resentments and raising tensions. Last year, refugee arrivals averaged 26,000 a month, and though the tide is slowing it is by no means stopping. To respond to the overcrowding in Za’atari camp, the Jordanian government has announced that Al-Azraq camp will be open at the end of this month. With UN predictions stating that 800,000 Syrian refugees will reside in Jordan by the end of the year, the new camp cannot come soon enough.

Every host country in the region has surpassed its capacity to accommodate Syrian refugees several times throughout the last year, and every host country has stepped up to the plate to take in even more. Despite already fragile infrastructures and economies prior to the Syrian conflict, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq have been incredibly generous in extending their own resources to try to take care of the Syrian refugees. The refugees themselves have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and displayed incredible courage and agency to first reach the host countries, and then try to sustain a living there. The extreme generosity of host governments and the valiant efforts of aid agencies in this crisis cannot be understated, nor can the role refugees themselves have played in fighting for their own survival. Yet it is clear that more – much more – is needed to address the Syrian refugee crisis before a regional conflagration is ignited, a generation of children is lost, and millions of lives are left hanging in the balance. The international community could do far more to meet the basic funding requests of the UN, provide safe havens and asylum for refugees, and offer advisors and expertise to host governments struggling to expand their capacity. If the international community does not meet these challenges, not only the host countries, but the entire world will pay the price.

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