Syria's Growing Refugee Crisis

By Rajan Menon

For Syrian civilians, life is hell. They risk being killed in the crossfire of dueling snipers while going about life's basic routines. Their dwellings don't offer havens and indeed are potential death traps because of the ever-present danger that Bashar al-Assad's bombardments could turn buildings into piles of steel and concrete, entombing the occupants. Then there are the car bombs, kidnappings, revenge killings and murderous paramilitary gangs.

But another category of Syrian victim gets less coverage: the refugees who have been forced to flee their homeland after their once-tranquil neighborhoods were transformed into killing fields. They have escaped the hell of war but their life as displaced people is hellish. They have felt the trauma of being uprooted from the places and people that provided their sense of community, seen loved ones die and have fled with minimal belongings, frightened children in tow, to makeshift tent cities in neighboring countries.

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The conditions are miserable. The supply of food, medicines, blankets and potable water does not match demand. Most refugees, being too poor to purchase what they need, must rely on charity. Cold and rain make life still more uncomfortable, especially with the onset of winter, and elementary sanitary conditions are appalling. Illnesses abound. On occasion, frustration and the rivalry over basic resources have produced violent riots. Few of the Syrians trapped in this squalor can harbor realistic hopes of going home anytime soon -- and what they will return to won't resemble what they remember as home, so destructive has this twenty-two month war been.

Numbers can render human tragedy abstract, but they can also help provide a sense of the scale of suffering. By the first week of this month there were 501,498 registered refugees outside Syria and another 111,000 awaiting registration (I'm leaving aside the 1-2.5 million people who have been displaced within Syria). That, for context, is a population close to that of Vermont's. The proportion of females and males among the refugees is about even (there are slightly more of the former), and children below age 11 constitute about 22 percent.

There are nearly 151,000 in Turkey, about 140,000 in Lebanon and 129,000 or so in Jordan. By contrast, Iraq has admitted just over 69,000. (Its Shi'a-dominated government is sympathetic to Assad's, in which the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, are pivotal. Moreover, Iraq remains torn by Sunni-Shi'a violence, so Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fears an influx of Syrian Sunnis.) Egypt hosts a little over 13,000 and won't become a major destination because, unlike Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, it doesn't adjoin Syria.

The countries offering Syrian refugees succor face a long-term burden that is onerous. This is true even of comparatively well off Turkey: Most refugees are concentrated in its relatively poor southeast, so the refugees' chances of living in even minimally adequate conditions hinge on how much financial support the various international organizations and the numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) caring for refugees receive. The three principal host countries, for their part, face the danger that the cost of caring indefinitely for so many outsiders could strain their economies and generate social strife.

So how willing has the "international community" been to help? One would expect generosity. After all, Assad has been condemned, especially in the West and in the wealthy Persian Gulf monarchies, for what he has done to people, and their suffering has evoked outrage.

The sad reality, however, is that the gap between requirements and receipts remains wide. The Regional Relief Plan prepared by the international organizations (in addition to UNHCR, UNESCO, the World Food Program and the World Health Organization) and the numerous NGOs on the scene estimates that $1 billion is required just for the first six months of this year. The aid that's been received doesn't come close to that number. Meanwhile, the refugee inflow continues, pushing up costs.

So countries with money, especially those deeply involved in the Syrian war in one form or the other, need to do more -- much more. This includes the United States, the EU states, Japan, China, the Gulf oil monarchies, South Korea and Russia. Yes, some will point to what they've already given. For example, the U.S. has provided $210 million, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates $15 million, China close to $7 million. But the reality is that the amount provided by countries with the wherewithal to do so is not enough -- not nearly.

It appears impossible to broker a political settlement that will end Syria's war. But the same cannot be said about mobilizing the money needed to help its refugees. Let's extrapolate from the Regional Relief Plan and assume that $2 billion a year will be needed to cover their care. Now, this isn't chump change, but to gain some perspective, keep in mind that the U.S. government spent roughly $38 billion on foreign economic aid last year (about 0.19 percent of GDP), that Saudi Arabia earned $311 billion from oil exports and that China's foreign exchange reserves topped $3 trillion. Individual donations matter too, and many of us can make them with minimal sacrifice. (Keep in mind that Americans spent $11 billion on ice cream last year.)

So it's not a question of there not being enough money, or of wealthy societies having to make big sacrifices. It's a matter of will.

Much of the debate on Syria has been over the pros and cons of military intervention, or on other steps to get Assad's attention. The advocates of tougher measures -- who often point to the suffering of those who remain inside Syria -- would do well to dedicate some of their humanitarian energy to the plight of the refugees.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

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