Syria's displaced people face only perilous options

Syria's displaced people face only perilous options
Syrians have overtaken Afghans as the largest refugee population - aside from Palestinians - fleeing to more than 100 countries to escape a civil war that is ripping their homeland apart.
4 min read
07 January, 2015

The bitter storm descending on Lebanon has claimed the lives of a Syrian man and a six-year-old Syrian boy.

Tens of thousands of others are holed up in tents and makeshift shelters as snow turns the mediterranean country into what looks like a moonscape. 

It is the latest grim reminder of the fraught reality facing the more than 3,300,000 Syrians who have been forced by war and destitution to find sanctuary elsewhere.

The couple were killed by freezing weather and heavy snowfall whilst trying to cross the Ain al Joz mountains into southern Lebanon early on Wednesday morning, according to local security sources.

Also on Wednesday, the UN revealed that the number of Syrian refugees grew by 704,000 in the first six months of 2014 and they are now the largest group under the UN refugee agency's mandate. 

The UNHCR warned the numbers were likely to keep on rising to well over four million in the course of the coming year. That is roughly equivalent to Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, being completely emptied of their pre-conflict populations.  

     'Ghost boats' along with 'barrel bombs' have lamentably entered the lexicon of the century's worst humanitarian disaster.

"As long as the international community continues to fail to find political solutions to existing conflicts and to prevent new ones from starting, we will continue to have to deal with the dramatic humanitarian consequences," UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement. 

The stark reminders come amid the worst global displacement problem in seven decades and with a humanitarian sector that is fracturing under the strain.

Burden on the poor

The protracted conflict has seen most refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries - with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan taking in more than 95 percent of the registered refugee population.

All these countries are struggling with the burden and are reluctant to take more. Lebanon this week introduced visa regulations for Syrians, effectively blocking a legitimate and safe path for many of those escaping the devastation next door.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos is in Lebanon meeting with officials, local authorities, humanitarian partners and people affected by the crisis to see how the international community can help.

In Wednesday's report, the UN acknowledged that the economic, human and social cost of caring for the refugees and displaced communities was mostly being carried by "poor communities" who were "least able to afford it".

Aid agencies have also raised the alarm, saying there was only so much they could do to alleviate the burden.

The UNHCR's Gueterres lamentably described 2014 as "not only the worst year, but the year in which the humanitarian system was reaching breaking point".

It was in 2014 also that the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) turned to internet crowdfunding to purchase food vouchers for Syrian refugees after having run out of money. 

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Inside Syria around half of the population are internally displaced. The WFP feeds around four million people in the country and only has enough funds to provide food until the end of next month.

As the conflict indefatigably grinds on and the situation in neighbouring countries continues to deteriorate, more and more Syrians are making the perilous journey to Europe.

The new year ushered in an arresting warning of the scale of the problem - with two large, decrepid tankers crammed with hundreds of refugees being sent careering to Europe on auto-pilot.

"Ghost boats" along with "barrel bombs" have lamentably entered the lexicon of the century's worst humanitarian disaster.

In 2014, some 230,000 people were trafficked across the Mediterranean into the European Union and around 3,500 people died making the crossing.

     It is time to say that this must stop. We as humanitarians can no longer pick up the pieces.
- UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres

The UNHCR explained that, in 2014, Syrians became for the first time the largest group of people to risk the route into Europe, accounting "for almost 50 per cent of the total".

A broken system

In December, the UN launched the biggest humanitarian appeal in history, asking for more than $16 billion to fund its operations worldwide.

The UN and the humanitarian sector understand that the old models of working with such unprecedented challenges will not suffice.

Credit card transfers, crowdfunding and greater private sector involvement are all on the table. Such ploys may bring more cash to paper over the cracks - but the chronic underlying problems will likely persevere, say analysts.

The flow of uprooted Syrians will continue, and stories of frozen boys on mountains and families drowned at sea will remain a feature of the nightly news.

Millions more will stay, however, languishing in anonymity. 

NGOs and UN agencies can soften some of the suffering but they cannot stop the killing.

"To those who trigger and prolong conflicts, leaving humanitarians to clean up the mess, it is time to say that this must stop," the UNHCR's Gueterres recently warned. "We as humanitarians can no longer pick up the pieces."