Editor’s Note: This opinion on Syria’s displacement crisis was originally published on the
Conflicts and crises regularly force people to flee their homes; and the plight of the displaced is often overlooked. In the case of Syria, however, displacement is not simply an unfortunate side-effect. Its massive volume threatens to render the country unsustainable for generations; its ramifications are destabilizing the region and also reaching into Europe; and finding solutions for the displaced has become an integral component of achieving lasting peace in Syria. Understanding and raising awareness of the scale and complexity of Syria’s displacement crisis is the first step towards resolving it.
- About 2.2 million Syrians have fled their country, making Syria the second largest origin country for refugees in the world after Afghanistan. Almost 1,000 days into the crisis the refugees continue to flee: between November 15 and 22 alone about 18,000 Syrians fled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
- Besides Lebanon, most Syrian refugees are currently in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey. It is worth remembering that Egypt only recently underwent a revolution; that Iraq remains a chronically unstable state; and that Jordan already hosted almost two million Palestinian refugees before the arrival of the Syrians.
- An issue of particular concern is the welfare of Syrian refugee children. It is estimated that there may be as many as one million children among the Syrian refugees. In Jordan and Lebanon there are 70,000 refugee families without fathers, and 3,700 children separated from both parents. In Jordan half of all school-aged Syrian children are not in school; and the same is true for 200,000 Syrian children in Lebanon.
- An increasing number of Syrians are also making their way by sea and land to Europe. About 50,000 Syrians have applied for asylum in the European Union during the last two years; mainly in traditional countries of destination like Germany and Sweden, but also in countries unaccustomed to dealing with asylum seekers like Bulgaria. On 11 October 2013, over 200 Syrians drowned when their boat capsized off the coast of Malta.
- A recent report in the Lancet has also raised the spectre that Europe — as well as countries that neighbor Syria — may be affected by the polio outbreak in Syria, if refugees carrying the virus arrive in countries with low vaccination coverage. This would jeopardize a global campaign that has virtually eradicated the disease.
- In addition to those who have fled Syria, it is estimated that as many as 6.5 million Syrians have been displaced inside their country. Internally displaced persons are often especially vulnerable. They are still in the conflict zone. They cannot easily be accessed by the international community. There is no UN agency with a mandate to protect or assist them.
- To add to the complexity, Syria also hosts refugees. There are about 500,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. Estimates of the number of Iraqi refugees there vary from 60,000 to 470,000. Incidences of murder and kidnapping of refugees in Syria have been reported, and many face intimidation and the threat of violence. Especially for urban refugees living in Damascus, it has become harder to find or keep a job, pay rising rents, or cope with the increasing prices of basic necessities. Some Iraqis are now returning home as they consider life in Iraq to be less risky than in Syria. About 50,000 Palestinians have also fled Syria.
In total, about one in three Syrians has left their homes during the last three years. An immediate priority is humanitarian assistance, especially as winter approaches; but even with significant international will, delivering assistance will be difficult especially to people displaced inside the Syrian conflict. In the medium-term, Syrian refugees will place enormous pressure on resources — and patience — in neighboring countries, and these countries need to be supported in their efforts to receive and sustain refugee populations. In the longer term, of course what is required is a resolution to the Syrian conflict. But history demonstrates that even after conflict, it may be years before the displaced to go home.