Three years, one war, millions displaced: Inside the Middle East’s new refugee crisis

Published March 13th, 2014 - 10:21 GMT

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Syrian Refugee map
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Image 1 of 12: Humanitarian crisis: Since the onset of the Syrian conflict in March 2011, 6.5 million people have been dispersed within Syria, and another 2.5 million people are adrift in neighboring nations in what has been labeled the worst humanitarian displacement in world history.

Lebanon syria refugee
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Image 1 of 12: Life in Lebanon: UNHCR has said one out of five people in Lebanon are Syrian refugees. Many refugees are undocumented, living in hundreds of unofficial tent settlements near the northern and eastern borders. Over 70% of these are children who have not had access to school in over two years.

Syrian refugees in Turkey
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Image 1 of 12: Trouble in Turkey: There are one million Syrian refugees in Turkey. The government has registered over 600,000 but says their actual numbers are well beyond 700,000. Some 210,000 refugees are housed in 21 refugee camps while the rest are in settlements along the Syrian border. An estimated 100,000 have settled in Istanbul.

Syrian refugees in Iraq
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Image 1 of 12: Influx in Iraq: Iraqi aid agencies try to provide essentials for 200,000 refugees, 80% of whom are classed as non-camp refugees living with local communities, often in makeshift shelters and abandoned buildings. The UN High Commissioner called it "a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in history."

Syrian refugees in Jordan
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Image 1 of 12: Refugee overload: Jordan’s pre-2012 population was a mix of 50% Palestinians and about 17% Iraqi refugees, according to Minority Rights Group International. Now, add in an estimated 600,000 Syrians who have sought Jordanian refuge since 2011 and the Kingdom’s population is made up of nearly 80% refugees.

children killed in the Syria
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Image 1 of 12: Vulnerable victims: UNICEF reported that at least 10,000 children have been killed in the Syrian conflict, but noted the actual number was likely much higher. Hundreds of thousands of children remain trapped in besieged parts of Syria. "Syria is now one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a child," the report said.

Zaatari
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Image 1 of 12: Baby boomers: A dozen babies are born in Jordan’s Zaatari camp each day (where infant mortality rates beat in-Kingdom performance in large part to efforts from UNICEF, UNRWA, IMC,WHO, Save The Children Jordan and many others). With limited access to essential newborn supplies, babies and their mothers are guaranteed a tough start in the camps.

victims of war
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Image 1 of 12: Forced to grow up: Children are the most vulnerable victims. One in every five Syrian girls is forced into an early marriage, while one in 10 Syrian refugee children is working rather than attending school. The ramifications of the crisis will be felt for generations to come.

UNICEF
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Image 1 of 12: Kids on the frontline: "The dangers for children go beyond death and injury," UNICEF said,"Boys as young as 12 have been recruited to join the fighting, some in actual combat, others to work as informers, guards or arms smugglers."

Palestinian refugees
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Image 1 of 12: Access denied: The situation is desperate for the 500,000 Palestinian refugees who have lived in Syria since 1948. If not trapped in Damascus’ besieged Yarmouk camp, they must pay a visa fee to enter Lebanon that their Syrian compatriots don’t. Even Jordan denies them refuge as a matter of policy.

Zaatari
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Image 1 of 12: Growing old in the camps: Zaatari demographics are skewed towards women and kids but there is a surprising number of elderly residents. Consider that nearly 60% of the residents are children; 42% of families are headed by females; and 3% are over age 60! (One resident suspects he’s 110 years old!)

Syrian refugees
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Image 1 of 12: It’s only going to get worse: With the civil war on the brink of entering it’s fourth year, the UN has warned that the number of Syrian refugees will almost double over the next year to top four million.

Andrew Harper, the UNHCR Country Representative for Jordan, recently spoke at an Amman international school, part of an ongoing series on topical issues which, in this region, usually boils down to Syrian refugees.

Harper arrived in Jordan in early 2012, coincidental with with Syria’s escalating war, and was soon at the helm of a new camp for Syrian refugees in Zaatari, about to become the world’s largest.

His candid description of the worst humanitarian displacement in history was stunning and difficult to digest - events happening less than 50 kilometers from where his audience sat sipping hot coffee. Brace yourself for some statistical gunfire! 

About 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria, and another 2.5 million officially listed as refugees, half of those are children. There are 130,000 dead.

To date, Iraq has absorbed over 120,000 refugees and Lebanon almost a million, but its porous borders make this difficult to confirm. Over 600,000 refugees have been registered with UNHCR in Jordan, and Turkey’s taken in about the same - but bear in mind that nation is 12 times more populous than Jordan. Now consider the staggering stress on host country resources. 

Refugee influx peaked in Jan/Mar 2013 with 16,000 people fleeing each month, now stabilized (about 700 arrive in Zaatari nightly) but expected to ratchet up with resumed barrel-bombing near Daara (50% of people in that Syrian border town are gone).

To date, over 400,000 refugees have called Zaatari “home”: 200K moved into host communities, 100K returned to Syria, and over 100K remain resident. And this is just one camp, in one nation.

At Zaatari, UNESCO covers refugee camp costs, with set-up estimated at $150 MIL, supplemented by donations from Gulf states and resources from up to 60 NGOs. Here’s a sampling of prices:

 - Site surfacing (atop sand) cost $15 MIL
 - Caravan/Containers (upgrade from fabric tents) cost $2.5-3K per
 - Electricity runs $500K per month
 - Current operating budget is $1.2 BIL per year – only 16% is now funded.  This includes schools, hospitals, child-safe spaces, mosques, etc.

As for the people? Although 21,000 caravans have been distributed, 1000 families (mainly new arrivals) remain in tents. Children comprise 60% of population, with seven babies born each day.

 - 42% of households are headed by women
 - 99.7% of refugees are Sunni Muslims
 - 40% of women/kids never leave their homes

Harper speaks highly of the 50-60 agencies “doing a fantastic job in a horrendous situation”, but emphasizes that the need is overwhelming. He applauds the region’s tradition of generosity – the steady influx of refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Circassia, and Chechnya into Jordan, as example - and refers to the growing (and under-reported) story of now absorbing those who typically flee to Egypt, Syria, Lebanon.

The takeaway is that Zaatari is but one of many refugee camps across the region, grappling with a crisis of monstrous proportions whose consequences have yet to be played out. 

How can something so sobering cause such an intense humanitarian hangover?

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