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

Published March 13th, 2014 - 09:21 GMT

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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