The situation in Syria is only going to get worse ... and here's why

There’s no political solution to the conflict in sight, but that’s just one of the many reasons that this crisis will not end

By Melissa Fleming

Monday 16 February 2015 07.35 EST

Young boy in Homs, UNHCR/ Bassam Diab, December 2014. “We encountered this boy as we walked through the rubble of The old city. He pointed to the missile that he said killed his father.” Photograph: Melissa Fleming

I vividly recall my conversations with refugees when the Syria conflict was just one year old. There were still fewer than a million people who had fled for safety to neighboring countries, I made my first visit to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where thousands were still trying to maintain a semblance of normality in threadbare campsites.

Many were visibly traumatized. Smiles of welcome quickly faded to frowns of troubled reflection. Eyes turned wet when the conversation deepened. The violence had taken away their homes, and killed or maimed their friends and family. But most were confident that the war would end soon, and that their life in a tent was only temporary.

Today the conflict is about to enter its fifth year. There are 3.8 million refugees, and the mood has turned much darker. Most see no prospect of return home in the near future, and have little opportunity to restart their lives in exile. Inside Syria, the people I speak to are barely able to see beyond surviving the next day.

As humanitarians dedicated to helping Syria’s survivors heal, we share their growing despair. We have registered their traumas one by one, as the numbers swelled into the millions. We have negotiated and worked on their behalf for land, for shelter, for medical care, for food and schools, and watched as even the basics become ever more difficult to find. We have cried with them as their children died of severe illnesses for lack of treatment.

All the while, we have kept hope for the future. But today, that hope is getting harder to maintain every day. Here is why:

1. No political solution to the conflict in sight…

The only real solution to Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe is an end to the conflict. Unfortunately, that end looks a long way off. The fighting inside Syria continues to erupt and shift, and despite continued attempts at peace – including talks in Moscow and a ceasefire proposal for Aleppo – the warring parties, and the countries with influence to stop them, remain divided. Making matters worse, the fighting is feeding into other regional conflicts. In a recent speech to the UN General Assembly, António Guterres, the High Commissioner for Refugees, said with some exasperation: “In the absence of the political will and foresight required for effective prevention, all that the international community can do is react to new crises, lament the suffering they cause, and try to come up with higher and higher amounts of money required to cover the resulting cost … no one is winning the wars of today; everyone is losing.”

2. … and the suffering inside Syria is getting worse

Over 12 million people inside Syria are in need of aid to stay alive. That’s half the country. Almost 8 million have been forced from their homes, forced to share rooms with other families, or camping in unheated, abandoned buildings, praying the fighting won’t spread. An estimated 4.8 million Syrians are in areas that are hard to reach including 241,000 who are trapped in besieged areas, cut off from humanitarian aid and medical supplies and unable to escape. Millions of children are suffering from trauma and ill health. A quarter of Syria’s schools have been damaged, destroyed or taken over for shelter. More than half of Syria’s hospitals are destroyed, or so damaged they are unable to function. Parts of the country endure relentless bombing and extremist groups commit unthinkable atrocities.

Homs destruction, December 2014. “I was totally unprepared for what I saw in the old city of Homs, a UNESCO World Heritage city that became the epicenter of Syria’s civil war. I walked through empty streets littered with rubble, the remains of buildings looming like skeletons around me.” Photograph: Melissa Fleming

3. No place to escape as borders to neighboring countries close… Facing growing security concerns and feeling overwhelmed by the numbers, Syria’s neighbors are taking measures to stem the tide of refugees. Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have imposed stricter restrictions on entry, and the Turkish border is ‘managed’, with a heavy screening system established to ensure entry is for purely humanitarian cases. These developments make it increasingly difficult for those without connections or onward visas to escape, and we have witnessed a marked decline in the number of new refugees. I met one woman in Homs living in a container. Her husband had recently escaped to Lebanon, but she stayed behind with her children because she heard about the new restrictions. “If I go to the border,” she told me, “they won’t let me in.”

4. … and animosity is rising toward refugees in host communities.

For those that do make it through, they are discovering that the host communities have reached their limits. Gone are the days when residents systematically opened their homes to refugees and shared their resources. There are simply not enough shelters to go around since the majority- 85% - of refugees live in local communities – outside camps. 25% of Lebanon’s population are Syrian or Palestinian refugees: an extraordinary figure, unmatched anywhere else on earth. People there are angry at what they see as see refugees taking work for cut-throat wages, and pushing nationals out of jobs. Twisted media reports link refugees to terrorists.

Unless we do more to help refugee-hosting communities bolster their economies and services, this animosity is likely to get worse. Lebanon, Jordan and other host countries desperately need upgrades to local infrastructure, and support for their health, education and water systems. Our December 2014 appeal included $2bn for these communities. We are concerned, however, that the money will fall far short. This would have terrible consequences for refugees, and the stability of host countries.

5. Hostility is also growing in Europe… As Syria’s neighbours become overwhelmed, other countries need to share more of the burden. Yet in many European countries there is growing hostility to refugees, and anti-immigration movements are growing stronger. Germany and Sweden currently receive half of all Syrian refugees in the EU, and local opposition is growing. After the Paris massacres, there is also a danger that Europeans view Muslims as a threat, and the trend is towards less admission, not more. We are seeing a rising number of ‘pushbacks’ at the borders, which are a violation of international law. During a UNHCR pledging conference in December, governments agreed to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees, but that still leaves over 200,000 in precarious need. At least 10% of Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries are particularly vulnerable - including victims of rape and torture, lone women and children, and those with severe medical problems. But we worry that in this climate our appeals to Europe’s leaders for more burden sharing are falling on deaf ears.

Ahmad Al Jassem, 102, pictured outside his family’s shelter at a tented settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photograph: UNHCR / A. McConnell

6. …and rescue at sea is being phased out For lack of legal routes to Europe, thousands of Syrian refugees are taking to the seas. Many pay their life savings to unscrupulous smugglers who push them on dangerous land and sea routes. Last year, nearly 220,000 refugees fled in unsafe boats across the Mediterranean, three times the previous record during the Libyan civil war of 2011. Thousands never made it, drowning in terror when their overstuffed, unseaworthy boat capsized. Those who did make it tell harrowing stories of long treks at night, corrupt officials and abuse. Yet Europe’s response to this growing tragedy is not to step up its rescue efforts, but to phase them out. Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation, which rescued over 170,000 people at sea, is ending – and there are no plans to replace it. Many people could die as a result. On February 11, at least 300 African migrants and refugees drowned on four small boats. Some froze to death after being rescued. The rest were swallowed by waves.

7. Funding for humanitarian organizations is flagging…

There are more Syrians under UNHCR’s care today than any other nationality on earth. Refugees and displaced Syrians have exhausted their savings, and many are resorting to begging, child labour, or even prostitution to make ends meet. They desperately need help. Yet by the end of 2014, only 54% of the money needed to assist refugees outside Syria had been raised. Inside Syria, humanitarian organizations received even less.

In December, the UN launched the largest humanitarian appeal ever, for $8.4 billion. Fully funded, this would allow aid workers to cover basic needs for refugees, while also helping host communities to bolster their infrastructure and services. There will be a funding conference on 31 March in Kuwait, and we hope for significant pledges there - including from Gulf donors. Given limited humanitarian budgets, we hope more development funding can go to refugee hosting countries, even if they would not normally qualify.

Inside Syria, humanitarian aid workers struggle to reach people in need in an operating environment that can be extremely dangerous and hostile. The request for almost $3 billion this year for humanitarian aid must be funded or else hundreds of thousands of Syrians in desperate need will receive no help at all.

8. ... and more than 50% of Syrian refugee children are out of school

More than 2.3 million children inside Syria are not in school. Amongst refugees, the numbers are even worse: with nearly half of children not receiving an education. In Lebanon, there are more school age refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools, and only 20% of Syrian children are enrolled. Similar numbers can be seen amongst refugees living outside of camps in Turkey and Jordan.

When children are out of school, they can be exploited in the labor market, forced into early marriage or, inside Syria, be recruited as fighters. A lack of an education also makes it more difficult for them to earn a living as they grow older, and eventually go home and rebuild. Aid agencies and governments recently launched an initiative called ‘No Lost Generation’ to bring more kids to the classroom. This has had some results, but the challenge remains immense.

9. There are rising numbers of struggling refugee women…

Almost 150,000 Syrian women in exile today head their households alone: one in four refugee families in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. Many of their men are dead or missing, or otherwise lost to Syria’s conflict. But they live in a society which treats single women with scorn, unable to find jobs, and harassed at every turn: by taxi drivers, bus drivers, and landlords, by men in shops, at the market, or on public transport, even by fellow refugees at aid distributions. As more men die in the war, the number of women coping alone is growing – and unless societies undergo a shift of attitude towards them, the misery facing refugee families will increase.

10. …and a generation of stateless children is being created.

Compounding the crisis of single women, thousands of children are being denied a nationality – condemned to a life of statelessness, without access to official employment, education, or healthcare. In some countries, as many as three in four children cannot acquire a birth certificate, making it difficult to prove their link to Syria. Many face additional risks of statelessness because they are born to single mothers but Syrian law does not recognize a mother’s right to pass her nationality to her children. Over 100,000 Syrian refugee children have been born since 2011 and many may become stateless. This is a ticking time bomb that will have severe consequences if not properly dealt with.

It is deeply disturbing that those with influence are unable or unwilling to put an end to the evil of the Syrian war. And it is worrying to witness the growing indifference to the plight of the victims. But there are hopeful signs of will and humanity by generous donors and engaged individuals wanting to help, along with movements of people who cry out for peace.

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