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Step up solutions for Syrian war's symptoms: refugees

As the rate of Syrians fleeing the war rises, so must the global response. The war's causes may not yet be solvable – killings now top 100,000. But its symptoms can be.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / July 25, 2013

Refugees who fled the violence in Syria are seen at Arbat refugee camp in northern Iraq July 21.

Reuters

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Americans and their allies are reluctant to directly confront the root cause of Syria’s civil war – the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad. But they can do more for the symptoms spilling across the Syrian border.

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More than a third of the country’s 22.5 million people have now fled their homes since the conflict began in 2011. A comparable crisis in the United States would see 100 million people uprooted, many heading into Canada and Mexico.

As the number of people killed in Syria has topped 100,000 and the fighting has intensified, the exodus of people has only quickened – 7,000 new departures every day – reaching a global rate only last seen during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The most heartbreaking figure is that half of the nearly 2 million refugees now living in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon are children. Such numbers have led the United Nations to launch its largest appeal ever for humanitarian aid – $5 billion.

The US has already provided nearly $1 billion in assistance, and Congress seems supportive of more. But Secretary of State John Kerry admitted to UN aid agencies this week that the US is having problems: “We are having a very difficult time being able to access people, move people correctly, and protect people.”

Without an end to the war soon, the demographic map of the Middle East could permanently change.

In tiny Lebanon, 1 in 6 people is a Syrian refugee. In Jordan, about a tenth of the population is now Syrian, and one refugee camp is so big (160,000 people) that it could be the country’s fourth largest city. Ten years ago, Syria was home to 100,000 refugees from the Iraq war. Now Iraq has more than 100,000 refugees from Syria.

And looking ahead, the UN expects the number of those displaced within Syria or forced to flee to double by the end of this year.

The humanitarian crisis alone is stunning, especially when so many children have been traumatized by violence and could miss out on vital schooling. Donor nations can’t keep up with the necessary funding (only a third of requests have been filled). And a large portion of the refugees are not in camps run by international aid groups.

Yet equally worthy of global concern is the potential for trouble within refugee camps or with local populations. Syrian forces might also strike at refugee camps supplying fighters.

With Syria’s war in a long-term stalemate as both sides gain new weapons, the world must do more to alleviate the suffering of refugees, especially the children.

The UN hopes Western countries will take a high portion of the Syrian refugees. Europe has already taken about 40,000 so far, mainly in Germany and Sweden, while the flow to the US is much less.

So far, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have been mostly generous in how they treat the refugees. That generosity needs to spread as more countries find ways to help.

The crisis has cut across at least one hard line: A coalition of 14 Jewish organizations, mainly from the US, plans to provide aid for the refugees in Jordan. If that sectarian divide can be bridged, then perhaps dealing with the war’s symptoms might lead to solving its root cause.

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