World Refugee Day: UN calls Syria 'worst humanitarian disaster' since cold war

Angelina Jolie, in Jordan on World Refugee Day, decries the plight of millions of displaced in Syria. Worldwide, the number of refugees is the highest since the Balkan and Rwanda wars.

Mohammad Hannon/AP
UN refugee chief, Antonio Guterres (second l.) along with special envoy for UNHCR, actress Angelina Jolie (second r.) visit Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border, in Mafraq, Jordan, Thursday. Jolie urges world leaders to make Syria diplomacy work during visit to the refugee camp.

Syria’s grinding civil war has so far produced 1.6 million refugees and millions more internally displaced children and adults – the reason the global refugee and internal displacement numbers are at their highest since the mid-1990s.

Not since 1994, when wars raged in the Balkans and Rwanda, has the world seen the likes of the 45 million refugees, displaced persons, and asylum seekers estimated at the end of 2012 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

And the Syria conflict shows signs of making 2013 another record year. Syria’s war “is more brutal and destructive than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has turned into the worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war,” said Antonio Guterres, the UN’s high commissioner for refugees, in marking World Refugee Day Thursday.

At the current rate of flight from Syria – which has accelerated in the initial months of 2013 – about 5 million Syrians, or a quarter of the population, could have fled to neighboring countries by the end of the year.

More than half of Syria’s refugees and internally displaced are children, Save the Children says in a new report released Thursday.

The UN’s Mr. Guterres spent World Refugee Day in Jordan to bring attention to both the plight of Syria’s refugees and the challenges they pose to the countries that take them in. Jordan is now home to more than a half-million Syrians.

Also in Jordan to mark the day was Angelina Jolie, who is a special envoy for UNHCR. At a press conference at the Zaatari refugee camp –with a population of 185,000, the size of a small city – the actress noted that Syrian refugees like those at Zaatari left their homes “with nothing but the clothes on their back.” But she added that they left behind “a country in which millions of people are displaced, suffering hunger, deprivation, and fear.”

The best hope for Syrians is a political settlement to the civil war that world leaders should press Syria’s factions to accept, Ms. Jolie said. Without some diplomatic solution soon, she added, “half of Syria’s population – 10 million people – will be in desperate need of food, shelter, and assistance” by the end of the year.

Secretary of State John Kerry used a World Refugee Day ceremony at the State Department to announce a near doubling of the US contribution to UNHCR, to $890 million for 2013.

“When the stakes are high, you need to up your game, and I’m proud to say the United States is trying to do that,” Secretary Kerry said, noting that the new funding makes the US the largest contributor by far to the global refugee agency. The US total this year is higher than the contributions of the next six countries combined, he said.

The US is also the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Syrians both inside and outside of their country. Just this week President Obama announced another $300 million in Syrian humanitarian assistance, bringing the US total for the 26-month-ols conflict to $815 million.

Still, Kerry noted that, despite the understandable focus on refugees that result from the world’s conflicts, a growing segment of total refugees is the result of climate change.

“We live in a world today where not all refugees are refugees as a consequence of revolution or war and violence,” he said. “We have refugees who are driven out by drought and the lack of food, who move accordingly because they want to be able to live.”

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