Flight from Islamic State overwhelms UN refugee agency. Is Europe's door open?

An exodus of refugees from Iraq, Syria and other conflicts has drained the resources of host countries in the Middle East. Many of the refugee households are headed by women. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
Syrian Kurdish refugees who fled Kobane, go about at a refugee camp in Suruc, Turkey, Oct. 11, 2014.

A rising tide of refugees from three years of Middle East conflict has severely strained countries hosting the displaced people. Now an overwhelmed UN system is itself struggling to cope with the biggest refugee crisis in its history. 

Amid a widening war in Iraq and Syria against the self-described Islamic State (IS), increasing numbers of refugees who face a backlash in neighboring countries are paying smugglers to make the dangerous journey to Europe.

Across the region, the UN's World Food Programme recently cut food aid to refugees as well as Syrians displaced within their own country. And with winter approaching, the main refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says it might have to end the minimal monthly cash payments that have kept many of the poorest families afloat.

“People provide funds during emergencies, but the refugees last longer than the emergency,” says Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR in Jordan.

At the sprawling new UNHCR headquarters here in Jordan’s capital, case workers process up to 2,500 refugees a day. Interview rooms are filled with Syrians, Iraqis, and, once again, Libyans fleeing violence in their country. Dressed in their best clothes, families sit politely before describing stories of destruction, danger, and loss.

A new call center with a dozen operators answers calls from refugees, most of them distraught about the cut in food aid – roughly $30 per person in monthly food coupons. Some families will continue to received reduced payments, while others will get nothing. On a recent day, the center fielded almost 1,000 calls. With 85 percent of Jordan’s 600,000 registered Syrian refugees living outside the camps, the UN's food aid has been the only way that many say they can survive.

Across town at another UNHCR office, dozens of Sudanese – witnesses to a longer-running conflict – hold up hand-lettered signs demanding to be resettled.

While last year looked bleak for the agency, this year the displacement of civilians threatens to be worse. According to UN officials, there are now 50 million forcibly displaced people in the world.

“We have never faced a situation in which so many people are forcibly displaced both internally or externally,” says UNHCR's Geneva-based communications chief Melissa Fleming. “Right now if you take a daily average there are 32,000 people fleeing every single day.”

In recent months, most of those fleeing Iraq and Syria have been leaving IS-held territory, including Iraq’s Nineveh Province and the jihadists’ stronghold of Raqaa, Syria. In September, Jordan accepted 3,500 Iraqis seeking refugee status – the largest monthly figure in seven years.

In the Kurdish region of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of members of the ancient Yazidi religious minority as well as Christians were forced to sleep for weeks in construction sites after fleeing massacres and the takeover of their towns by IS forces. In the most recent exodus, more than 150,000 Iraqis have fled the city of Hit in western Anbar Province after it fell to IS this week.

Given its small population, for Jordan, like Lebanon, the influx of refugees represents a strain on its economy. Banned from working, many Syrian refugees in Jordan try to eke out a living in already-poor communities. Some eventually give up.

Seeking asylum in Europe

Last month, Shaker Ali, a refugee from Syria’s civil war, left his wife and five children in Irbid, in the north of Jordan, to try his chances in Europe. Reached by phone in Austria, Ali says he flew to Algeria and then to Tunisia and Libya, where he paid a smuggler for passage on a boat to Italy.

“There were 480 of us on a boat made for 100 people,” says Ali, who three years ago fled to Jordan from Daraa, where the Syrian uprising began. “We spent 12 hours praying.… The boat kept rolling left and right.”

They were rescued by an Italian naval vessel. After three days on the Italian ship, Ali says he boarded a train to Austria, where he gave himself up to police and asked for asylum.

A carpenter, Ali says he had picked up occasional work as a laborer in Jordan but not enough to support his family. He went back to Syria for three months intending to move back, only to find that his house and shop had been destroyed. “We lost everything,” he says. 

Search for more funding

In Irbid, his family, one of those who have lost their food aid, waits to see whether he will be given asylum and, if so, if the family can be reunited.

“In any refugee situation where people become dispirited about what the future holds they will become desperate,” says the UNHCR’s Mr. Harper. “Are they receiving enough assistance here? Probably not…. That’s why the West should be providing support to countries such as Jordan. If they don’t provide that support people will move on to places where they feel they will get that support.”

To address the funding shortfall, the UNHCR is looking beyond Western and Asian donor countries that provide most of its budget, to oil-rich Arab Gulf states, which traditionally have been reluctant to let others distribute their aid. 

The UNHCR is also looking at the possibility of more funding from the private sector as well as working with the UN’s development arm on projects that will benefit local communities in countries hosting refugees.

Refugee status lasts for years

Women who head many of the refugee households and children are particularly at risk. In Jordan, fewer than half of Syrian refugee children attend school. In Lebanon, where one quarter of the population is made up of Syrian refugees, that figure is less than 20 percent. With children less likely than adults to be arrested, thousands of families send their children out to work.

While European countries are beginning to open their doors to limited numbers of Syrian refugees, and a steady stream of Iraqis are being resettled in the US, Canada and Australia, the figures are a very small percentage of the refugee population. In the last two years, 140,000 refugees have been resettled in other countries, according to UNHCR. 

“I think people have the impression that being a refugee is a temporary state, but the fact is that the average amount of time a refugee will spend in exile is 17 years,” says Ms. Fleming. “The opportunity for people to be resettled is minimal compared to what they need.”

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