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Syria’s Refugees: The Catastrophe

Moises Saman/Magnum Photos
Syrian children in a makeshift tent at al-Jarrah in the Beqaa Valley, Lebanon, June 7, 2013


One of the misconceptions about the Syrian refugee crisis is that it mainly involves people in large camps, above all in Jordan and Turkey. Much has been made in the international press, for example, of Zaatari, the sprawling camp in Jordan operated by UNHCR under Jordanian government supervision, which now houses 120,000 Syrians. Indeed, the social problems that have emerged at Zaatari show the limitations of large refugee facilities and officials say the camp will soon close to new arrivals. But according to UN figures, a full three quarters of the Syrian refugee population throughout the region are surviving on their own in towns and rural areas.

Turkey, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars setting up twenty-two camps, has more urban refugees than camp dwellers. “Around 300,000 [Syrians] are living outside of the camps, by their own means, and they are extremely in need,” said Suphi Atan, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official. “They create a burden especially on the infrastructure.” In Jordan, refugees in Amman, Irbid, and other cities outnumber camp residents by more than three to one; in Lebanon, owing to political resistance to the idea, there are no camps at all.

This has made it particularly difficult for international aid organizations to respond. “You look around and you wonder, where are the refugees?” said Niamh Murnaghan, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Lebanon office in Beirut. “It’s a hidden crisis, that’s the most difficult thing.” In Gaziantep, Turkey, we met Ahmet Nassan, an internist from Aleppo who, lacking Turkish certification, cannot practice medicine; he now supports himself working as a translator at a private hospital. In the same city, sixty more Syrian doctors, who are Turkish-trained, can’t find work. In Beirut we discovered a Syrian man and his young daughter living in an abandoned building across the street from the UN refugee agency’s Lebanon office. His wife was killed by regime shelling in his Damascus neighborhood, and he had escaped in his flip flops, with the clothes he was wearing.

Meanwhile the hidden population continues to grow. Khaled Ghanen, who runs an Islamic charity in al-Mafraq, Jordan, recalled that at the beginning of Ramadan in August 2011, his charity had helped sixteen families. By the end of that month, there were forty. By the end of the year, there were five hundred families; a year later, he estimates 15,000 families. Now he is seeing fifty new families a day. Until the middle of last year, the charity was able to offer rent money and employment help. “But now, there is no housing and no jobs to find,” he said. “The whole kingdom [of Jordan] is filled with Syrians. Our city is not receiving them, though. She is throwing them away.”

For those who end up in a camp, conditions vary widely. At Kilis, on Turkey’s southern border near Aleppo, we found some 13,000 Syrians living in container houses with satellite dishes and air conditioning, with access to a newly built school, health clinic, and mosque; but Turkish officials told us that camps like Kilis are now full. By contrast, in northern Iraq, a poorly planned camp called Domiz has been allowed to grow into a teeming shantytown for some 70,000 Syrians. It is difficult to imagine how its primitive canvas tents will survive the harsh winter. At Jordan’s Zaatari camp, residents are forbidden from leaving without a special permit (for which there is now a thriving black market trade)—part of an effort by the Jordanian government to control the spread of jihadism. Yet in Turkey’s Hatay province, a special facility for Syrian military defectors has been used as a command center for the FSA, and rebel fighters commute back and forth from the camps to the front lines.

But housing—whether in tents or containers or abandoned buildings—may not be the most pressing issue facing Syrian exiles. One of the defining facts of the Syrian crisis is the startling number of children who have become refugees—a number that reached one million in August. Before the conflict began, oil revenues were sufficient for the Assad regime to provide free education and health care to most Syrians. Between 1995 and 2011, the population expanded by nearly nine million people, or 65 percent, leading to a society in which more than four out of every ten people are under the age of fifteen. Many Syrian refugee families we met had six or more children; some women had given birth after fleeing the country. “The population growth rate is tremendous,” said Malaeb, the Lebanese official. Even if Lebanon stopped taking in Syrians now, he said, “there are going to be two million Syrians in three years.”

Already, the number of school-age Syrian children in Lebanon is scheduled to surpass the entire population of school-age Lebanese children by the end of the year. In Gaziantep, Turkey, there are so many Syrian families that a Syrian school has been started, with a Syrian curriculum, staffed entirely by volunteers. But according to UNICEF, as the new school year begins, nearly two thirds of Syrian children in Jordan remain out of school. Early marriage is common for refugee girls; in Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, we saw young Syrian children selling things like tissues and soap on the streets.

Everywhere, there is fear of spreading disease. There has been an alarming rise in the incidence of leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease common in the Aleppo region that had largely been controlled: since the conflict began, doctors in Syria and Turkey have diagnosed 100,000 cases of it. In Lebanon, diseases that had been nearly eradicated, like tuberculosis and measles, have now reemerged in refugee populations; the country’s overwhelmed hospitals are increasingly unable to meet the demand. And while Syrian doctors find themselves unemployed in Turkey and elsewhere, Syria itself has suffered an acute shortage, with the number of doctors still working in the country having dwindled from 30,000 to 5,000, according to one recent estimate.


Over the last few months, as the Syrian refugee population has surpassed even the extraordinary numbers produced by the Iraq war seven years ago, the world has finally begun to notice. In early June, the United Nations launched a $5.2 billion aid appeal for Syria and neighboring countries affected by the war—until now its largest such appeal ever. (By September 2, some $1.5 billion had been raised.) In July, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Jordan’s Zaatari camp, where Syrians staying there accused him of “nonaction.” Kerry responded that the US was considering further steps, and on August 7, President Barack Obama announced that the US was offering another $195 million in humanitarian aid to help Syrians.

Even if the UN’s daunting fund- raising goals can be met—and even if the vital contributions by NGOs, wealthy donors in the region, and individual Syrians themselves can be increased further—many of those in need will be out of reach. Since this spring, the Jordanian government has significantly limited the flow of Syrians into its territory while allowing the US to step up military aid. Jordan’s overriding concern “is very clearly the refugee issue,” General Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The New York Times in August. Meanwhile, many refugees described being prevented from crossing from Syria into Turkey and Jordan, with some resorting to bribes and others forced to seek shelter elsewhere. The autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq closed its border to Syria from late May to mid-August, while Baghdad has deployed troops to guard Iraq’s long borders with Syria in Anbar and Nineveh provinces. (The Shia-led Iraqi government has accused Sunni “terrorist” groups of infiltrating the country and smuggling in weapons from Syria.) And Lebanese officials say they too are considering measures to slow down the number of Syrians crossing at the one border that has remained completely open throughout the conflict.

As a result, precisely when Syrians have become most vulnerable they may have no way of getting out or getting help. Despite the heroic efforts of its staff, the Syrian Red Crescent, which nominally operates under the authority of Damascus, is often unable to reach rebel-held areas or major conflict zones. Already in March of this year, the UN declared that “civilians have almost no safe place to go” in Syria. In the summer of 2012, thousands of displaced Syrians took shelter in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus; but in December of that year, Yarmouk itself was bombed by Syrian planes, compelling most of them to flee a second time. For much of the war, Syria’s northeast has been relatively calm, becoming a destination for tens of thousands of displaced families from other parts of the country; but since vicious fighting erupted there this summer, 250,000 people have again been forced to move.

One of the unambiguous lessons of this refugee crisis is that, at every stage, violent confrontations between rebels and the army, or between rebels and pro-regime militias, or even among different rebel groups, have made it worse. Addressing the problem will require not just huge amounts of humanitarian aid but also a concerted international effort to limit the conflict’s spread.

Action, however, may bring its own costs. The international sanctions now in force against Syria, for example, have hurt those already suffering from the conflict by helping devalue the Syrian currency and further disrupting aid delivery. According to a study earlier this year by the Danish Institute for International Studies, Syria’s poor are now

faced with inflation, higher food and fuel prices, import restrictions, and higher unemployment…. Import restrictions and trade disruptions have forced many local vendors who provided supplies to aid agencies to close down.

More promising may be efforts to adapt military strategy to civilian need. In a recent report, Anthony Cordesman, the American military analyst, called for a “broad international effort to support Syrian refugees inside areas in Syria where moderate rebel factions and NGOs can operate.” He suggested this could be done through a “civil-military” plan that would give as much emphasis to programs like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is currently helping organize food distribution in parts of Syria, as it does to military support for the rebels.

A larger irony of course is that, while closing their borders to Syrian civilians trying to escape, Syria’s neighbors are becoming more and more drawn into the conflict themselves. In contrast to refugees, fighters for both sides now travel freely in and out of Lebanon, Turkey, and—in spite of official restrictions—Jordan and Iraq. In northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been building a “Syrian Peshmerga,” a militia of several thousand Iraqi-trained Syrian Kurds, to be deployed in the Kurdish region of Syria.

As the violence continues, the international community—and Syrians themselves—have been increasingly divided about the Obama administration’s proposed strikes on Damascus. A number of refugees asked us why the US wasn’t doing more; many clamored for a no-fly zone. Others argued it was too late now for the US to enter a conflict that had long since been taken over by violent militias, many financed by foreign powers such as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. On September 9, Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said that the

appalling situation cries out for international action, yet a military response or the continued supply of arms risk igniting a regional conflagration, possibly resulting in many more deaths and even more widespread suffering.

Largely ignored in this debate, however, has been the crucial question of whether—and when—the millions of Syrians who have already fled will be able to return to their homes. The prospect of a negotiated cease-fire, followed by the establishment of a transitional government or administration, has been suggested by some international officials, and if successful, might allow for the safe return of Syrians to at least some parts of the country. But many we talked to expressed doubts that the Syria they knew could ever be rebuilt.

—September 12, 2013

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