The United Nations (UN) has stressed that the number of assisted refugees grew sevenfold
between May and December 2012. Only in the last month, the numbers of registered
Syrian refugees rose from 500,000 to 600,000.
After surviving the ongoing civil war in Syria, refugees living in neighboring countries are bracing themselves for a killer winter.Temperatures have gone below
freezing and are expected to remain like this during the upcoming weeks, while some host countries were recently
hit by powerful snow storms, which damaged and even destroyed many of the refugees’ tents. Most of the refugees, who had fled Syria during the summer, lack proper clothing for this type of weather.
In the Bab al-Salameh camp situated on the Turkish-Syrian border, 6,000 refugees are living in around 870 thin plastic tents, while more than 200 people continue to arrive daily. The camp lacks medical
services, electricity and water. The latter two make food preparation and distribution highly difficult. In Lebanon, camps are banned, so most
of refugees live in private homes, sometimes with more than 10 people sharing one room. They have received very limited winter assistance.
Yesterday, a fire broke out at a refugee camp in Ceylanpinar, one of the largest
out of the 15 camps set up in Turkey, killing a pregnant Syrian woman and three of her children. The fire was started by an electric heater in the family’s tent. This was the second deadly fire occurring
in this particular camp and one of several taking place in Turkish refugee camps, which have claimed a total of eleven lives during the past two months.
This state of destitution has angered many of the refugees. As a sign of protest against the Ceylanpinar fire, some of the refugees
threw stones at the camps health clinic. Similarly, on January 8, 2013, a riot broke out at the Jordanian Zaatari camp, home to over 50,000 Syrians. Some of the refugees, frustrated by the fact that their tents were swept in the middle of the night by powerful
winds and that torrential rains flooded the streets, attacked aid workers with sticks and stoned, injuring seven of them.
While the refugees’ desperation is rapidly growing, the UN is scrambling for funding. Of the $487 million requested
by the UN to assist the Syrian refugees, only 35 percent has been received. Even though UN appeals have fallen nearly one-third short since last spring, the agency currently claims that it needs another
$1 billion until June 2013. Just as winter started further worsening conditions in refugee camps, some key U.N. agencies had no funding left to provide any assistance to the Syrians.
Although the UN and the international community have made some efforts to bring the Syrian conflict to an end, this would not be a solution for the Syrian refugees. If Assad’s regime is victorious
, opposition supporters will not wish to return to Syria, fearing persecution, whereas, if the opposition wins, refugees rooting for the current regime will not want to go back.
Therefore, it is likely that the refugees will remain in their host countries for a period of time. So, what can be done to ensure that they can lead dignified lives in their receiving countries?
There are several measures that host countries, the UN and other members of the international community can and should adopt in order to improve the situation of the Syrian refugees.
The host countries should remain open to receiving refugees and strive to improve the conditions in which they currently live. A key move that many of the host countries must take is to create new camps that are not situated in the proximity of the Syrian border. While placing the camps at the border may allow the Syrian people access to immediate assistance, on the longer term, it prevents them from venturing within their receiving country and interacting with the local community. However, as mentioned above, the refugees will likely remain on their territory for a long period of time and it would be better if the receiving countries would enable the Syrians to support themselves and become gradually less dependent on aid, by allowing them to live in or closer to the local communities and to hold some forms of employment.
At the same time, the host countries’ local and national authorities should engage with the Syrian refugees more often, by asking them about their problems and consulting them about potential solutions, given that many refugees are experiencing a sense of destitution, feeling that no one cares for them and they are left to suffer alone. In this respect, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is setting an example
for leaders in other host countries. On January 20th, Erdogan will visit two tent cities in Islahiye and Nizip and discuss
with the refugees living there, after previously visiting the refugee camps in Akçakale and Ceylanpınar, alongside Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib.
Moreover, the lack of adequate international funding and assistance should be immediately addressed. The UN should continue pressurizing donor countries to provide the needed funds to assist the refugees. The assistance should be provided in a coordinated manner that the UN can achieve by organizing donor conferences and meetings regarding the Syrian refugees, such as the international gathering
that will be held at the end of this month in Kuwait. At the same time, the UN should not exclusively rely on its agencies and its donors, but encourage other humanitarian organizations, especially local and regional ones to provide assistance for the refugees to the largest extent possible independently or in collaboration with other groups. The international body must also continue to raise awareness about the current problems facing the refugees and make their voices heard at the international level, to ensure the global public’s solidarity toward and interest in the Syrians and galvanize an international movement of solidarity with them.
Finally, donor countries should step in and accomplish their duty that they agreed to fulfil under the international refugee law to collaborate in sharing the refugee burden, by both providing financial assistance to the struggling host countries and offering to resettle some of the refugees.
The Syrian people have suffered enough in their own country. They should not have to face even worse conditions
in their receiving countries, but instead be ensured opportunities for the safer, better life that they deserve.