On my mind: Refugee despair

Syrian refugees can’t catch a break.

A GENERAL view of the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, one of many camps housing Syrian refugees. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A GENERAL view of the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, one of many camps housing Syrian refugees.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Millions of them managed to escape the violence that has consumed their country, finding relative safety in what they hope will only be temporary quarters, but they now face another dire threat – the prospect of starvation. The World Food Program (WFP) halted aid to desperate Syrians on December 1. The UN agency has insufficient funds to continue feeding an estimated 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
“Suspension of WFP food assistance will be disastrous for many already suffering families,” said Ertharin Cousin, its executive director. “A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries,” Cousin said.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT was particularly stunning coming the morning after the WFP was featured on 60 Minutes, America’s premiere Sunday night TV news show. WFP provides food assistance to some 80 million people in 75 countries. Its mission has become even more challenging this year: in June, the UN announced that the worldwide refugee population had exceeded 50 million people, the largest number of refugees at any time since World War II.
Syria alone accounts for some 10 million refugees, with about six million internally displaced and another nearly four million outside the country. The large tent cities erected in Jordan are still expanding as refugees keep coming across the porous border.
The burden of accommodating and supporting them strains the resources of Syria’s neighbors and international relief agencies.
Options for Syrians fleeing for their lives and seeking refuge in other countries are limited, since few countries are willing to take them in. Ninety-five percent of the 3.8 million refugees are in only five countries – Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
The 1.1 million Syrians in Lebanon account for 26 percent of the country’s population, and more than 9% of Jordan’s, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” warns António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The long-term impact on the refugees and their families, as well as on the host countries, is incalculable, as they are unlikely to return to Syria any time soon, if ever.
The world’s meager response, of course, stands in stark contrast to how the international community has treated Palestinian refugees, who enjoy the benefits of a completely separate agency, UNRWA.
Governments responded rapidly in October, pledging more than $5 billion to provide assistance to Palestinians in Gaza, even though Hamas, which controls the territory and instigated the war with Israel over the summer, is still in charge. Imagine what that sum of money could do for Syrian refugees.
The impact of the Syrian refugee crisis is especially harsh on the youngest. The Syrian Network for Human Rights, in October, reported that there are 2.9 million child refugees. With nearly 4,000 schools damaged in Syria, more than two million children are not attending school. For WFP director Cousin, the concern is even more immediate. “Are we willing to lose a generation of children to hunger?” she asks.
Syrian President Bashar Assad told the French news magazine Paris Match last week that he has no intention of stepping down.
“The state is like a ship: the captain does not escape in the storm. He does not quit the deck. If passengers need to leave then he is the last to go,” said Assad.
In fact this ship is very badly damaged, and listing.
Honest world leaders, recognizing that the situation is far more complicated and dangerous than at the outset of the war, nonetheless recognize that to restore stability in the region and fully defeat Islamic State and other forces of disorder requires the removal from power of the man who began this brutal conflict. As French Foreign Minister Fabius observed, “How can you imagine that somebody who caused 200,000 deaths can stay permanently at the head of his country?” The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.