Syria: Is there really a refugee crisis?

By Khadija Patel 4 October 2012

As the UN's refugee agency warns that as many as 700,000 people could have fled Syria by the end of the year, a significant increase on previous estimates. The cost of the conflict is fast outstripping Syria’s borders, and swelling refugee numbers may well amplify calls for international intervention. The Syrian government, however, disagrees. They say the refugee crisis is exaggerated. By KHADIJA PATEL.

The human cost of the conflict in Syria remains masked behind the bluster of international intervention. Last week, however, the United Nations refugee agency announced that more than 100,000 people fled Syria in August alone — amounting to 40% of all who had left since the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad began last March. More ominously, the agency also predicted that the number of people escaping Syria could reach 700,000 by the end of the year. 

Increasing its funding appeal for Syrians who had fled the conflict in their country to nearly $490 million, the UN refugee agency and 51 other aid groups said in a joint appeal last week that there was a mammoth funding gap for Syrian refugees.  So far donors have given $141.5 million toward humanitarian assistance for the estimated 294,000 Syrians who have fled.

“We only have one third of the funding we need to respond,” said Panos Moumtzis, Syria coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “We are running out of time and we need to respond.”

But even as UNHCR implores donors across the world to open their wallets to help Syria’s neighbours deal with the influx of refugees, the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moallem complained to the United Nations General Assembly the reports of a refugee crisis were “fabricated” to further the agenda of international intervention. 

Al-Moallem said some regional and international players were seeking to escalate the conflict and create “a state of instability to ensure the need for foreign interference.” He insisted that several countries were using the UN to meddle in internal Syrian affairs by calling on Assad to step down.

These subversive forces, according to Al-Moallem, were “fabricating a refugee crisis” and “inciting armed groups to intimidate Syrian civilians in border areas and forcing them to flee” to neighbouring countries like Turkey and Jordan. Al-Moallem also slammed conditions in the refugee camps, saying some of them “resemble[d] places of detention”. 

And while there may well be a refugee crisis developing along Syria’s borders, despite what Al-Moallem says, there was merit to some of his allegations. 

Last month, officials and refugees reported that dozens of Syrian reugees in the Zaatari camp near the Jordan-Syria border clashed with Jordanian police over harsh living conditions in their desert tent camp in Jordan, hurling stones which smashed charity offices and a hospital, and injured 26 policemen. 

Jordan alone has taken in some 200,000 Syrians — the largest number in the region — while Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq have taken in the rest. Jordan opened the Zaatari camp last July only after long delaying a decision on whether to set up refugee camps, embroiled in its own set of internal challenges. 

In response to the refugee riot, scores of Jordanians took to the streets in the nearby town of Mafraq, demanding the Syrians be sent home, Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said. The Jordanian protesters denounced what they described as “ingratitude” by the refugees to their host country.

It was a far cry from the mood last year when the first refugees were welcomed into Jordan. But as the numbers of Syrians in the country have grown, Jordan has taken steps to control the influx and also manage the security of the refugee camps.

This week the Christian Science Monitor reported that a survey conducted by Jordan’s leading research centre found large majorities of Jordanians in favour of closing the borders to Syrians altogether.

Sixty-five percent of Jordanians oppose allowing more Syrians into the country, and more than 80% said the Syrians who were here should be confined to camps, according the poll conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University. 

In the meantime, however, the Zaatari camp is a tinderbox of anger and frustration. 

On Tuesday, journalists were barred from entering the Zaatari refugee camp after reports of further protests over living conditions there. One key complaint of refugees at the camp is a restriction on their freedom of movement. 

Responding to questions about the freedom of movement of Syrian refugees on Tuesday, Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for UNHCR, corroborated in a Twitter interview with the Washington Post’s UN correspondent Colum Lynch that there were restrictions on movement placed on refugees at the Zaatari camp. “I visited the camps in Turkey and witnessed them coming and going out of the camps, but in Jordan, movement is more restricted. The [government] decides,” she said. 

Fleming also conceded that conditions in the camps were harsh, despite efforts to ensure the basics of shelter, food and schooling for children were met. “The camps are up to UNHCR standards. But we sympathise with the refugees, as it is true the conditions are harsh,” she said. 

As winter approaches, the conditions may worsen and refugees may actually decide to take their chances returning home.  

The Syrian foreign minister appealed to refugees to return to their homes in his address to the UN. He assured them them a safe return. And though his assurance of safety sounds spurious against reports of a widening conflict, Fleming said some refugees were already opting to return home. “Every day, a small number of Syrians do elect to go home. They know it may not be safe,” she said.

Still, the number of those returning home is outsripped by the number of people fleeing for their lives. “The refugee crisis is real. Three hundred thousand refugees are registered with UNHCR in neighbouring countries,” Fleming said. And if her assessment of a “crisis” is premature, or indeed “fabricated”, then the next few months may well see a crisis that not even the Syrian government can deny. DM

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Photo: Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their towns, wait to receive food rations from a local charity at the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, near Idlib September 27, 2012. Picture taken September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof


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