How Syria’s Refugee Crisis Is Spinning Out of Control Beyond Its Borders
Refugees characterize the fabric of the contemporary Middle East.
Many people in the Middle East have fled their home country over the years to seek refuge or resettle, with some eventually returning home and others making new homes.
It began noticeably with the establishment of the state of Israel, which was accompanied by the expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland. Starting in 1948, and continuing with the 1967 war, Palestinians were forced out of their homes, and spilled en masse into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. During the Lebanese Civil War, many Lebanese refugees found temporary or permanent refuge in neighboring Syria. In more recent history, Iraqis fleeing the sectarian violence sparked by the aftermath of the US Occupation made a mass exodus to Syria and Jordan.
Now, it is Syria’s turn, with thousands of refugees spilling out of the country to escape the ever-escalating chaos.
Syria’s crisis,which began as an anti-government uprising, has escalated into an undeniably bloody civil war. More than 20,000 have died—and 5,000 of these deaths occurred within the past month. Thousands more have been injured, incapacitated or have lost loved ones. Between the Bashar al-Assad regime’s bombs, fighter jets and constant shelling and the Free Syrian Army’s retaliation, everyday Syrians cannot escape being caught in the crossfire—no matter what side they stand on.
Far from the bloodshed, the international community debates whether or not it is time for NATO to intervene. On the ground, Syrians are running away from apocalyptic scenes of homes being shelled and destroyed and memories of their loved ones being kidnapped and killed.
In August, the number of refugees fleeing Syria doubled. Now, there are more than 235,000 refugees housed in makeshift camps in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and even Iraq—and more than 1.5 million Syrians internally displaced within Syria. These numbers only include those who have formally registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) or another relief organization; the actual numbers of those who have fled is much higher.
Seventy-five percent of the refugees are women and children. Most of them have no idea what happened to their husbands and fathers. Many of the children are unaccompanied minors -- children who made the journey by themselves and who are now living in refugee camps as orphans.
Many refugees have been wounded. All of them have endured trauma.
Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have kept their borders open, making it easy, in theory, for Syrian refugees to find at least temporary shelter. However, the enormous surge of refugees has strained internal politics in each of these countries. Turkey—the only border country that is also a member of NATO—is overwhelmed with refugees, strained for resources and pushing for either intervention or an internal “safe zone” for refugees within Syria, rather than opening more camps in Turkey. Lebanon, whose pro-Assad government refuses to open refugee camps and instead houses Syrian refugees in schools and mosques, does not want to exacerbate tensions that could incite another civil war. Iraq, still reeling from the effects of its own internal strife, is reluctantly admitting refugees despite the almost daily bombings and violence.
For refugees themselves, the realities of crossing the border and finding refuge are far more complicated. To cross the border into Jordan, refugees have to journey on foot through a winding mountain road, with the ever-present threat of the regime’s army nearby. This is an incredibly difficult journey for those who have been wounded; many refugees carry the injured in their arms or on their backs as they make their way to the border.
At the border, there is the constant threat of being turned away or detained and then deported back to Syria. At the Jordanian border, Syrian authorities wouldn’t allow refugees out of the country unless they were unaccompanied men, a minority of refugees. Many were forced to enter the country illegally, which made it so that they could not claim refugee status.
The regime has targeted other crossings. At the Turkish and Lebanese borders, Syrian forces strategically planted landmines to deter refugees from leaving the country. Some refugees have been killed or injured when these weapons detonated as they crossed.
Refugees never know when a crossing will be open or closed, and so choosing which route to take is a constant risk. Last week, Syrian forces recaptured a liberated border town on the route to Jordan, an obvious attempt to curb the exodus of refugees and the appearance of an international crisis. Authorities within both Turkey and Iraq have temporarily closed crossings, sometimes leaving refugees waiting in the beating sun for days at a time without humanitarian aid.
Once refugees finally arrive at the camps—makeshift tent cities in the middle of the desert—the problems of acute overcapacity arise. Turkey’s nine hastily made refugee camps along the Syrian border are brimming with more than 80,000 refugees. As the Turkish Red Crescent scrambles to erect four more emergency camps, 10,000 more refugees escaping the repeated shellings in Aleppo are waiting at the border.
Food supplies, medical aid and sanitation are all growing concerns. Though refugees are given food, it is always the same and often spoiled, leading to inevitable malnutrition and disease. Refugees with a pre-existing medical condition are forced to live in barren conditions in the desert with minimal treatment. Sanitation issues only exacerbate these concerns; in Jordan, there is only one latrine for every 50 refugees.
Many Syrians fled horrific violence at home only to be housed in overcrowded, underfunded camps in the desert. They have no money or possessions besides the clothes on their backs. They have no plan for the future besides idly sitting on the floor day after day, as one day becomes indistinguishable from the next.
Though a refugee camp is constructed as a temporary structure, becoming a refugee is often a permanent identity. Many Syrian refugees plan to return home, but what has home become? Damascus and Aleppo have been shelled and destroyed. There is little left to the cities and neighborhoods besides the skeletons of buildings and piles of rubble burying the dead bodies of loved ones. Hama and Homs have been similarly battered. Outside of the cities, the farms and fields that Syrians depended on for their livelihoods have also been destroyed. Syria is becoming a ghost country—the former lives and livelihoods of the Syrian people buried deeper and deeper under the rubble until they become completely extinguished.