Syria's Refugees: An International Crisis
22 Dec 2014
A new report from Amnesty International details the refugee crisis in Syria, particularly highlighting the failures of the international response.
The refugee crisis currently engulfing Syria is the worst for a generation, with 6.45 million people internally displaced, half of whom are children. This number represents 45% of the country's population forced from their homes by the conflict. Almost double this number are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, which is frequently obstructed by government and rebel forces alike.
A new report from Amnesty International, Left Out in the Cold, looks at the current situation in the country, and highlights the ways in which the international community is failing to address this problem of truly global significance: for the first time since the second world war, the number of those forcibly displaced from their homes globally is over 50 million. António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has said that the "Syrian situation is the most dramatic humanitarian crisis the world has faced in a very long time".
This crisis has a significant international dimension. Of those displaced, in addition to the 6.45 million who have remained in Syria, approximately four million people have sought refuge in other countries. The vast majority of these have gone to neighbouring states which are bearing the brunt of the crisis, with very little international support.
Syria is a country with a wide tapestry of religious groups. Displacement has particularly affected religious minorities, which have often been targeted for their beliefs, particularly by ISIS in the east of the country which justifies its persecution through a strict interpretation of Sharia law. These religious refugees include a significant number of Iraqi Shia, the majority of whom have now been forced to return to the equally perilous situation in Iraq.
The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have failed to pledge a single resettlement place.
Of the four million refugees, 3.8 million (or 95%) are now in just five host countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. The report emphasises that despite the historic magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis and the significant impact it has had on neighbouring countries, support from the international community has fallen far short of what is urgently required. Of particular concern is the number of resettlement places on offer outside the five main host countries.
Amnesty particularly mentions the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – which have not to pledged a single resettlement place between them. The report highlights the significant "integration potential" of these countries, focusing particularly on their common language and religious framework, and says that this, together with their geographical proximity and historical links with Syria, means that the GCC is in a position to make a significant contribution to the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
In the European theatre, Germany has pledged 30,000 resettlement places. However, the remaining 27 countries in the European Union (EU) have pledged a total of 6,305 places, amounting to just 0.17% of the number of refugees currently living in the five main host countries. Russia and China have not offered to resettle any Syrian refugees.
In Lebanon, Syrian refugees amount to more than 25% of the country's pre-crisis population. Difficulties in paying rent, increased consumption of electricity and water, political tension and security concerns have led to a spate of evictions and in September 2014 alone, more than 4,800 people were evicted from their accommodation.
In particular, armed clashes along the Syria-Lebanon border between the Lebanese armed forces and a number of armed groups, and the kidnapping (and in some cases execution) of Lebanese soldiers has destabilised relations between refugees and host communities in some of the affected areas.
Tensions have also led to the imposition of curfews on Syrian refugees by local police and in some cases by armed vigilante groups in a number of municipalities in Lebanon.
Spillover from the Syrian conflict is upsetting the delicate religious balance in Lebanon. Escalating sectarianism has the potential to jeopardise the entire region's response to the ISIS threat.
The execution of Lebanese soldiers has destabilised relations between refugees and host communities.
On 1 August, the ISIS-affiliated Fijr al-Islam brigade took control of the town of Arsal in retaliation for the arrest by Lebanese military forces of its leader Imad Jomaa. The government refused to bow to the jihadis' request for his release, which provoked the beheading of two captured army officers, one Sunni and one Shia. Sunni and Shia clans hijacked the issue, retaliating against alleged ISIS sympathisers with kidnappings and attacks, particularly targeting Syrian refugee camps. Ali Fayyad, a Hizbullah member of parliament, conflated the threat from ISIS with Syrian refugees, stating that Hizbullah was ready to defend Lebanon against ISIS and that it considers the presence of Syrian refugee camps as exerting "negative effects" on the country's stability.
As of November 2014 there were over 130,000 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt. However, the requirement for Syrians to obtain both a visa and security clearance before accessing Egypt, as outlined in the July 2013 revision of Egypt's entry requirements, has all but halted the arrival of refugees from Syria into Egypt.
Since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the situation for refugees from Syria has severely deteriorated. In 2013 the United Nations reported a rise in landlord intolerance and job dismissal of Syrian workers, whilst Amnesty International has documented how refugees have been subjected to verbal attacks, threats and incitement to violence in the national media and by public figures, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and, in some cases, deportation to Syria.
Over 200,000 refugees from Syria have settled in Iraq, the majority of whom reside in the Kurdistan Region. Access to Iraq for refugees from Syria has been hampered as a result of numerous developments, most notably the advances made by ISIS in Iraq from the end of December 2013. Large swathes of the border areas between Syria and Iraq are currently under ISIS control.
Access to Iraq has been hampered for refugees by the advances of ISIS.
The border between the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region and Syria has been closed intermittently. Even at the height of restriction, however, allowances have been made including for students, medical emergencies and family reunification. 14,000 Syrians were able to enter Kurdistan in October 2014 through the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing with Turkey, which remains open as of November 2014. Some instances of forced return from Kurdistan have been reported, largely of Syrian Arabs who were escorted back to the border.
At least 1.6 million refugees from Syria reside in Turkey. Officially, Turkey maintains an open-border policy for Syrians; in reality, however, official border crossings have become largely accessible except to the small minority of refugees from Syria who possess valid passports.
In meetings with Amnesty International, Turkish officials acknowledged that official border crossings were only open to refugees with passports or "urgent medical or humanitarian needs", frequently citing the lack of capacity in Turkey's refugee camps as a justification.
Over 600,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan, with the majority living in urban communities. Refugees from Syria also reside in Jordan's five refugee camps, the largest of which (Zaatari camp) is home to over 80,000 people.
As of April 2014 there were also over 13,000 Palestine refugees from Syria who had made themselves known to UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Jordan. Since the start of the Syria crisis Jordan has made considerable efforts to accommodate the large number of refugees from Syria who have accessed Jordan despite the country's limited resources and the fact that the UN Humanitarian Appeal for Jordan is only 56% funded.
The country's infrastructure has incurred significant strain following the increased demand for water, electricity, housing, schools, health care and food, which has contributed toward tension in host communities.
The Amnesty report may be read in full here.
This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
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