By Charlotte Phillips, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Charlotte Phillips is Amnesty International’s researcher on Refugee and Migrants' Rights. The views expressed are her own.
It is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale and brutality of the conflict in Syria – the massive displacement and immense suffering it is causing. To top it all, videos of an alleged chemical weapons attack outside Damascus suggest a chilling escalation in the violence in recent weeks.
But anyone thinking the unfolding crisis could not get worse would surely have been given pause this week as the country hit yet another terrible milestone after the number of refugees officially reached 2 million. An estimated half of these are children, many under the age of 11. Yet raw statistics only tell us part of the story. Behind every number is a face, a name, a person who has experienced extraordinary loss – loss of friends and family, of limbs, of property, of livelihood, of human dignity.
Here at Amnesty International’s headquarters in London, we receive almost daily phone calls and emails from individuals and families, many of them now located in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, and increasingly further afield. People are reaching out – asking for help, for advice, for material assistance, for their rights to be protected. They want to be able to start their lives again – and more and more believe they can only do this in another safe country.
But the reality is that life is extremely hard even for refugees in neighboring countries who have escaped the bloodshed as the conflict between the Bashar al-Assad and rebel forces continues to rage.
My colleagues and I recently returned from Za’atri refugee camp in Jordan, now the second-largest refugee camp in the world after Kenya’s sprawling Dadaab camp. It has unofficially become Jordan’s fourth-largest city. Built in a desert area only 12 kilometers from the Syrian border, Za’atri is searingly hot in the summer months and freezing cold in the winter. It currently hosts almost 130,000 refugees from Syria, with significant numbers of children and vulnerable individual – some who have survived torture – seriously injured or sick.
The United Nations and organizations working on the ground have made a number of appeals to the international community for funding, because despite some significant donations, essential services such as food assistance, education, a more reliable water supply system and shelter continue to be seriously underfunded. And it is not just Za’atri, or indeed Jordan, where there are shortfalls in funding to protect and assist refugees.
The same is true across the region, where refugees, particularly in community settings, are struggling to access services, while host countries are buckling under the strain. All these host nations are facing significant economic and political challenges due to the influx. The increased pressure on local services, meanwhile, is exacerbating tensions between refugees and local communities. As António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, noted an interview with The Guardian in July: “We are facing in the Middle East something that is more than a humanitarian crisis, more than a regional crisis. It is becoming a real threat to global peace and security.”
So, what can be done?
With no political solution in sight for Syria, the very least we can do is to allow those who have escaped with their lives to live in safety and dignity. The United Nations estimates that almost $3 billion is currently needed for it to meet the needs of refugees in the region. In June, it launched the largest humanitarian appeal in its history. To date, the United States, Kuwait and the European Commission have been amongst the largest donors. Yet the appeal is currently only 40 percent funded. Countries with the means to do so – European countries, North America, the Gulf states and elsewhere – must continue to scale up their funding to tackle the refugee crisis, and they should plan to provide sustained, long-term support to Syria’s neighbors.
But this alone will not alleviate the refugee crisis. Donor governments should be prepared to take the most vulnerable refugees out of the region and allow them to settle safely in their countries, via resettlement and humanitarian admission programs. As well as providing a very real lifeline for the most vulnerable, this will help to alleviate some of the burden being borne by Syria’s neighbors.
While Germany has so far agreed to take 5,000 Syrian refugees via a humanitarian admission program, the response from other countries has so far been more limited. It is time for publics around the world to press their governments to increase support for refugees from Syria.
International attention has, perhaps inevitably, focused on the potential for military action. But if the international community wants to take any kind of meaningful action, it would do well to come up with a plan for tackling what has become an increasingly desperate – and dangerous – problem.