Action required on refugee crisis

Wed, Sep 4, 2013, 20:24

Syria has become the greatest tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.” These words of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres starkly underline the scale of the disaster facing the country’s civilian population and the urgency of finding adequate resources and political will to tackle it. His agency reckons nearly one third of Syria’s 22 million population has been displaced by the civil war, most of them internally but with the number now outside increasing tenfold to over two million since 2012. This figure is expected to reach three million by December.

Nearly all the burden of this vast human tide has been borne by neighbouring states. There were 716,000 refugees registered in Lebanon at the end of August, 515,000 in Jordan, 460,000 in Turkey, 168,000 in Iraq and 110,000 in Egypt. Some 5,000 people are fleeing every day, half of them under 17 years of age. Many within and without Syria are receiving food, shelter, education and cash assistance from local populations and international organisations. But the UN says it has raised less than half the funds required and there is a definite fatigue or lack of will to increase aid to the levels required by such a rapidly escalating humanitarian and security crisis. Mr Guterres made another appeal yesterday and must be commended for the cry of anguish he has uttered on behalf of all those suffering.

Their fate is daily compounding the seriousness of what is at stake for Syria and its neighbours. The country’s own political and ethnic divisions are linked to those in the wider region and they are now reinforcing one another. Countries see their existing social and religious tensions exacerbated by the flood of refugees, now reaching one quarter of Lebanon’s population, for example, making it even more difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance. Similar tensions show up in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. These states deserve much more international aid than has yet been provided as they contemplate immediate problems of feeding and sheltering the refugees and are more and more fearful of the longer term consequences such a huge influx has for their societies.

The third layer of political forces at play in this tragedy are the international allies of the conflicting actors who have made this civil war a cockpit of regional and global conflict. The terrible human dimensions of the war make it imperative that far more be done to find political and diplomatic ways to resolve it, including at this weekend’s Group of 20 meeting and through the UN Security Council. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey must be drawn into these efforts in their own interests. This is a more urgent and onerous task than preparing an ill-conceived and illegal western military intervention.

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