How the world is failing Syria's 2 million refugees

Every 15 seconds, someone flees Syria. And they don't have a lot of great options on where to go.

Syrian refugees
(Image credit: AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Every day the president spends trying to rally support in Congress for a military strike against Syria, an average of 5,000 refugees will flee the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That is about one person every 15 seconds.

On Tuesday, the UNHCR announced that 2 million Syrians had become refugees due to the violence of the last two and a half years, a staggering jump from 230,670 a year ago. Around half of them are believed to be children, and three quarters of those are under the age of 11.

Those estimates might even be too low. Pete Garratt, disaster manager for the British Red Cross, told CNN, "The true figure is likely to be higher," as many refugees don't register because "they may be afraid of any form of authority."

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Their five main destinations, in order of the number of refugees accepted: Lebanon (716,000), Jordan (515,000), Turkey (460,000), Iraq (168,000), and Egypt (110,000).

Many of these refugees live in large camps run by the UNHCR like Za'atari, in Jordan, which jumped from a population of a few hundred in July 2012 to more than 120,000 today. While safer than the frontlines, the UNHCR's own self-evaluation found the camp to be "lawless in many ways" with organized crime rampant and resources "constantly stolen or vandalized."

Part of the problem: Humanitarian agencies have only received 47 percent of the funds they were promised to "meet basic refugee needs."

That is putting a lot of economic and political pressure on Syria's five neighbors, which have absorbed 97 percent of the refugees. One Jordanian official told The New Yorker's David Remnick that "the scale of the influx is equivalent to 33 million Canadians or Mexicans entering the United States."

Some camps in Iraq — which is home to 9 percent of the Syrian refugee population but only 6 percent of the humanitarian funding — are so full that people have been turned away, forced to find shelter in nearby cities and towns, or even risk their lives by returning to Syria.

"The lack of funding in northern Iraq is causing unnecessary hardship and is putting the lives of refugees in danger," Rebecca Gang of the International Rescue Committee wrote in The Guardian, noting that refugees on their own often lack access to basic sanitation and health-care services, as well as education for their children.

So what is the solution to the refugee crisis? Sweden is helping alleviate the pressure on Syria's neighbors by becoming the first EU country to offer permanent residency to refugees from the conflict.

Leftist Indian historian and journalist Vijay Prashad argues that other countries in the region should put the politics of the war aside and focus on how to handle the growing influx of refugees, calling for the formation of a Regional Syrian Refugee Crisis Conference where the "practical matters of relief" can be discussed before the conflict is resolved.

In the long run, the lack of funding for humanitarian organizations and the dearth of countries willing to accept Syrian refugees could lead to bigger problems down the road, claimed António Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

"These countries need massive support from the international community to be able to cope with the challenge," he told The New York Times. "If that support does not materialize, the risks of instability in the Middle East will dramatically increase."

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