Syrians in a nightmare

The Syrian refugee problem may now be the worst the world has seen since the end of World War II, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Some call it the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen since Rwanda, while others say that it is even worse. The UN has also issued an appeal for donations that is one of the largest in its history, hoping to help out the nearly 10 million people in Syria who have had to flee their homes or their country over the past three years.

Syria today is a shadow of its former self and a nightmare for everyone else. For its inhabitants, one out of two of whom is currently homeless or may be on the verge of becoming so, the gloom is palpable.

UN officials say that the Syrian refugee crisis is now the worst that they have seen since the genocide in Rwanda nearly 20 years ago. Syrians will soon outnumber Afghans as the world’s highest number of refugees.

Nearly 2.5 million Syrians are now registered with the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and of these 962,000 are in Lebanon, 634,000 in Turkey, 584,000 in Jordan, 226,000 in Iraq, and 135,000 in Egypt. Up to 1.5 million people have not registered as refugees, however, according to experts. In total, nearly four million Syrians have had to leave their country since the fighting began three years ago.

This fighting is now so widespread that the country’s major cities have been affected along with small towns and tiny villages. Some 1.5 million residential houses have been destroyed. Entire towns have fallen into chaos as they change hands between government and opposition forces. Summary executions and random shelling have been but a part of the wider spectrum of horrors visited on an increasingly frightened population.

Those with no means of escaping the country have had to move out of their homes, sometimes more than once. The number of displaced people in Syria is thought to be six million and rising. In a country of 24 million people, 10 million are now thought to be homeless, or nearly three out of every five people. Those who remain in their homes suffer from a lack of security, shortages of food and medicine, bombardments and threats of violence.

Even Syria’s neighbours are feeling the pinch. Unprepared to tackle the hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing out of the country, countries bordering Syria are calling for international help.

AN UNPRECEDENTED CRISIS: A year ago, UN experts predicted that the number of Syrian refugees would rise to 10 million by the end of 2013. Now their opinion is that by the end of 2014, the total number of displaced people will be 12 million, or half the country’s entire population.

Most Syrians who fled their country have simply scurried across the border into the safety of neighbouring nations. Most have ended up in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Some have travelled further afield, ending up in Egypt or in various parts of Europe. For many, the lack of security is an adequate motive for leaving their home or country, but according to international experts most of the Syrian refugees did not leave their homes voluntarily. They had to lose them first.

According to a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), the housing sector has been particularly badly affected by the fighting. Because of the indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, millions of houses have been destroyed. Water and electricity networks, schools, hospitals, and other services have also suffered extensive damage.

The report says that between six and seven million Syrians have lost their homes as a result of the conflict, and nearly one-third of the country now lives in makeshift homes or informal areas.

Ahead of the Geneva II Conference earlier this year, the UNHCR called on Syria’s neighbours to allow the refugees unfettered movement across the borders. But most refugees are now worried that their shelters may become long-term abodes, with 65 per cent of Syrian refugees fearing they may never be able to return to Syria in the future according to a poll by Oxfam, the British humanitarian relief organisation.

Relief experts say that 16 million Syrians, including 5.5 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Nearly two million children have also stopped going to school.

Life in the tent cities that the refugees now often live in is never easy, but it has been made worse by the harsh winter weather. According to Salwa Marei, a refugee from Deir Al-Zur in Syria who now lives in a tent encampment in the Lebanese mountains, “this winter has been very cold, and it has snowed daily for weeks. The plastic roof of the tent leaked, and I didn’t have enough blankets to keep my children warm. We have been sleeping on foam mattresses and collecting anything we can to stoke the fire to keep warm.”

Sanitation in the camps is problematic, and health care is irregular. “Health care is almost non-existent,” Marei said, adding that “people give us money out of charity to see a doctor when we need to do so. There is no proper sewerage, and the toilets are latrines far from the tents. We feel as if we have no rights. In some of the Lebanese villages we are staying in, we are not allowed to be out after eight at night.”

In the Al-Zaatari Camp in Jordan, the situation is slightly better. The tents are being replaced by trailers, and there are clinics run by doctors from Morocco, the UAE, Italy, and other countries. When distributing food and clothes, the organisers make sure that they get supplies to the most vulnerable refugees first.

However, here too the refugees have little freedom of movement. The Jordanian authorities ban them from leaving the camp unless they are accompanied by a Jordanian sponsor or someone who will pledge to support them.

Recently, the US writer Nicolas Seeley, a resident of Jordan, described the lives of refugees in Syrian Wedding, a work that contrasts the hopes of the novel’s youthful protagonists with the harshness of their surroundings. The wedding he describes has no music or dancing, and the young couple lacks the money to pay the deposit required to rent a wedding dress.

SEEKING SHELTER: Much has been written about the Syrian refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, but the story has yet to be told about the refugees who have ventured elsewhere. Since the conflict in the country started, thousands of Syrians have taken refuge in Bulgaria, Malta, Greece, Uzbekistan, Armenia, and other countries.

In Bulgaria alone, there are nearly 5,000 refugees, these receiving little or no help from international groups, said Mohamed Al-Birmawi, a member of the Bulgaria Coordinating Committee, an NGO.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Birmawi said that “there are seven refugee camps in Bulgaria housing nearly 5,000 Syrians, many of them women and children. The living conditions in these camps are harsh, and the refugees don’t receive many basic necessities.”

Three camps are in the capital Sofia, three on the borders of Turkey, and one about 40 km away from the capital, he said. “Temperatures have been dropping to minus eight at night, and the refugees lack proper clothing,” he added.

Most of the refugees living in the camps in Bulgaria were originally trying to travel to other parts of Europe. “The smugglers they used to get into the country lied to them [about their whereabouts], or the Bulgarian police caught them on the borders and interred them here,” he said.

Other refugees have been stranded in Malta or Italy after their boats sank off Europe’s southern shores. Some of the children have been rescued by the Italian navy, while other members of their families have somehow reached Malta’s shores. Many have gone missing, presumed dead, in the process. Now the Italian and Maltese authorities are not only left in custody of hundreds of Syrian refugees, but also with the job of trying to reunite families or decide who the parents of unaccompanied children are.

Fahd Al-Masri, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an opposition group, said that “many children and some infants have been rescued by the Italian navy, which picked them up from the sea after the boats in which they were travelling sank. But the navy has not saved the adults,” he added.

Elsewhere, in Azerbaijan the UNHCR office in the capital Baku has registered some 1,500 Syrian refugees, many of whom have been relying on donations from civil society groups.

When the fighting spread to their towns, Syria’s Christians headed to the borders along with Muslims. A few were able to move on to Europe and North America, helped by their families that lived there. But many are now stranded in tent cities, reliant on the tenuous care of the local authorities and the international community with the sheer size of the crisis having stretched the resources of both.

When the Turkish government offered Syrian Christians independent camps in the city of Midyat, the reaction was mixed. Some appreciated the offer of a safe haven, while others claimed that the Turks had ulterior motives, claiming that the move could have been intended to facilitate the wider displacement of Christians from the region.

Soliman Youssef, an opposition Assyrian activist, summed up the controversy surrounding the Christian refugee camps by saying that “while some may consider these camps to be a necessary step in saving the Christians of northern Syria, this ostensibly innocuous move may also harbour other intentions. It may undermine the Christian presence in Syria.”

According to Youssef, a Christian designated camp is tantamount to a “political mass grave” for Christians in Syria. “Those regional and international quarters that support these schemes… want to gather the Syriac Christians in one place and then ship them off to western countries, where they will be given asylum,” he claimed.

The Syriac Christians, Syrians who speak a modified form of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ, form one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world. Sweden, Germany, France, and Belgium are all said to be facilitating the process of giving asylum to Syriac refugees, and rumour has it that Turkey has asked the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church to move his seat from Syria to Turkey, but the request has been turned down.

Not all the Syrian refugees have opted for crossing the borders. In northern Syria, many refugees have settled on their side of the border with Turkey, the reason being that the Syrian army, eager not to provoke the Turks, has been refraining from shelling encampments close to international borders.

About 100,000 refugees live in upwards of 50 camps in this area, and while the humanitarian conditions are deplorable the borders are at least safe. Syrian government forces have only shelled the refugee dwellings twice.

However, the regime has been accused of preventing relief supplies from reaching the northern refugees, whom it accuses of backing the rebellion. According to Mamoun Sayed Eissa, a medical supervisor interviewed by the Weekly, “there are eight clinics and nine medical centres serving the 57 camps [on the Syrian-Turkish border]. Only one clinic is open 24 hours a day, and most doctors see 200 patients a day.”

The supply of medicine is so short that the doctors have been having to prescribe reduced doses of antibiotics to patients who often relapse because of the inadequacy of the medication, he said.

“Some drugs go bad because of the lack of electricity to run fridges. We have no labs or X-ray facilities either,” Eissa said.

The children have been among the worst affected. “There are some 5,800 infants in the camps, but we have very little baby formula. 16 children at least have died of hypothermia.”

Living on less than one loaf of bread per day, the Syrian refugees along the borders are perhaps luckier than those stranded in Bulgaria, detained in Malta, or held in camps in Italy. At least they can claim the land on which they live as theirs. And some hope that once the fighting abates, their road home will be less cluttered by red tape.

For now, however, survival is the main concern of the Syrian population, and particularly of the ten million people who have been constrained to flee and the 14 million who are hoping that their turn will not come soon.