In September 2013, two million Syrians had fled across the border to neighbouring countries and registered as refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said then that the world was witnessing a level of displacement “unparalleled in recent history” and praised those countries for their “humanity in welcoming and saving the lives of so many refugees." Today this number has doubled to 4 million, creating a massive strain on host communities and the public services and infrastructure on which they rely. Unfortunately, the generosity of Syria’s neighbours has been taken for granted for too long, and refugees are increasingly paying the price.
Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have increasingly restricted or even closed their borders, effectively trapping more and more people in a warzone. Forced evictions and raids on refugee settlements, and curfews imposed on communities have increased. A number of Syrian and Palestine refugees from Syria have even been forcibly returned to the country, where the risks to their lives that had made them flee in the first place remain. Outside the region, just 2% of the refugee population have been offered a lifeline through resettlement by other nations.
What does the world expect these 4 million people, a majority of whom are women and children, to do?
Imagine fleeing your home with your children to escape barrel bombs, extremist violence or hunger, to live in a tent on the outskirts of a village in a foreign country and subsist on meagre handouts from aid organisations. Then imagine living with the knowledge that the tent could be burnt down and you’d be ordered to move, as some of the refugees we work with in Lebanon have experienced. Or imagine living in a squalid, overcrowded and overpriced apartment and that the assets you’d spent years saving were about to run out. What would you do?
Would you try to find work to support your family?
If you do that in Jordan, in the absence of an elusive work permit, and are caught working illegally you risk being deported to Syria. At best there is the risk of being exploited by unscrupulous employers, or provoking the ire of your hosts who increasingly view refugees as undercutting the job market.
What about relying on humanitarian assistance to help your family survive? The underfunded aid response is not keeping up with growing needs. Rations are being cut and healthcare and education are becoming more and more inaccessible. Fewer refugees are receiving less assistance. Abu Anas fled with his wife, Um Anas, and their three young children (pictured) from Aleppo to Bekaa, Lebanon in 2012. "I have nothing left back in Syria," he told us. "My parents are internally displaced, and I have no source of income here. The food cuts will make it even harder for us especially as my wife is expecting. I will have to borrow money from other refugees in this settlement to buy [the basics] my family needs." Sadly, Abu Anas’ experience is shared by millions of others.
Would you try to get resettled in another country?
Increasingly refugees ask Oxfam staff about options for resettlement, many have heard there is the possibility of being relocated to a third country.
Oxfam has called on rich countries to resettle or offer other forms of humanitarian admission by the end of 2015 to the most vulnerable 5% of the refugee population whose needs simply cannot be met in the region. While a number of states including Germany and Sweden have generously extended a lifeline through resettlement, the response to date from most countries has been poor.
Would you send your children on a boat to get to Europe?
Small wonder that more and more refugees are willing to risk their lives and their savings to get to do so. Even as a last, dangerous resort this is an expensive option, out of the reach of many, and the welcome in Europe is not guaranteed to be warm.
Perhaps you would hope to return home. But nothing indicates the violence in Syria will end soon. Our recent report showed more deaths, more displacement and a massive increase in need in the last year. The UN Security Council called for an end to the brutality and denial of assistance that marks the Syria conflict. It was ignored. And the economy has all but collapsed. Returning refugees to this situation is not only illegal, but immoral.
The Syrian crisis started with a cry for freedom and dignity, and it was met with catastrophic, all-consuming violence.
Sadly, the desperate plea for assistance and safety that is replacing it is increasingly being met with indifference. There must be a significant increase in the aid response and the numbers of vulnerable refugees offered resettlement in third countries, and a major investment in the schools, hospitals and infrastructure in neighbouring countries. This is the least the international community can do. And refugees must be allowed to support themselves and their families, while contributing to the economy of their hosts.
With options running out for refugees, as well as the patience of their generous hosts, the terrible statistic of four million refugees must be a high watermark. When will UNHCR start reporting a drop in the numbers, from four to three to two to one million refugees? To make this a reality, we need to see a huge diplomatic push to achieve a just and sustainable peace in Syria. The aspirations and hopes for their country, not just the needs, of these four million people must guide the thoughts of the world powers.