The civil war in Syria escalated in dramatic fashion in 2013, sending more than 1.8 million Syrians fleeing for refuge in neighboring countries and beyond — earning the unwelcome distinction of becoming the largest humanitarian emergency in nearly two decades. As the year drew to a close, more than 2.2 million Syrians had sought refuge abroad and more than 4 million others were displaced internally. The United Nations estimates that unless the situation changes in a significant way, by the end of 2014, more than 8 million Syrians might have been forced from their homes, with as many as 5.2 million leaving the country.
"We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said earlier this year.
Struggling to Accommodate Refugee Needs
Faced with sudden inflows that are taxing budgets, infrastructure, natural resources, and in some cases, social stability, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt struggled throughout 2013 to accommodate the needs of this vulnerable population. And as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) sought refugee resettlement places for Syrians beyond the immediate region, the agency and partner organizations expressed concern that some countries were placing barriers to entry or forcibly removing some Syrians.
In Egypt, which UNHCR estimates is hosting some 127,000 Syrian refugees (registered and awaiting registration), more than 1,500 Syrian refugees were detained for weeks or months, and many then were coerced to leave the country, according to Human Rights Watch. (The Egyptian government has denied the charge). Amnesty International accused Jordan, which has taken in more than 544,000 Syrians, of forcibly returning hundreds of Syrians to their home country in violation of international law.
Jordan estimates the total cost of hosting Syrian refugees in 2013 and 2014 will top $5 billion, further taxing schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure. Turkey, which has taken in more than 504,000 Syrian refugees, reported in August that it had spent more than $2 billion sheltering the refugees. And the World Bank projects that in Lebanon, which has taken in the largest Syrian refugee population (more than 795,000), the cost of sheltering the Syrians will reach $2.6 billion over three years.
Further afield, countries in Europe — particularly Bulgaria and Greece — faced accusations that they are forcibly returning Syrian asylum seekers or are placing barriers to their entry. (See Issue No. 8 Questions of Immigration Control Preoccupy Policymakers as Humanitarian Arrivals Continue, and in Some Cases, Surge) "UNHCR is calling for a global moratorium on any return of Syrians to neighboring countries," an agency spokesman said. "This would represent a concrete gesture of solidarity with these countries that currently host over 2.2 million Syrian refugees."
Europe is becoming a more attractive destination for Syrians as conditions become more difficult for those who have sought shelter in countries neighboring Syria. Syrians face several challenges reaching Europe, including costs that can reach thousands of dollars per person as well as dangers en route. And once they arrive, they may be placed in overcrowded camps with poor conditions. (See Issue No. 5: Is Europe Faltering in Addressing Its Multiple Migration Challenges?)
For UNHCR, the challenge of keeping borders open to Syrian refugees closer to home means finding financial support for the host countries as well as ensuring that refugee resettlement places and asylum spaces are made available elsewhere.
Seventeen countries have agreed to participate in UNHCR's Syria Resettlement/Humanitarian Admission Program, offering about 10,000 resettlement places — ranging from 5,000 pledged by Germany to a low of 10 agreed to by Hungary. The United States recently agreed to accept 2,000 refugees for resettlement. The UN refugee agency hopes to find homes for 30,000 people by the end of 2014 through the Resettlement/Humanitarian Admission Program.
In September, Sweden decided to grant permanent residence to Syrian refugees, while Germany is providing Syrian refugees with two-year residence permits, access to health and education services, and the right to work.
The Challenges Mount
In addition to these challenges, humanitarian relief organizations are also confronting the need to prepare the refugees for the approach of winter, while authorities everywhere are concerned about an outbreak of polio in eastern Syria, which may inadvertently bring the disease to Europe and elsewhere.
With the political crisis and civil war in Syria unlikely to abate, governments and humanitarian aid providers are preparing for a long-term humanitarian response. In the Za'atari camp in northern Jordan, the region's largest refugee camp for Syrians, the camp manager has plans to turn the camp for more than 120,000 people into a temporary city. Already trailers have begun replacing tents and hundreds of businesses have opened. The camp manager has started setting up neighborhood councils, where Jordanian authorities, community police, and refugees work together to handle local problems. Establishing Za'atari as a temporary city, however, is risky because many of Syria's neighboring countries already fear Syrian refugees will become permanent residents.
The international response to the Syrian refugee crisis follows a well-worn path whereby developing countries host four out of five refugees worldwide, according to UNHCR estimates. The international response to this crisis will provide a litmus test for the future of international solidarity and humanitarian assistance for refugees and host communities.
Amnesty International. 2013. Growing Restrictions, Tough Conditions: The Plight of Those Fleeing Syria to Jordan. Available online.
Associated Press. 2013. Zaatari, Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan, Slowly Becomes City. Available online.
BBC News. 2013. Egypt 'illegally detaining Syrian refugees.' October 17, 2013. Available online.
Deutsche Welle. 2013. Gateway to Europe: Syrian Refugees in Bulgaria. October 25, 2013. Available online.
Human Rights Watch. 2013. Egypt: Syria Refugees Detained, Coerced to Return. Available online.
Jordan Times. 2013. Jordan sees Syria refugee costs soar, vows subsidy reform. November 16, 2013. Available online.
Reuters. 2013. Number of Syrian refugees in Turkey exceeds 600,000 – Turkish official. October 21, 2013. Available online.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2013. Denied entry and pushed back: Syrian refugees trying to reach the EU. Available online.
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World Bank. 2013. Lebanon Straining under Multiple Shocks from Syrian Crisis. September 24, 2013. Available online.