Escalating Violence Fuels Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Ines Novacic

Jul 5, 2012 7:06pm

As violence escalates across Syria, the number of refugees crossing into the country’s four neighbours – Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey- almost doubled each night this week, according to the U.N.

“We’ve had approximately 500 Syrians daily seeking refuge from the conflict, but in the last week we’ve recorded 6,000 in Jordan and Turkey,” Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. refugee agency’s Syria coordinator, told ABC News. “That’s more than 850 per night.”

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees issued a revised response plan for Syria last week and increased its appeal for humanitarian funds to $193 million.

Moumtzis said that, despite the coordinated effort of 44 national and international relief agencies, without adequate funding, a crisis could face the projected 185,000 refugees by the end of 2012. “We only have 26 percent of what we need. Funding is really, really crucial; or these people who arrive in desperate situations can’t be helped.”

The current turmoil is Syria has displaced more than 75,000 people, but agencies like the U.N. warn that a number cannot really be determined because most refugees do not register with border security, particularly in countries like Lebanon, in which pockets loyal to the Assad regime are hostile to Syrian asylum seekers.

“Nothing in Lebanon even looks like a refugee camp. Because of the politics, many follow the line that Syria doesn’t have an uprising, but terrorists attacking the regime,” Abdul Wahad Sayedomar, an activist whose family come from Homs and Aleppo, told ABC News. “The north around Tripoli is better, but people seek shelter in private, in flats that are often provided by NGOs, like Mosaic from the U.K.”

Sayedomar, who also works with the British Syria Society, an NGO, added that the only refugees who turn up at the border are “the lucky ones who either have money or have relatives in Lebanon. Those feeling immediate violence can’t just do that. They wouldn’t be let in.”

Despite local fears of a regionalization of the conflict, around 30,000 Syrians are being assisted in Lebanon. Moumtzis maintained that all four of Syria’s neighbours have been welcoming and “generous.”

“The positive thing is that borders remain open, and the role of these governments has to be applauded,” he said.

None of the four countries is a signatory of the U.N. Refugee Convention, and each regards arrivals from Syria as “guests.”

“They are not refugees, we do not call them refugees,” a Turkish official who asked not to be named told ABC News. “As any Turkish citizen, they’re under Turkish government protection. And we are all very much looking forward to the end of violence, and my understanding is that the Syrians are very much looking forward to returning to their country.”

In Turkey as in Iraq, the government erected temporary camps, on or in proximity to the Syrian border, to house the increasing flow of Syrian arrivals.

“They are not allowed to leave the camps, they’re not allowed to work, but these camps are for the 35,000-plus Syrians who came here. We have eight camps now, and we’re building more. So you see, they’re huge places, something like 5,000 people in each one,” the official explained.

Iraq is currently receiving a lower influx of refugees compared with Turkey or Lebanon; of the 6,000 the U.N. estimates to have arrived so far, the majority are Kurds. In the past month, the Kurdistan Regional Government mandated that all Syrian refugees should be hosted in camps, and most people are awaiting relocation.

“These people do not have a legal status,” said Christoph Wilcke, a Middle East expert from Human Rights Watch, speaking about the spill-over of refugees. “And it’s often a hazardous journey, trying to get through Syria’s checkpoints; they often have to cross barbed wire fences rather than presenting their passports at the border.”

Wilcke’s work is focused on Jordan, and he described how Syrian border guards have effectively closed the road leading to the Jordanian checkpoint, so families and individual refugees have to walk through fields, often at night.

Human Rights Watch yesterday reported that Jordan is discriminating against Palestinians seeking refuge from violence in Syria. Researcher Gerry Simpson said a dozen Palestinians were detained for months in a heavily guarded housing complex near the border.

“There are increases of people seeking refuge in Jordan. There’s a difference, however, since April, between Palestinians and Syrians coming over. Syrians can get out of initial detention by finding a Jordanian guarantor. Palestinians can’t get that guarantor, which means they remain detained in a small area with no hope of release,” Wilcke explained.

The Associated Press quoted Jordanian Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah as dismissing the allegations as “totally baseless.”

Like Lebanon, Jordan did not designate areas for refugee camps. According to activists, Syrians seeking refuge typically have family ties and are assimilated into communities in that way.

“On the one hand, Jordan is one of the most open countries to refugees in the region and there are family ties there,” said Wilcke. “It hasn’t said, ‘We will send you back,’ but there is a caveat there, as we’re seeing.

“So let’s help Jordan keep the borders open and let’s monitor that they keep their promise to let everybody in from Syria.”

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