Syria Refugee Spillover Causing Major Burdens For Neighboring Countries

04/05/2012 04:58 pm 16:58:49 | Updated Apr 05, 2012

WASHINGTON -- With the crisis in Syria showing little sign of abating, the State Department has begun to step up its efforts to assist the tens of thousands of refugees who have spilled into neighboring countries over the past year.

Last weekend, after an international conference of nations supporting the Syrian uprising in Istanbul, the U.S. announced that it was effectively doubling its levels of humanitarian assistance to the region.

But much of that additional funding appeared to be directed to programs inside Syria, or toward efforts to deliver aid and non-lethal supplies to the civilian opposition there, rather than to the refugees who have streamed into host communities in places like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Kelly T. Clements, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, said that there has been a similarly enhanced effort to deliver funds and supplies to refugees and host communities outside Syria, including a recent $6.5 million contribution to a new $84 million appeal by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In a recent visit to Turkey and Jordan to assess the refugee crisis, Clements met with government officials dealing with the refugee onslaught, as well as many of those who have taken refuge there.

"We had a chance to talk to Syrians in two camps" in Turkey, Clements told HuffPost. "It happened to be the 20th anniversary of the previous violence in Idlib [Syria], which is just across the border from where the camps are in Turkey, so the feeling in the area was quite tense. There was a lot of anxiety, you could even say desperation among the refugees. They didn't see any end to the violence and were very worried about their friends who were still in and around Idlib."

The State Department estimates that some 50,000 Syrians have fled the country as refugees, while another 300,000 have been internally forced from their homes. Exact tallies of the refugees are hard to come by, especially since border crossing counts by individual host countries tend to far outstrip the official registration numbers published by UNHCR.

In Jordan, for instance, local officials have put the number of incoming refugees at approximately 90,000, while UNHCR has only registered about nine thousand.

State Department officials say the two wildly divergent numbers reflect different realities: the lower count is a reasonable assessment of people who fled without even the bare essentials and need urgent assistance; while the higher figure represents the total number of people displaced by the crisis, even if temporarily.

The refugee crisis has been exacerbated by local politics and sectarian tensions, as well as the fact that there is already a glut of refugees throughout the region.

Jordanian officials in particular have called the influx of refugees, including many badly wounded from clashes with the government, a significant strain on their welfare programs.

There are even signs that some refugees have even been escaping into Iraq, a bizarre twist, given that for the past decade Syria has been home to nearly 100,000 Iraqi refugees displaced by war.

And in Lebanon, where some 16,000 refugees have been registered by UNHCR, local communities eye the newcomers warily, mindful of the long Syrian military occupation that only ended in 2005, and the fear that sectarian conflict could spill into a country already strained by sectarian animosity.

Earlier this week, some Lebanese officials from parties supportive of the Syrian regime described the refugees as "criminals" and "terrorists," and called for them to be deported, sparking tense debate in the country's legislature.

A recent report in Lebanon by the American organization Refugees International found that only a small fragment of Syrian refugees in the country had been registered and attended to by UNHCR, mostly in a small, contained area called Wadi Khaled. Many thousands more had spread out into other parts of the country, or entered from the East, the report found, where they were "receiving little to no humanitarian assistance."

"You basically have very poor communities who are now hosting very desperate refugees in the north," Sarnata Reynolds, the researcher who conducted the evaluation for Refugees International, told HuffPost. "And it got worse the further from there that we got."

Reporters visiting with refugees in these remote areas of north Lebanon have repeatedly described their living conditions as unstable and precarious.

Meanwhile, many of the refugees in Lebanon fall under the auspices of a local organization called the High Relief Commission, which receives some of its funding from UNHCR. But Reynolds says that the Relief Commission is running low on money, especially for the treatment of trauma victims, who often flee into northern Lebanon from the embattled nearby city of Homs.

"The High Relief Commission had is basically out of money, and no one else has taken care of this issue," Reynolds said. "It's a huge problem."

The Turks have borne the fullest brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, since its long, porous southeastern border abuts the portions of northern Syria where the worst fighting has raged between rebel forces and the government's army.

UN organizations and refugee aid groups have noted with some displeasure the fact that the Turkish government, while generally welcoming to the Syrians, has officially referred to them as "guests" rather than "refugees," a distinction that one American official told HuffPost has hampered international aid groups' ability to oversee the refugee facilities.

Charity Tooze, a UN spokeswoman in New York, said that UN officials had recently set up a permanent operation near the camps in Turkey, and had regular access.

"We are consistently taking field missions to the camps, and the government is allowing us to do our work," she told HuffPost. "So far we haven't heard any reports of refoulement" -- that is, refugees being turned away.

"Some of the impediments we heard about from Syrians in Turkey -- less so in Jordan -- is that what is impeding people from moving is mainly on the other [Syrian] side," said the State Department's Clements. "There were reports of newly laid mines, checkpoints, snipers, all on the Syrian side. Without those impediments we think there would be far more people trying to seek refuge in places like Lebanon and Turkey now."

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