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Syria's Agony in Numbers: The Growing Refugee Crisis

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When politicians become fixated on numbers instead of people, the result can be somewhat grotesque. In Syria for example, the number of dead in the chemical weapons attack has been disputed, with numbers ranging from 400 to 1,400 casualties, depending on the source of the information. But does the number really matter compared with the enormity of the atrocity?

And now the actual number of chemical weapons is going to be counted, verified and analyzed before their eventual destruction, a topic preoccupying the media, politicians and policy makers. Debate about this at UN level is filling the headlines, instead of the real debate that should be taking place -- how to end the civil war in Syria and how to end the misery of her people.

In a world purporting to have high ideals about the dignity and worth of every human being, it is unconscionable that the refugee problem is being overlooked as collateral damage in an ongoing civil war. The individual stories of human loss and suffering can be seen in harrowing detail in thousands of photos and videos as the exodus from Syria continues, and this should be the dominant narrative, not a list of numbers. But inevitably the full story is presented by citing the numbers, necessary in the attempt to describe the human toll, even if they are disputed and even if they change each day.

The number of dead since the conflict began is reported as 80,033 on the Syrian opposition website Syrian Martyrs, but according to the UN, over 100,000 civilians and soldiers have died in the war. The nature of the war and the breakdown in civil society is the reason for the inadequate documentation, but at the same time, not knowing the exact death toll is a chilling reminder of the callous inhumanity of the situation.

The numbers of refugees and internally displaced Syrians are even harder to compute and visualize. For example, one year ago, according to the NGO Care, one million Syrians were in need of humanitarian aid. Today, that number is variously quoted as from 7 million to 8.8 million with between 4-5,000 people fleeing into neighboring countries every day. The population of Syria in 2012 was over 22,700,000 and it is estimated by the UNHCR that at the present rate, half of the country's population will soon be displaced or exiled by the end of the year.

The scale of the flow of Syrian refugees is creating a regional crisis as neighboring countries are being overwhelmed, their local economies, schools, hospitals and housing simply unable to absorb the sudden increase. The numbers grew too quickly for any effective planning -- from September 2012 till today, the number of registered refugees grew from 240,000 to 2 million, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Half the refugees are children -- an even greater tragedy when one considers all those young lives disrupted, traumatized and unable to contemplate returning home to a country devastated by the war.

The numbers of registered refugees as of August 2013 are as follows: 110,000 in Egypt, 168,000 in Iraq, 515,000 in Jordan, 716,000 in Lebanon and 460,000 in Turkey. Countless other Syrians have found refuge with family and friends in these countries and have not registered, so according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the total is estimated to be higher than 6 million, as this includes the 4.5 million people displaced within Syria.

Many of the neighboring host countries are undergoing civil strife and are participants in the Syrian conflict and the presence of large numbers of refugees is adding not only to internal stresses but also to regional tensions and unrest.

In Lebanon for example, a country of four million people, there are an estimated one million refugees, scattered across 1,400 locations. Around 300,000 are children between the ages of 5 and 17 -- about the same number of school age Lebanese children. Syria's conflict will cost Lebanon $7.5 billion in cumulative economic losses by the end of next year, according to the World Bank which is working towards providing the aid and economic stability Lebanon needs to help offset the costs of caring for hundreds of thousands more Syrian refugees.

At the same time, there is growing resentment among poorer host communities who in many cases are in need of the same support as the newly arrived refugees. The Hezbollah-dominated government in Lebanon has been slow to register the influx, making it difficult for Syrians to obtain refugee visas. The scale of the economic upheaval and the humanitarian crisis in Lebanon and similar overtaxed countries obviously cannot be solved by humanitarian assistance alone.

Jordan is also feeling the strain. The cost of hosting Syrian refugees has exceeded JD 590 million which is around 3 oercebt of Jordan's economy. Half of the refugees are living in the Zatari camp in Mafraq near the Syrian border and are in desperate need of aid as winter approaches. Aid agencies are working with the UN to open the new Azraq refugee camp to meet the large expected influx of 130,000 Syrians, and will be providing community centers in the camp to help provide refugees with essential information, psychological and social support and more.

Iraq has been overwhelmed with more than 40,000 Syrian Kurds pouring into Iraq's northern Kurdish region since August, bringing the total there to around 200,000. Most of them are living in vast overcrowded tent cities or sheltering in schools and mosques and putting a serious strain on local resources.

Egypt welcomed Syrian refuges less than a year ago. Numbering more than 100,000 they were viewed sympathetically by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies who had supported Syria's Sunni rebels in the fight against the Assad regime. But now that Morsi has lost power, UNHCR reports indicate that Syrian refugees have been affected by the turbulent political situation in their host country, with many being harassed and assaulted.

European countries have been slow to respond to the rapid increase of refugees entering Europe. Across the European Union, around 47,000 Syrians have sought asylum since the conflict began. The UN is trying to resettle 12,000 refugees in Europe this year but so far has found places for only 7,000, with 5,000 of them in Germany. A New York Times report quoted an appeal by a UN spokesperson to other countries to help "share the burden" carried by neighboring countries like Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which have taken in more than a million Syrians in the past six months.

In contrast, the only country that has been well prepared to welcome Syrian refugees is Turkey which has done an excellent job of taking care of Syrian refugees, under the leadership of Governor Veysel Dalmaz. Turkey has spent over $1.5 billion so far on humanitarian care and protection of refugees in camps and cities, with only a small percentage coming from UN funding. According to the UNHCR, 182,621 Syrian refugees were living in Turkey by mid-February 2013 in well-organized camps, but with the number of displaced Syrians crossing the border into Turkey rising dramatically as violence escalates in Syria, the number is expected to be 1 million by the end of the year.

The largest proportion of Syrian refugees in Turkey today are those living outside of refugee camps, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative to Turkey Carol Batchelor. She told the Hurriyet Daily News in a recent interview that this is the most challenging aspect of Turkey's hosting of Syrian refugees now.

So as the numbers mount up day by day, reflecting a growing toll of human misery, the amount of humanitarian aid needed is also growing. And here the numbers do not add up. A comparison of all aid agencies projections reveal that they are underfunded by 42% or more, a devastating indictment of the slow international response.

UNHCR Antonio Guterres said Sept. 3, 2012, that Syria had become "a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history." UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie spoke out against the "dangerous" complacency of a world that is "tragically disunited on how to end the Syrian conflict,"according to UNHCR.

As Syria's agony continues, when can we hope to see a shift in the balance of numbers -- with less spent on the machinery of war and more on humanity? The despot Assad will soon have only half a country left. It is time for the world to take responsibility for the other half -- the Syrian diaspora of refugees -- because after all, the rest of the world watched it happen and failed to prevent it.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of the Scotland Institute, Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a Lecturer at the University of Chicago.