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Syrian Refugee Crisis: The View From the Turkish Border

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There are now roughly 200,000 Syrian refugees in 17 camps throughout southeastern Turkey, and this week a Refugees International team visited one such camp in Kilis Province.

It must be said that standards there are extremely high, and staff have provided much needed support to the most vulnerable Syrians. Camp residents have enough to eat, there are child-friendly spaces and educational programs, and there are dedicated areas for women to gather and get help. But Turkey's reliance on camps comes at a high price. Expanding or adding camps to accommodate the continuous steam of new arrivals would be financially untenable for the Turkish government, which has footed the bill alone up to now.

Fortunately, Turkey has started shifting to a more sustainable model by registering the roughly 200,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps. When Refugees International visited Turkey in October, city-dwelling Syrians were struggling to access health care, education, and other vital services. Assistance was provided ad hoc by local authorities and individuals, who relied on irregular and unpredictable financial support from private donors. Help for those suffering psychological trauma and gender-based violence -- both shockingly common among Syrians -- was basically nonexistent. With their savings running low, many refugees feared they would have to move into one of the crowded camps.

Registration will help these Syrians meet their immediate needs where they are, instead of putting more pressure on the camp system. It will also allow refugees to access things like education, training, and employment that will help them over the longer term.

The sad fact is that most Syrian refugees will not be going home soon. But by integrating these Syrians into host communities, Turkey can reduce its reliance on camps, limit the cost of assistance, and help refugees achieve self-sufficiency. As Turkey makes this transition, donors like the United States should pitch in by supporting the United Nations' regional response plan for Syria.

If the situation in Turkey is serious, then conditions within Syria are truly dire. Our team found that the current cross-border aid operations are clearly inadequate. While some assistance has reached Syrians in a few miserable spontaneous camps near the Turkish border, aid becomes more meager and patchy the farther one gets into Syrian territory. Clean water is urgently needed (to prevent the disease and dehydration that summer will bring), as well as food, medicine, and equipment for the few doctors and nurses who remain.

In the camps and villages that our team visited, we were struck by the resentment expressed by Syrian aid workers -- all of them worldly and well-educated -- against the international community. They complained that Western donors have been aloof and excessively cautious when it comes to engaging Syrian groups, to the detriment of people in need.

Some of these Syrians may not know the true extent of the aid being delivered: food from the United States, for example, is delivered in unmarked boxes for security reasons. The fact remains, however, that local networks and organizations deep inside Syria are not being used effectively. These groups can reach civilians trapped on the front lines -- from Aleppo to Homs and Damascus -- but Western donors are not taking advantage of their unparalleled access.

There are good reasons to be cautious about funding Syrian organizations -- especially given the challenges of monitoring where aid is going and who is receiving it. But donors' reluctance to engage is excessive given the acute needs and everyday desperation of Syrian civilians. Refugees International believes that responsible Syrian organizations should have the opportunity to deliver international assistance.

This is our chance not only to get lifesaving aid into Syria, but also to build bridges with Syria's vital civil society. If the U.S. and Europe develop strong ties with Syrian aid groups now, then they will have willing, capable partners after the Assad regime falls. But the opposite is also true: If the West ignores Syrians in their time of need, then the resulting mistrust and antagonism will be tough to overcome. The choice is ours to make.