Foreign aid budgets and NGOs are overwhelmed by the massive Syrian refugee crisis, and it’s only getting worse as time goes on.
Italian Coast Guard officers and holiday-makers help migrants to get off a boat near Siracusa, Italy.
Over 900 migrants drowned in April in what may have been the deadliest incident ever for refugees attempting to arrive in Europe. Yet this tragedy reflects only a tiny percentage of the massive suffering caused by the Syrian refugee crisis, which has displaced millions and completely overwhelmed foreign aid budgets.
In mid-April, a boat overloaded with refugees capsized in the Mediterranean, north of Libya. The Italian coast guard only succeeded in rescuing a few dozen of the drowning victims. Though only a portion of the deceased had fled Syria, the disaster brought renewed attention to a humanitarian emergency on a scale so staggering it’s difficult to comprehend.
Based on April 14 figures provided by UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, there are 3,977,538 registered Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and North Africa, with an additional 11,319 awaiting registration. Over half of the refugees are women, and over 25 percent are under the age of 18.
Refugees have fled the country at great personal risk to seek asylum throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The largest concentrations of Syrian refugees are found in Turkey, followed by smaller numbers in Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere. By the end of August 2014, 6.5 million people had been displaced in Syria, while more than 3 million refugees had fled to countries such as Lebanon (1.14 million), Jordan (608,000) and Turkey (815,000) according to the UN.
Worldcrunch reported Friday on the growth of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon as displaced Palestinians, who originally fled to Syria, are forced to flee again. Officials at Ein el-Hilweh camp, the largest of Lebanon’s 12 camps, report that 10,000 refugees have sought shelter there since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Also on Friday, Nina Strochlic, a reporter and researcher for The Daily Beast, reported that Jordan’s Syrian refugees, many of whom formerly enjoyed a relatively comfortable existence in cities like Amman, are now being forced into squalid camps by falling aid budgets. For some, conditions have gotten so bad that they may be forced back to the ongoing chaos in Syria:
“Twenty-five-year-old Naha al Faouri has food, water, shelter, education for her five children, and, most importantly, peace of mind—all the things she lost in Syria. But these comforts don’t outweigh the misery of living in a refugee camp in the middle of the Jordanian desert. She sits on a flat mattress with her legs tucked under her red dress, black eyeliner traced into a point from the corners of her eyes, and tells me that she and her family probably will return to Syria before the heat of summer hits. …
The life she’d return to in Syria would be much different than it was before the war, when she and her husband owned a collection of farms and factories and built a comfortable existence. ‘We’re aware there won’t be schools, we’re aware we may not survive, that we might get killed,’ she says. ‘That’s why we’re reluctant, but it would be our last solution.”
Worldcrunch reported that as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees have been rescued at sea as of October 2014, according to Italian figures. Refugees pay smugglers to take them out of the Middle East, where they try to reach Europe. Italy is the preferred destination due to tougher treatment in Greece.
Regardless of where they land, the journey is dangerous:
“The traffickers often initially employ fast, small boats to elude Egyptian and other coast guard patrols along the North African coast. The passengers are then offloaded to larger boats for the final stages of the journey. The last boat is usually the least seaworthy, because it is on a one-way voyage and there is little incentive for smugglers to invest in upkeep.”
According to Voice of America, many refugees who arrive on Italian shores are incredibly young:
“Among the crowd of Syrian refugees in Catania station, it is the number of children that is striking. There are babies just a few weeks old. These Syrians have fled civil war — and they’ve just spent up to 20 days at sea in an old fishing boat.”
Syrian refugees tend to seek passage to Europe’s more prosperous countries, though that involves navigating a complex and hostile system:
“Although many Africans opt to remain in Italy and proceed with political asylum cases, the Syrians have other destinations in mind: Germany and Sweden, nations with job opportunities and generous social benefits. The Syrians have been instructed to not allow Italian officials to take their fingerprints, which in effect means they can travel on to Northern Europe. Once they are officially identified with fingerprints, they must apply in the country of arrival.”
Some Syrian refugees find new homes in Europe, while others end up as far away as Idaho. But providing asylum to refugees is expensive and controversial, and existing budgets can only accommodate a tiny fraction of their numbers. Norway’s Conservative Party strongly opposed a proposal to accept 10,000 more Syrian refugees. Prime Minister Erna Solberg, the nation’s Conservative leader, complained that housing just 1,000 refugees will cost the nation 1 billion Norwegian kroner ($134 million) in over five years.
Norway expects to increase its budget for aid to $134 million in 2015, but conservatives want that money sent to overseas refugee camps, which they argue is more cost-effective than granting asylum to displaced Syrians in their country.
Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that under $900 million dollars in aid has been provided globally, less than a quarter of the estimated $4.5 billion needed in 2015.
As the West debates how much aid to provide and where to send it, though, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seem poised to be forgotten by the world.