The growing Syrian refugee crisis
Wednesday the Aspen Institute Levant Program discussed policies for the growing Syrian refugee crisis. The second group of panelists consisted of Assistant Secretary Anne Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (US Department of State); François Stamm, Deputy Head of the North America Delegation, International Committee of the Red Cross and Oubai Shahbandar, Senior Consultant to the Syrian Coalition. Toni Verstandig, Chair of the Middle East Programs at the Aspen Institute, moderated.
Anne Richard‘s primary concern is the 3.3 million Syrians in hard-to-reach areas of the country. The international community has the potential to help immensely, but does not have access to those most in need. The good news is that the US has been a leading donor in response to the Syrian crisis. It has donated $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid to the UNHCR and the Red Cross.
The bad news is that the Syrian conflict has no end in sight. Richard is particularly worried about the entire generation of Syrians – children and youth – who are out of school and traumatized. The existing humanitarian aid cannot provide for everything they need. The international community has been successful in saving lives. However, there is a difference between surviving and thriving. This is the biggest struggle humanitarian agencies now face. What is particularly demoralizing is the fact that there hasn’t been a widespread response from the American public to help provide assistance and raise money. Unlike the Haiti earthquake or the Philippines typhoon, the Syrian crisis has not pulled at the heartstrings of the American public. Secretary Richard speculates this is because most Americans view the Syrian conflict as a messy situation and are generally fatigued from constant war in the Middle East.
The biggest concerns among the Syria’s neighbors are Jordan and Lebanon, which are straining from the influx of refugees. Lebanon has registered nearly a million refugees; every inhabitable area of the country now has refugees living in it. Jordan is now looking at water shortage issues. What is needed is not just to provide aid but also to help the poor in these countries and make sure their governments aren’t destabilized by the Syrian crisis. Concerning Syrian children and youth outside of school, Save the Children, UNICEF, World Visions and other aid agencies started a campaign called, “No Lost Generation.” Secretary of State Kerry is also spearheading a campaign that involves protecting women and girls in refugee camps. People should not be preyed upon and exploited in the places in which they are seeking refuge.
François Stamm focused on ICRC’s work in Syria. Its budget is over $100 million dollars with 200 permanent staff members located inside the country. This is very difficult and dangerous work, so these staff members work closely with the Arab Red Crescent. In addition to providing food and household parcels to about 3 million people, ICRC also focuses on water sanitation and water treatment.
There are two ways to distribute aid in Syria: from Turkey and into opposition-held territory or from Damascus and into regime-held territory. ICRC works from Damascus and attempts to cross into opposition-controlled territory when possible. Crossing checkpoints is dangerous because there is a risk of kidnapping. Because the opposition is so fragmented, it is not always possible to know who will be in control of a specific checkpoint. This makes delivering assistance in opposition-held territory very hard. ICRC staff does its best to adapt to this fluid, dangerous environment.
Providing medical care poses a particularly difficult challenge. On both sides of the conflict there is a notion that wounded fighters do not deserve medical treatment. Medical facilities have been targeted and doctors have been threatened or killed for treating the wrong patient. The health infrastructure in Syria is in shambles. As a result, many people who are dying cannot get adequate medical care.
The third challenge is access to detained people. There are allegations that thousands of individuals have been killed in Syrian prisons. The ICRC still does not have access to people detained in relation to the conflict. However, he hopes to have better news concerning this in the coming weeks.
Oubai Shahbandar reiterated the historic scale of destruction in Syria. He noted that it is important to consider not only reactive measures, but also preventive measures. The international community can only do so much. It is crucial to get the Assad regime to acquiesce to cross-border aid. It is the institutionalized policy of the Assad regime to prevent access and to accelerate bombardments and shelling. The Assad regime has caused this humanitarian crisis and has established an environment of forced starvation and inaccessibility to basic needs. While some aid has entered the country, negotiations with the Assad regime simply have not been enough. Agents of the regime have pilfered a lot of aid, and assistance has come under attack by regime-supported militia.