More Syrians Take Desperate Measures as Crisis Grinds On

By Daryl Grisgraber
Shelters for Syrians in Iraq's Domiz refugee camp.

Two and a half years after the humanitarian crisis began, more Syrians than ever are displaced, either inside the country or in neighboring states. In the past six months, in particular, we’ve witnessed more and more desperate attempts by civilians to find safety beyond Syria’s borders.

Thousands of Syrians who sought refuge in Egypt are now attempting to flee growing hostility there by boarding unsafe boats bound for Europe. Many paid for the trip with their lives. Thousands more have reached Bulgaria but are prevented from going farther into Europe. They live in harsh conditions in detention centers, unsure of when or how they might leave.

In August, 50,000 mostly Kurdish Syrians poured over the border into northern Iraq to escape fighting in Syria’s northeast. Several weeks ago, some Syrians even began to show up in Maldives as part of what they hoped would be a convoluted route to Europe. As the situation inside Syria deteriorates, we will continue to see refugees in places we might not expect – an indication of the lengths people will go for safety.

Adding to the complexity, winter is approaching, and with it the challenges of helping Syrian refugees through the season. Like last year, Syrians in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are struggling to stay healthy as the weather gets colder.

This week, I will leave for northern Iraq and Jordan to see how people are faring, as part of a team from Refugees International. In northern Iraq, the Syrian population has increased by about a third since August, but financial support for aid programs has not kept pace with arrivals. Roughly 200,000 refugees there face a long, cold winter. Everyone needs shelter, fuel, warm clothes, and medical care for the upcoming months. The Kurdistan Regional Government and the United Nations are working hard to address basic needs and provide for everyone, but resources remain scarce. Jordan’s enormous Syrian population faces similar challenges.

As 2013 closes, the region is facing growing needs and another funding shortfall. But 2013 has also seen some positive actions. One of those can be found in Turkey, which has continued to handle a growing influx of Syrian refugees practically on its own. The United States has also contributed more than $1 billion to relief efforts, and a number of new countries have begun taking in Syrians on a humanitarian basis.

Discussion of resettlement is also more common now, in recognition of the dire circumstances and the long life of this crisis, and the needs of refugees outside of camps are getting more attention. And in spite of a series of failed attempts, governments and UN officials all over the world continue to work toward a political resolution to the Syrian conflict. These developments, while modest, demonstrate that a humanitarian response this complex really can be improved. And that’s what RI aims to do.

As RI continues to evaluate the Syrian humanitarian crisis, this latest mission will shed light on what is happening in northern Iraq and Jordan. It will make recommendations to humanitarian agencies as they revise their plans for supporting Syrians with an eye toward 2014. And finally, it will reinforce RI’s advocacy on policies and practices that will keep Syrians safe.