11/09/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Syria's Humanitarian Crisis Has Only Just Begun

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
SUBOTICA, SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 09: Migrants make their way through Serbia, near the town of Subotica, towards a break in the steel and razor fence erected on the border by the Hungarian government on September 9, 2015 in Subotica, Serbia. Thousands of migrants have funnelled their way across country to the small gap in the steel fence unopposed by the authorities. Since the beginning of 2015 the number of migrants using the so-called 'Balkans route' has exploded with migrants arriving in Greece from Turkey and then travelling on through Macedonia and Serbia before entering the EU via Hungary. The number of people leaving their homes in war torn countries such as Syria, marks the largest migration of people since World War II. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The washed up lifeless body of a 3-year old Syrian boy has become etched in human history and memory as the symbol of one of the worst tragedies since the Second World War -- the mass flight of Syrians escaping war and violence, only to meet an avoidable death. The war in Syria has repeatedly been called a crisis, which it is: a crisis of international law, a crisis of the international community, and most of all a crisis of humanity. It is a tragedy and a despicable failure of the human race.

It is a crisis of humanity when governments can push away people who have fled persecution, and have spent an unknown number of days at sea or crossing borders and crawling through fences, in the hope of sanctuary. It is worse when armed police push them away by force, detain them barbarically, or attack them though they are unarmed, carrying frail, hungry and wailing children. Labelling them migrants, instead of asylum seekers, is adding insult to injury, and a poor ploy by governments to lessen, if not all together avoid, their international obligation. However, it was not this gruesomeness that stood out for me in a discussion amongst colleagues. Someone asked: Why, why is there an influx of people fleeing Syria now more than in the last few years of the war?

"In refugee camps in countries surrounding Syria, food rations have been cut, health aid is dwindling, and so are other humanitarian services."

Seeking sanctuary

The quest for a better life is often the European chorus, but the answer to the question above lies in what I would call the vicious bombs-to-bread displacement continuum.

First, Syrians are forced to flee the indiscriminate bombs, having barely survived the destruction of their homes, lives and livelihoods. Then, they are forced to keep moving in search of food, shelter, and other basic necessities, which if they are lucky they may find at a refugee camp. This means that they tried to stay as long as they could because they already had the "better life" in Syria. Therefore, the tsunami of desperately fleeing Syrians is not a sign for European governments to be armed and ready to protect themselves, but a sign of the severity of the humanitarian and human rights tragedy within Syria, and a plea for sanctuary that the international community has an obligation to give. But given the aridity of aid, humanitarian assistance itself is under stress.


A little under USD3 billion is the humanitarian aid requested for Syria, according to a recent report in The Guardian. Only a paltry USD0.9 billion has been raised. And with the number of Syrian refugees increasing by the day, that barely scratches the bottom of the UN's humanitarian barrel. In fact, UN agencies responsible for humanitarian assistance -- UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP and others -- have embarrassingly announced that they are broke. In refugee camps in countries surrounding Syria, food rations have been cut, health aid is dwindling, and so are other humanitarian services. And to think that just a month ago, a Greek bailout package was agreed at over USD94 billion. It was more than USD11 trillion when the US government bailed out banks in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. With a global economy still on financial crutches, it would be safe to assume that that this bailout may only be the tip of an approaching fiscal iceberg.

"These are the more than 7.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) trapped inside Syria - almost twice the number of refugees."

So, when the international community can overstretch their coffers to save banks, why is it shocked and reluctant when carpet-bombed Syrians fleeing for their lives come seeking sanctuary? Thus far, according to a recent statement made by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, of the 300,000 who tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea seeking asylum, more than 2600 did not survive. In fact, the mass influx of Syrians is not even in Europe. The over 4 million Syrian refugees are spread across Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and other neighbouring countries.

syrians in syria

What of the exodus within?

However, there is an even bigger humanitarian crisis brewing within Syria -- that of the startling number of displaced Syrians still living within the country who have not made the banner headlines. These are the more than 7.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) trapped inside Syria - almost twice the number of refugees. These are the people no one wants to talk about because they are not bursting through any country's borders, or dying on another's beach.

IDPs do not share the same recognition or international rights as asylum seekers and refugees. They are not covered by the 1951 Refugee Convention though they face similar, if not worse, predicaments. The Convention and its provisions can only be applied only "to any person who owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality... is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country... or owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."

IDPs do not fit the parameters set in the Convention as they are displaced within their country of nationality. However, they have been recognised as a matter of international concern since the end of the 20th century with the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Over 20 countries have internalised these principles, in part or whole, through domestic laws. But in an ongoing conflict, especially one that involves the State, such laws mean nothing. And not having left the conflict zone, IDPs are harder to reach and help. If humanitarian aid is insufficient for refugees, there may soon be none for IDPs as fewer and fewer humanitarian organisations can access those displaced within.

Farah Ismaiel, my friend who lives in Latakia, Syria, and works at a local NGO, says the plight of IDPs in her city is dire. Hundreds of thousands have poured into the city in the last three years from Aleppo, Idleb, Alraqqa and Homs. "The ones who are better off can manage to rent apartments in the city, and at times up to five families live in one apartment. Those less fortunate end up in schools or bigger spaces such the Sport City that once housed tennis and basketball courts and swimming pools. Now there are over 100,000 people inside Sport City. Some here have been living in tents for the last three years," says Farah.

UNHCR and other organisations are providing whatever humanitarian assistance possible, but for how much longer? The UN says they will run out of money by the end of the year, the most crucial phase given the onset of winter. Imagine the 100,000 IDPs out in the cold, with no heat, no electricity and no warm clothes and blankets. Now multiply that image by 70 -- that is the number of vulnerable IDPs in Syria.

Will the displaced be left behind?

Since the Second World War, the nature of forced displacement has continually changed, and become more severe, dynamic and complex to respond to. But the international community's response to forced displacement has remained reactionary at best, with responses such as emergency appeals and requests for donations. There have been calls from the UN itself to change this response mechanism. The reactionary approach will not work and the international community must get serious about addressing some of the more complex issues in resolving conflicts, including displacement. This also includes being effectively prepared and proactive to face these challenges as the world enters the age of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

"Those affected by displacement are people, not a problem or a crisis. It is their peace and security, as much as it is ours that is at risk."

Meetings have been taking place throughout 2015 on the many facets of the SDGs. Forced displacement, especially internal displacement, has entered the SDG discourse expanding the existing understanding of the vulnerable and marginalised . They are recognised as a group of people who need to be "empowered," in paragraph 23 of the Draft Outcome Document of the United Nations Summit for the Adoption of the Post-2015 Development Agenda (A/69/L.85). Having been left out in the MDG-era, being mentioned, albeit once, in a proposed global development agenda is surely a step in the right direction. But is it enough?

Providing a one-stop development solution may not be the long-term response to the development needs of refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs. Some of the relevant well-meaning goals must translate to displacement-specific indicators. In its draft form, the 169 targets falling within the 17 goals have room for indicators that focus on displacement needs. Only then will development programmes and projects be conceptualised and budgeted to achieve them nationally.

Those affected by displacement are people, not a problem or a crisis. It is their peace and security, as much as it is ours that is at risk. So instead of thinking of refugees and IDPs as a crisis that needs a solution, let us work with and for them in making development optimally sustainable, and in turn leave no one behind.

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