The situation in Syria is only going to get worse ... and here's why

I vividly recall my conversations with
refugees when the Syria conflict was just
one year old. There were still fewer than a
million people who had fled for safety to
neighboring countries, I made my first
visit to Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, where
thousands were still trying to maintain a
semblance of normality in threadbare
campsites.
Many were visibly traumatized. Smiles of
welcome quickly faded to frowns of
troubled reflection. Eyes turned wet when
the conversation deepened. The violence
had taken away their homes, and killed or
maimed their friends and family. But most
were confident that the war would end
soon, and that their life in a tent was only
temporary.
Today the conflict is about to enter its fifth
year. There are 3.8 million refugees, and
the mood has turned much darker. Most
see no prospect of return home in the near
future, and have little opportunity to
restart their lives in exile. Inside Syria, the
people I speak to are barely able to see
beyond surviving the next day.
As humanitarians dedicated to helping
Syria’s survivors heal, we share their
growing despair. We have registered their
traumas one by one, as the numbers
swelled into the millions. We have
negotiated and worked on their behalf for
land, for shelter, for medical care, for food
and schools, and watched as even the
basics become ever more difficult to find.
We have cried with them as their children
died of severe illnesses for lack of
treatment.
All the while, we have kept hope for the
future. But today, that hope is getting
harder to maintain every day. Here is why:
1. No political solution to the conflict in
sight…
The only real solution to Syria’s
humanitarian catastrophe is an end to the
conflict. Unfortunately, that end looks a
long way off. The fighting inside Syria
continues to erupt and shift, and despite
continued attempts at peace – including
talks in Moscow and a ceasefire proposal
for Aleppo – the warring parties, and the
countries with influence to stop them,
remain divided. Making matters worse, the
fighting is feeding into other regional
conflicts. In a recent speech to the UN
General Assembly, António Guterres, the
High Commissioner for Refugees, said with
some exasperation: “in the absence of the
political will and foresight required for
effective prevention, all that the
international community can do is react to
new crises, lament the suffering they
cause, and try to come up with higher and
higher amounts of money required to cover
the resulting cost… no one is winning the
wars of today; everyone is losing.”
2. … and the suffering inside Syria is
getting worse
Over 12 million people inside Syria are in
need of aid to stay alive. That’s half the
country. Almost 8 million have been forced
from their homes, forced to share rooms
with other families, or camping in
unheated, abandoned buildings, praying
the fighting won’t spread. An estimated 4.8
million Syrians are in areas that are hard
to reach including 241,000 who are trapped
in besieged areas, cut off from
humanitarian aid and medical supplies
and unable to escape. Millions of children
are suffering from trauma and ill health. A
quarter of Syria’s schools have been
damaged, destroyed or taken over for
shelter. More than half of Syria’s hospitals
are destroyed, or so damaged they are
unable to function. Parts of the country
endure relentless bombing and extremist
groups commit unthinkable atrocities.
3. No place to escape as borders to
neighboring countries close…
Facing growing security concerns and
feeling overwhelmed by the numbers,
Syria’s neighbors are taking measures to
stem the tide of refugees. Lebanon, Jordan
and Iraq have imposed stricter restrictions
on entry, and the Turkish border is
‘managed’, with a heavy screening system
established to ensure entry is for purely
humanitarian cases. These developments
make it increasingly difficult for those
without connections or onward visas to
escape, and we have witnessed a marked
decline in the number of new refugees. I
met one woman in Homs living in a
container. Her husband had recently
escaped to Lebanon, but she stayed behind
with her children because she heard about
the new restrictions. “If I go to the border,”
she told me, “they won’t let me in.”
4. … and animosity is rising toward
refugees in host communities.
For those that do make it through, they are
discovering that the host communities
have reached their limits. Gone are the
days when residents systematically opened
their homes to refugees and shared their
resources. There are simply not enough
shelters to go around since the majority-
85% - of refugees live in local communities
– outside camps. 25% of Lebanon’s
population are Syrian or Palestinian
refugees: an extraordinary figure,
unmatched anywhere else on earth. People
there are angry at what they see as see
refugees taking work for cut-throat wages,
and pushing nationals out of jobs. Twisted
media reports link refugees to terrorists.
Unless we do more to help refugee-hosting
communities bolster their economies and
services, this animosity is likely to get
worse. Lebanon, Jordan and other host
countries desperately need upgrades to
local infrastructure, and support for their
health, education and water systems. Our
December 2014 appeal included $2bn for
these communities. We are concerned,
however, that the money will fall far short.
This would have terrible consequences for
refugees, and the stability of host
countries.5. Hostility is also growing in Europe…
As Syria’s neighbours become
overwhelmed, other countries need to
share more of the burden. Yet in many
European countries there is growing
hostility to refugees, and anti-immigration
movements are growing stronger. Germany
and Sweden currently receive half of all
Syrian refugees in the EU, and local
opposition is growing. After the Paris
massacres, there is also a danger that
Europeans view Muslims as a threat, and
the trend is towards less admission, not
more. We are seeing a rising number of
‘pushbacks’ at the borders, which are a
violation of international law.
During a UNHCR pledging conference in
December, governments agreed to resettle
100,000 Syrian refugees, but that still
leaves over 200,000 in precarious need. At
least 10% of Syrian refugees living in
neighboring countries are particularly
vulnerable - including victims of rape and
torture, lone women and children, and
those with severe medical problems. But
we worry that in this climate our appeals
to Europe’s leaders for more burden
sharing are falling on deaf ears.
6. …and rescue at sea is being phased out
For lack of legal routes to Europe,
thousands of Syrian refugees are taking to
the seas. Many pay their life savings to
unscrupulous smugglers who push them
on dangerous land and sea routes. Last
year, nearly 220,000 refugees fled in
unsafe boats across the Mediterranean,
three times the previous record during the
Libyan civil war of 2011. Thousands never
made it, drowning in terror when their
overstuffed, unseaworthy boat capsized.
Those who did make it tell harrowing
stories of long treks at night, corrupt
officials and abuse. Yet Europe’s response
to this growing tragedy is not to step up its
rescue efforts, but to phase them out.
Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation, which
rescued over 170,000 people at sea, is
ending – and there are no plans to replace
it. Many people could die as a result. On
February 11, at least 300 African migrants
and refugees drowned on four small boats.
Some froze to death after being rescued.
The rest were swallowed by waves.7. Funding for humanitarian
organizations is flagging…
There are more Syrians under UNHCR’s
care today than any other nationality on
earth. Refugees and displaced Syrians have
exhausted their savings, and many are
resorting to begging, child labour, or even
prostitution to make ends meet. They
desperately need help. Yet by the end of
2014, only 54% of the money needed to
assist refugees outside Syria had been
raised. Inside Syria, humanitarian
organizations received even less.
In December, the UN launched the largest
humanitarian appeal ever, for $8.4 billion.
Fully funded, this would allow aid workers
to cover basic needs for refugees, while
also helping host communities to bolster
their infrastructure and services. There
will be a funding conference on 31 March
in Kuwait, and we hope for significant
pledges there - including from Gulf
donors. Given limited humanitarian
budgets, we hope more development
funding can go to refugee hosting
countries, even if they would not normally
qualify. Inside Syria, humanitarian aid
workers struggle to reach people in need
in an operating environment that can be
extremely dangerous and hostile. The
request for almost $3 billion this year for
humanitarian aid must be funded or else
hundreds of thousands of Syrians in
desperate need will receive no help at all.
8. ... and more than 50% of Syrian
refugee children are out of school
More than 2.3 million children inside Syria
are not in school. Amongst refugees, the
numbers are even worse: with nearly half
of children not receiving an education. In
Lebanon, there are more school age
refugees than the entire intake of the
country’s public schools, and only 20% of
Syrian children are enrolled. Similar
numbers can be seen amongst refugees
living outside of camps in Turkey and
Jordan.
When children are out of school, they can
be exploited in the labor market, forced
into early marriage or, inside Syria, be
recruited as fighters. A lack of an
education also makes it more difficult for
them to earn a living as they grow older,
and eventually go home and rebuild. Aid
agencies and governments recently
launched an initiative called ‘No Lost
Generation’ to bring more kids to the
classroom. This has had some results, but
the challenge remains immense.9. There are rising numbers of struggling
refugee women…
Almost 150,000 Syrian women in exile
today head their households alone: one in
four refugee families in Egypt, Lebanon
and Jordan. Many of their men are dead or
missing, or otherwise lost to Syria’s
conflict. But they live in a society which
treats single women with scorn, unable to
find jobs, and harassed at every turn: by
taxi drivers, bus drivers, and landlords, by
men in shops, at the market, or on public
transport, even by fellow refugees at aid
distributions. As more men die in the war,
the number of women coping alone is
growing – and unless societies undergo a
shift of attitude towards them, the misery
facing refugee families will increase.
10. …and a generation of stateless
children is being created.
Compounding the crisis of single women,
thousands of children are being denied a
nationality – condemned to a life of
statelessness, without access to official
employment, education, or healthcare. In
some countries, as many as three in four
children cannot acquire a birth certificate,
making it difficult to prove their link to
Syria. Many face additional risks of
statelessness because they are born to
single mothers but Syrian law does not
recognize a mother’s right to pass her
nationality to her children. Over 100,000
Syrian refugee children have been born
since 2011 and many may become stateless.
This is a ticking time bomb that will have
severe consequences if not properly dealt
with.
It is deeply disturbing that those with
influence are unable or unwilling to put
an end to the evil of the Syrian war. And it
is worrying to witness the growing
indifference to the plight of the victims.
But there are hopeful signs of will and
humanity by generous donors and engaged
individuals wanting to help, along with
movements of people who cry out for
peace.