No escape for civilians in Syria

The number of Syrians able to flee violence in their country has dropped dramatically.

UNHCR has registered only 18,453 Syrian refugees in October [EPA]

From the capture of Mosul by ISIL to the siege of Kobani, the political and media focus on what used to be called the Syrian civil war has changed. The battlefield has become more complex as the images have become ever more brutal.

Yet one thing has not become more complex: the human suffering on the part of millions of Syrians fleeing their homes in fear of their lives, or stuck in them desperately trying to survive. It is vital that the new focus in the west on military options does not come at the expense of two humanitarian tragedies – one, inside Syria, continuing, and another, in the neighbouring countries, in the making.

Inside Syria, fighting between the government of Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces is intensifying, exacerbating the dire humanitarian conditions already endured by its traumatised population. Relentless violence and insecurity hinder access to half of the 11 million people desperately in need of aid. The number trapped in besieged areas – a quarter of a million people in Damascene suburbs and Aleppo governorate – remains the same. As the UN Secretary-General put it last month, “ordinary people are denied the basics required for their survival, food, healthcare, clean water… when assistance is available a short drive away”.

In June, we called on members of the UN Security Council and key Middle Eastern states to appoint senior diplomats and politicians as humanitarian envoys, focused solely on securing help for those in need. Such top-level commitment is even more urgently necessary today than it was five months ago.

Syrian families face food crisis

The second, emerging tragedy is the increasing inability of Syria’s neighbours to maintain the levels of hospitality they have extended to those fleeing the conflict over the past three and a half years. Since fighting broke out, the one escape route open to Syria’s terrified (and typically multiply displaced) civilians has been across its borders and into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or Iraq. Together, these states have taken in more than three million Syrian refugees. Their governments have provided assistance to the most vulnerable and to the communities who host them, and have supported the efforts of NGOs to deliver vital services to those affected by the conflict. Their contribution makes them by some measures the biggest humanitarian donors to relief efforts in the region.

But these four countries’ economies, basic services and infrastructure can no longer cope. Syrian refugees now constitute a third of Lebanon’s population. Jordan, one of the most water-starved nations on the planet, hosts more than 600,000 registered refugees, proportionally equivalent to the United States absorbing the population of the United Kingdom. The two countries have the highest per capita ratios of refugees worldwide, and their populations, along with those of Turkey and Iraq, are struggling to bear the growing burden – from overcrowding in schools and hospitals and spiralling living costs to stretched social fabric.

Consequently, the four countries are taking measures to control the flow of refugees, targeting help on the most vulnerable. In 2013, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, registered an average of 150,000 new Syrian refugees every month in the Levant. This year, the monthly average has dropped to 78,000, and in October – despite the increasing violence in Syria – the agency registered just 18,453. Thousands of traumatised civilians are now trapped on or near the country’s borders: Fighting prevents their return home, or they have no homes to return to. Five months of heavy rain, snow and sub-zero temperatures lie ahead.

This dangerous scenario is the result of a collective international failure to mobilise sufficient support for those countries whose proximity to Syria fates them to be beacons of hope for those desperate to get out. There are a number of steps that urgently need to be taken. Donors should work with Syria’s neighbours to establish safe border crossing mechanisms for all those wishing to do so, regardless of their age, ethnicity, or political background. UNHCR’s 2014 appeal for Syrian refugees – still only half-funded – must be supported.

Syria’s neighbours should receive the direct financial assistance they urgently require to plug the widening gaps in their basic services, repair their buckling infrastructure and create income-generating opportunities, to the benefit of both refugees and the communities that host them. Even if the conflict in Syria ended tomorrow it would take decades to rebuild the country; longer-term developmental support – allowing Syria’s neighbours to rebuild and fortify their shaken economic and social infrastructure – will therefore be key.

There is also another, symbolic but important, way in which those outside the Middle East can shoulder a fairer share of the burden. Less than two percent of the millions of Syrians sheltering in neighbouring countries are being offered resettlement outside the region. No state – with the exception of Germany – has allowed more than a token few to receive protection within its borders: The 18,453 registered by UNHCR last month is more than double the number the rest of the world has taken in through the agency’s programmes since the Syrian conflict began. This constitutes a depressing collapse of international humanitarian solidarity, and can only lead to further destabilisation and misery in the region and beyond. UNHCR has set itself the target of securing the resettlement of 130,000 of the most vulnerable refugees by 2016. That is a beginning, and the world’s wealthier countries should work to achieve it.

As long as the violence inside Syria rages on and the humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, those inside the country will keep trying to get out. The responsibility to shelter those fleeing lies with the whole world. Meeting it grows daily more urgent.

David Miliband is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and was UK Foreign Secretary 2007-2010.