Fleeing to Live: Syrian Refugees in the OSCE Region
Testimony of Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary of State
Department of State
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission)
June 13, 2013
Good afternoon, Chairman Cardin, Chairman Smith, and Members of the Helsinki Commission. Thank you for holding this hearing today on the Syrian refugee crisis and its impact on countries near Syria, many of which are members or partners of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Thank you all for your attention to this crisis. I understand that Chairman Cardin traveled to the region in March to see this complex refugee crisis first-hand. Last March, before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, you stated that our country’s emergency assistance to victims of the Syria crisis is an essential contribution to regional stability, and we agree wholeheartedly.
As you have requested, my testimony today provides an update on the efforts that our Government, governments in the region, and the organizations and donors that make up the international community are making in response to one of the largest refugee crises seen in decades. My testimony highlights several important trends and concerns and gives an overview of the U.S. Government’s response to the flow of Syrian refugees to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt.
Although the hearing today focuses on the flow of refugees from Syria to neighboring countries, I would be remiss if I did not begin by offering a few words about the horrific situation inside Syria. As you know, the State Department Bureau that I lead, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, works in close coordination with our colleagues at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Together we are focused on supporting the people of Syria by working with partner organizations that are conducting difficult and dangerous humanitarian assistance efforts inside Syria’s borders.
Peaceful protests in March 2011 evolved into a brutal regime committing shocking abuses against its own citizens and has since further evolved into the most complex humanitarian crisis in the world today.
According to the UN, more than 80,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict. Civilian installations, including hospitals, school, and water and sanitation infrastructure, have been indiscriminately targeted. Countless homes have been damaged or destroyed. Ordinary people live in constant fear of dying in their homes from a mortar attack, being raped by shabbiha thugs, or risking the loss of everything they hold dear by fleeing to safety in other areas of Syria or even across international borders. In April 2012, about one million people were in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Today, that estimate is 6.8 million, and the number continues to climb.
The devastation wrought by the conflict is destroying much of the country. While many have fled as a direct result of conflict, there is a disturbing new trend – many Syrians are fleeing to neighboring countries in order to reach medical care, clean water, and proper shelter. Over half of all public hospitals in Syria have been affected by the crisis; more than one-third are no longer functioning. Water pumping has decreased by 20 percent in Damascus and as much as 90 percent in Deir az-Zor in eastern Syria. Interrupted vaccination campaigns have increased the risk of infectious disease outbreaks. So Syrians who manage to survive barbaric violence get little help as they struggle with their daily lives.
In response, last Friday the United Nations released the largest combined humanitarian appeal in its history, calling for $4.4 billion, an additional $3 billion more than originally requested, through the end of 2013 to provide food, water, medical care, and shelter to Syrians in need of help living inside Syria, as well as those in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. For the first time, the Governments of Jordan and Lebanon have released parallel requests for assistance in conjunction with the UN appeals to help manage the burden of hosting so many refugees while providing services to their own citizens.
U.S. Government Response
The United States responded quickly to the Syria crisis by providing humanitarian aid. To date, we have provided nearly $515 million in humanitarian aid through UN agencies and international and local non-governmental organizations to assist those affected and we anticipate being able to make additional contributions in the coming days. Those U.S. contributions to date include nearly $260 million to protect and assist refugees.
The Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration is focused on four main issues in response to the crisis: (1) advocating for expanded access for humanitarian organizations inside Syria and for neighboring countries to maintain open borders; (2) focusing attention on the needs of women and children, particularly those who are victims of gender-based violence and severe trauma; (3) encouraging robust support to communities hosting refugees; and (4) engaging in contingency planning with host governments and humanitarian agencies to improve preparedness for worst-case scenarios. I would like to discuss each of these.
Advocating for Expanded Humanitarian Access
Humanitarian personnel inside Syria, particularly the volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), risk their lives daily to bring aid to those in need in 14 of Syria’s governorates. Every day UN agencies strive to deliver aid in an inhospitable environment and have mounted dozens of convoys of food, medical supplies, and blankets to travel outside Damascus. These convoys move across conflict lines, engaging in difficult and dangerous negotiations with regime actors and multiple armed groups in order to deliver supplies to vulnerable populations. John Ging, Director of Operations for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, accompanied a UN interagency aid convoy in April, and reported that the group had to cross through 54 regime and opposition checkpoints on the way from Damascus to Aleppo on a journey that took 25 hours. Meanwhile, the regime delays approving visa applications for additional emergency personnel. Recently, the Syrian government approved a list of more than 100 local non-governmental organizations to take part in the humanitarian response, only to rescind the approval for many organizations weeks later.
These kinds of obstacles are not just a hassle – they are a matter of life and death in a country where at least 26 UN and SARC aid workers have been killed to date. The United States commends the heroic actions of humanitarian workers who take on the challenges of serving those in need.
But despite these efforts, it is not enough. Not nearly enough. We must press all parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian organizations to scale up assistance using all possible means and through all available channels. There are areas of Syria near international borders that simply cannot be reached from inside the country. UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations must be allowed to transport aid across borders from neighboring countries.
One of our top priorities for the region is for neighboring countries to keep their borders open to all those seeking to flee the conflict. We urge these governments, in particular Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, to offer refuge to all those in need and to uphold the international humanitarian principle of non-refoulement, which means that refugees will not be pushed back across borders. The United States recognizes the legitimate security concerns that these neighbors face as a result of this crisis; however, we must find ways to ensure security that will still allow vulnerable refugees, particularly women, children, the elderly, and the injured, to seek protection outside of Syria.
Focusing on Women and Children
Women and children make up 75 percent of the Syrian refugee population. Their specific protection and assistance needs must continue to be a top priority. Non-governmental organizations working with Syrian children in the region have cautioned about the danger of a “lost generation,” as hundreds of thousands of Syrian youth have suffered injury and trauma by experiencing or witnessing violence first-hand. These young people need a tremendous amount of support in the form of safe shelter, education, and specialized counseling and interactive therapeutic activities.
I have traveled to the region four times in my tenure as Assistant Secretary, and each time I have met with Syrian women and children who have graciously shared their stories. Seeing the smiles on children’s faces as they play in a safe environment with trained volunteers and staff is a sign that not all hope is lost for these kids. We are proud to support the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other partners who are working closely with host governments to enroll Syrian refugee students in local public schools so they can reestablish some semblance of normalcy in their daily lives. We are also supporting partners to provide remedial courses and alternative education programs for those who are not ready to return to a mainstream school environment.
Somehow, Syrian refugee women persevere in the face of overwhelming adversity. These survivors deserve to feel safe in their new environments; tragically, aid workers have reported an increase in incidents of sexual violence and exploitation, domestic violence, survival sex, and early marriage among Syrian refugee women and girls. We are very concerned by these reports, and are working closely with partner organizations to strengthen protection for vulnerable refugees, particularly women and girls. Our funding helps support programs to prevent and respond to gender-based violence (GBV), including by providing assistance to survivors and working with communities to prevent this type of violence. We have urged partner organizations to incorporate education about gender-based violence and support to survivors in their programs, including in health, education, economic, and water, sanitation and hygiene programs. We will continue to advocate for and fund programs to protect the most vulnerable.
Ensuring Support to Host Communities
What began as a trickle of refugees fleeing Syria to neighboring countries became a steady stream in 2012, bursting into a deluge in 2013. Since January, the number of refugees fleeing Syria to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt has more than tripled. Also fleeing are more than 57,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria who have fled to Lebanon. At least 80,000 Iraqi refugees who had escaped terrible violence in Iraq to Syria over the past decade have made the difficult choice to return home, even as Iraq faces its own groundswell of violence.
The countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt are hosting over 1.6 million refugees from Syria. We appreciate and commend the hospitality demonstrated by communities that have welcomed Syrian families into their homes, schools, clinics and societies for over two years. The increase in refugee arrivals since the beginning of January has inflamed tensions in some areas and placed economic, political, and security pressure on host governments. The strain on resources is acute. Lebanon is hosting more than 500,000 refugees, while Jordan and Turkey are quickly approaching that number as well. These countries are struggling to maintain public services for their own citizens as well as vulnerable refugees.
We are working closely with our interagency colleagues to implement a whole-of-government approach to boost support to host governments and communities in the region. Meeting regional needs depends not just on robust humanitarian assistance, but on bilateral economic and development aid to help maintain and expand public services for all populations – refugees and host communities alike. Together with our USAID colleagues, we are identifying ways to provide assistance in areas most affected by the influx of Syrian refugees and to identify additional funding to meet new needs. This includes programs for health and water, economic opportunity and education, as well as capacity-building for affected municipalities. We have also urged the United Nations to allow local populations to benefit from assistance programs in order to mitigate tensions. We must take a holistic view – if we want and expect these communities to continue hosting Syrian refugees over the long-term, we must help address the needs of the most vulnerable regardless of nationality.
Engaging in Robust Contingency Planning
As the situation inside Syria deteriorates, it is the collective responsibility of the international community to plan for contingencies. The United States works closely with UN humanitarian agencies and host governments to engage in frank discussions about the possibility of massive outflows of additional refugees sparked by a major uptick in violence or other “wild card” scenarios, such as large numbers of civilians harmed by chemical weapons. We are also concerned about the potential scenarios that could result in minorities, such as Christians, Shia, Druze, and Alawis, being targeted and fleeing in large numbers. It is critical that we prepare now for what may come in the future.
How do we prepare for the worst? We are pursuing a multi-pronged approach: First, we are consulting with key aid agencies. In our discussions with organizations we fund, such as UNHCR, we ask them to identify how they are reaching the most vulnerable, meeting the needs of the majority of refugees who live outside of camps, and incorporating more robust support for over-burdened communities that host refugees. We discuss their respective contingency plans and ensure that there are sufficient stocks on hand to support increased operations as needed. In the revised appeals launched on June 7, the United Nations has spotlighted the need to pre-position essential supplies in close proximity to border areas. Planning ahead is critical to ensuring a rapid response to changing conditions.
Second, the Bureau of Population, Refugees & Migration and USAID have been working with the Department’s Office of Foreign Assistance and the President’s budget office to ensure that we are spending our aid dollars wisely and will continue to provide Congress with the information needed to support the Administration’s budget requests for humanitarian programs. We liaise with international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and the Syrian Opposition Council’s Assistance Coordination Unit to evaluate how partners are performing and the extent to which there are gaps in the international humanitarian response. We use this data to make course-corrections as needed.
The U.S. government is committed to continuing to help Syria’s neighbors as they cope with flows of refugees. It is critical to political stability in the Middle East region that we demonstrate that they are not in this alone.
Thank you, and I look forward to your questions.