Senior Advisor for Government Relations and External Affairs
Washington, D.C. Office
UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Thursday June 13, 2013
At the hearing on
“Syria’s Humanitarian Crisis”
Written Statement before the:
Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Mr. Chairman and members of the Commission, I would like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to appear before you today to offer the perspectives and concerns of the UN Refugee Agency regarding the humanitarian situation of displaced Syrians. From June 2 to June 11, 2013, I traveled throughout Jordan and Lebanon where I witnessed the staggering human consequences of the Syrian conflict. My testimony today will focus on some of the protection and assistance challenges and will also highlight the impact on host communities that are generously hosting Syrian refugees and yet are reaching a breaking point.
UNHCR currently has three offices inside Syria and 13 in the four neighboring countries that have received the majority of Syrian refugees: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. We currently have over 2,000 staff working in the region. We lead and coordinate the response to the Syrian refugee situation in the host countries, working closely with host governments and with more than 100 UN and NGO partners. The two largest of these are the World Food Program, which supplies food rations and vouchers to the refugees, and UNICEF, which provides child protection services, education, and water and sanitation.
Inside Syria, UNHCR has been present since the early 1990s, initially to support the Iraqi and other refugees that Syria has generously hosted for many years. Since mid-2011, when the crisis took a distinctly violent turn and started producing significant internal displacement, we have also been assisting Syrians uprooted inside the country with relief items and shelter assistance. We provide help wherever we are able to access people in need with a minimum guarantee of security. Unlike in refugee situations, there is no single agency with a mandate to protect internally displaced persons. Our assistance to Syrians who have fled inside their own country has therefore been part of a collective UN and NGO response effort led by the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Changing tides during the first six months of 2013
UNHCR has seen a staggering increase in the numbers of refugees crossing into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt since the beginning of 2013. Civilians are crossing borders in record numbers because of increased fighting and as control of towns and villages have changed hands frequently. More and more civilians are crossing borders after having already been internally displaced; I learned on this trip that as the violence spreads some Syrian families are forced to relocate two or three times inside the country before finally crossing a border. Fleeing to neighboring countries is often a last minute decision, when lives are imminently at risk. As a consequence, refugees are fleeing with the bare minimum and have few resources at their disposal. It’s also important to note that three quarters of the refugees are women and children, and in Jordan alone, nearly one in five refugees is under the age of four. The children pay the hardest price of all, with millions of young lives shattered by this conflict, and the future generation of an entire country marked by violence and trauma for many years to come.
The refugee situation has escalated rapidly over the past six months, particularly when compared to the previous 20 months of the conflict. One million of the 1.6 million Syria refugees across the region today fled the country in the last six months alone. During the first five months of 2013, an average of 8,000 Syrians crossed into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt every day. These numbers are staggering and have put enormous strain on the humanitarian community.
As of today, Lebanon hosts more than 520,000 Syrian refugees who are registered or pending registration with UNHCR. This number represents an 11% increase in Lebanon's population of 4.2 million. There are no official refugee camps in Lebanon, although some of the refugees live in informal camp-like settlements. Most are in urban areas in a wide arrange of accommodation--often barely livable. Neighboring Jordan is currently home to more than 475,000 Syrian refugees registered or pending registration. About 120,000 of these individuals live in Za’atri refugee camp, which sprang up from the desert and now comprises Jordan’s fifth largest city. Turkey hosts more than 380,000 Syrians refugees, most of them in 18 camps along the border that are run by the Turkish government. Iraq is home to nearly 160,000 Syrian refugees, of which 40,000 are housed in the overcrowded Domiz camp in the Kurdistan Region; nearly half the families there share tents due to lack of land. In Egypt, nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees are in urban areas. As dramatic as these numbers are, they likely undercount the actual situation. Many Syrians do not come forward for registration because they fear reprisals back home, or in some cases because they do not yet need assistance. Potentially hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees throughout the region are not counted in official statistics.
The December 2012 Regional Response Plan (RRP) issued by UNHCR and our partners was based on projections of 1.1 million Syrians through June of this year. That figure was reached in March and by June had been far exceeded; yet, it was the funding appeal on which contributions by donor governments were based. At the end of last week, an updated RRP was issued, based on an anticipated 3.45 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year. This updated regional response plan for Syrian refugees totals $2.9 billion. The governments of Lebanon and Jordan are also appealing for funds, asking for $449 million and $380 million, respectively. The humanitarian appeal for inside Syria, which was also released last week and is known as the SHARP, is for $1.4 billion. This adds up to more than $5 billion, including the appeals by host governments, and represents the largest humanitarian appeal in history. With more than $1 billion received so far in 2013, a further $4 billion is needed to meet the basic protection and assistance needs of Syrian refugees and internally displaced Syrians for the remainder of this year.
Statistics and data help us understand the scope of the refugee crisis, but cannot begin to capture the sense among refugees and host communities that they are being overwhelmed by an increasingly bloody conflict with no end in sight.
Key Messages from UNHCR:
1. Open borders
UNHCR is calling upon all governments in the region to keep their borders open--or in some cases to fully re-open borders to provide access to their territory for all those in need of international assistance. We are particularly grateful for the commitment offered by neighboring governments to protect Syrian refugees. By taking in thousands of new refugees every day, the countries on the front line of this crisis are saving lives and supporting families and communities. Very importantly, they’re also helping Syrians prepare for an eventual return to their homeland, which all of the Syrians I met are hoping for.
2. Need for safe shelter
The mass influx of refugees has overwhelmed camps across the region, leading to overcrowding and numerous concerns. As summer approaches, communicable and waterborne diseases become a major concern. However, while the media has largely focused on refugees in camps, the vast majority, 77% of Syrian refugees, live in urban settings where they face particular challenges. High rental costs (often for substandard or even unlivable units), lack of job opportunities, and rapidly dwindling resources are making life increasing difficult for urban refugees throughout the region, often forcing families to turn to negative coping mechanisms such as child labor, early marriage, and other forms of exploitation to make ends meet. Financial assistance has been consistently flagged as a critical need and top priority for non-camp refugees to meet the growing cost of living, ensure protection and prevent families from slipping into destitution.
3. Regional stability and the need to support host countries financially and politically
Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt have welcomed over 1.6 million refugees across their borders since the beginning of the conflict, but ever growing numbers are putting increased stress on already strained public resources, as well as on host families. If additional support is not forthcoming, acceptance by host communities towards refugees may soon diminish, threatening to further destabilize this already fragile region. I heard about this over and over during my trip. I was told that host communities were initially welcoming to the refugees, with many landlords deferring rent and neighbors providing assistance. Recently, however, the tide has clearly turned and tensions with host communities are growing--leading to the threat of violence and instability.
The majority of 475,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas throughout the country, with 120,000 currently residing in Za’atri camp near the northern city of Mafraq. The rising numbers have strained host communities’ ability to absorb newcomers. As a result, the Government of Jordan requires that Syrians entering the country receive assistance in camps. Despite this directive, many refugees continue to seek safety among the Jordanian population.
UNHCR and partner organizations are working around the clock to provide shelter and life-saving assistance in camps (Za’atri and two smaller camps originally used as transit facilities). This assistance is key not only to respond to the overall refugee influx but also to maintain protection space for Syrians within Jordan itself. UNHCR is currently working with the Government and partner agencies to establish a second major camp, Azraq, also in northern Jordan, which is intended to house up to 130,000 refugees. The opening date is dependent on completion of infrastructure, including water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
In addition to camp-based activities, support to refugees in urban communities and to those communities themselves is critical. Jordan currently faces significant challenges in providing for the needs of its own population. For example, Jordan is the world's fourth most water-insecure country. Yet, Za’atri camp alone requires 925,000 gallons of water every day. Syrians have access to food, fuel, health and education services that are subsidized by the Jordanian government, incurring a significant cost to the national budget. Jordan is also facing a very difficult economic situation, aggravated by dwindling revenues from trade, tourism and foreign investment due to the Syria crisis. The country has also had to agree to a tight adjustment policy with the International Monetary Fund, including the removal of government subsidies, which in the past have resulted in violent street protests. Its limited energy and water resources, social service infrastructure and public security forces are dramatically overstretched. Like Lebanon, Jordan also needs massive support to deal with the humanitarian tragedy caused by the conflict next door. Bolstering infrastructure and enhancing the living standards for all host community residents will benefit not only Syrian refugees but the region as a whole.
Our 2013 priorities in Jordan include registration and documentation of all new arriving refugees; ensuring life-saving assistance such as establishing camp infrastructure, providing non-food items to those in need, and access to health care, food assistance, and clean water. Other protection activities such as preventing and responding to sexual and gender based violence are also critical.
Education is another key priority because it provides children with a sense of stability and normalcy, in addition to a solid academic foundation for the future. Given that 54% of the Syrian refugee population in Jordan is under the age of 18, demands on the public and camp educational systems are enormous. Approximately 10,000 children are currently registered for formal education at Za’atri, although those numbers far exceed daily attendance. Among urban refugees, over 32,000 children receive formal education in Jordanian public schools. Others, however, do not attend because of challenges that include lack of transportation and the fact that children often work to provide income for their families.
Three significant risks and challenges face the refugee population in Jordan over the next six months. First, additional large-scale population movement is likely, either into or out of Syria, with its accompanying logistical complexities. Second, growing intolerance toward Syrian refugees in Jordanian society threatens to provoke backlash, such as restriction of services, sealed borders, or even community violence. One refugee family I met said they rarely venture outside their rented apartment due to the growing inhospitality. To mitigate this troubling sentiment, support to host communities has been increased and is a key component of the newest Regional Response Plan. UNHCR has constructed and is in the final stages of equipping a new registration site for urban refugees. Finally, refugees living in overcrowded camp conditions are especially vulnerable to disease outbreak along with other concerns. In Za’atri, for example, the harsh conditions and limited services have created serious tensions among the refugees themselves and have led to significant mental health conditions in both adults and children.
UNHCR is grateful for Jordan’s unwavering support for refugees throughout the past decades, during which it has offered a home to Palestinian, Iraqi, and now Syrian refugees. It is vital that this generous policy of keeping borders open is supported by the international community. Jordan is clearly feeling the impact of the Syrian war and, without adequate assistance, may no longer be able to provide a safety valve for Syrians fleeing for their lives.
As the Commission is aware, the political and security situation in Lebanon is extremely precarious. There are reports of more spillover incidents along the border, with rockets fired from Syria continuing to strike Bekaa and the North, as well as prolonged unrest in Tripoli. The situation is exacerbated by Hezbollah engagement inside Syria. We have also begun to hear troubling reports of harassment against refugees and threats made against aid workers. On my recent trip, the hightened security concerns in the North were particularly palpable.
Despite this situation, Lebanon hosts well over half a million Syrian refugees--the highest number in the region. This is in addition to the half a million Syrians residing in Lebanon before the crisis. Given Lebanon’s small size and weak government, the proportional impact is huge. Current end of year projections put the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at over one million, which constitute 25% of the country’s population.
The refugee influx has put immense pressure on the small country’s limited resources and compounded the current social and economic challenges. As in Jordan, host communities are increasingly apprehensive about the ability to absorb more refugees; however, this phenomenon is even more dangerous in Lebanon given the complex sectarian divisions. For example, on my recent visit to Lebanon we learned that the funerals of Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria are occasions for shots to be fired over Syrian refugee settlements. UNHCR and its partners are actively working inside Lebanon to address and mitigate these growing concerns, but the ability of humanitarian agencies to achieve access in this area is clearly limited.
UNHCR is registering 2,500 people a day in Lebanon and, as is the case elsewhere, with the assistance of partners, also provides emergency and basic assistance to those waiting to register. Despite the overwhelming volume of arrivals, the Lebanese government has not faltered in its commitment to keep its borders open to Syrian refugees. It is therefore vital that Lebanon receives international support to continue this generous policy.
Because there are no formal camps in Lebanon, the Syrian refugees spread over Lebanon live in a wide range of shelters, many of which I saw on my trip. Some refugees, as in Jordan, are living with relatives, while others rent apartments at prices that are increasingly on the rise. Others reside in unfinished buildings, which, interestingly, are seemingly everywhere in Lebanon but are nonetheless owned and require rent payments. UNHCR and our partners often provide "sealing off kits" to make the buildings more inhabitable. In other cases, UNHCR and our partners sign contracts with host families for the rehabilitation of their houses in return for hosting refugees. Approximately 2,000 refugees currently benefit from these contracts, which also assist the local community. Some refugees, including those deemed to be particularly vulnerable, are provided with what we and our partners call "shelter boxes," which are essentially one-room wooden buildings. Increasingly, however, refugees are residing in "collective centers" in buildings such as unused schools, while others have established what is referred to as "tented settlements"—in essence shanty towns comprised of wood or tin or any materials the refugees can purchase or scrounge. There are currently about 250 tented settlements in Lebanon, some of which existed prior to the crisis and were inhabited by Syrian migrant workers that have been joined by the new influx. These settlements are among the most difficult and depressing. UNCHR is trying its best to improve the standard of living in these locations, although as summer sets in the incidence of water related diseases becomes a pressing concern.
While visiting with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, I often heard concerns about their children’s education. Although 100,000 of the refugees are children of primary school age, only 30,000 are enrolled in Lebanese public schools. Others do not attend because of transportation problems or because the curriculum is difficult, as it is taught in English and French, whereas Syrian schools are only taught in Arabic. In some cases, Syrian families do not wish to send their kids to school because the Lebanese classes are co-ed. Other children are simply too traumatized to leave their parents’ side to attend school. Whatever the reason, many school-aged children have now been out of school for over two years, with obvious implications for these kids and for the future of Syria.
When children do attend school, they often require support, such as remedial classes to help them adapt and continue attending school. I visited a center that provided such services, along with fun activities and nourishing snacks to supplement what is often an insufficient diet. Most importantly, however, these programs provide a safe place and help foster a sense of normalcy. Many more such programs are needed.
Unfortunately, child labor is on the rise as families struggle to pay rent and manage the rising cost of living. In a recent week, agencies identified 15 cases of boys between the ages of 12 and 15 who are working up to 11 hours a day, seven days a week. Most of these children—all of whom attended school back in Syria—are working as cleaners in restaurants and receive substandard monthly wages. Their families reported that the income they generate helps them cover the families’ monthly expenses. The families were referred for rent support and the parents counseled on the need to enroll their children in schools or remedial classes. Funding for education remains limited, putting on hold programs to help families get their children back to school, increase psycho-social support for traumatized children, and put in place outreach plans to identify at-risk children.
In Turkey, UNHCR is working closely with the Turkish Government to assist and protect Syrian refugees. Unlike in the other host countries, however, the government in Turkey has taken the lead on the refugee response and runs 18 camps where refugees can access food, medical attention, education and vocational training, among other services. Recognizing that about half of the 380,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside of camps, and that the ever-increasing numbers have overwhelmed host community resources, the Turkish government and UNHCR are putting more emphasis on reaching and supporting urban refugees. At planned coordination centers, UNHCR will be able to register and provide documentation to more refugees who have settled throughout the country. The centers will also provide protection counseling and support, including for children.
It is worth noting that Turkey, more than other country in the region, has welcomed non-Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria as well. These non-Syrian refugees include Iraqis and Palestinians who had sought refuge in Syria over the past decade. It is critical that Turkey be encouraged and supported to maintain its commitment to open borders to support the seemingly endless flow of refugees seeking safety and protection. A shortage of space in the camps continues to be a major challenge for the authorities, with almost all of the 18 camps hosting more than their capacity, and continued pressure to take in new arrivals. Local authorities underline the fact that because of space constraints in the camps, the admission of new arrivals from the border is based, in part, on the number of spaces available. The Turkish government reports that it continues to provide humanitarian assistance to those waiting across the borders.
Turkey has assumed the bulk of responsibility for assisting and protecting the refugee and has spent significant funds in doing so. International support is necessary for this to remain sustainable.
The vast majority of the 159,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq reside in the Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah governates in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. An estimated total of 350,000 could cross the border before the end of the year. The majority of refugees enter Iraq through the Kurdistan Region, with 40% of them seeking shelter in two camps while the remainder lives in towns and villages, often in substandard housing.
UNHCR’s and its partners’ main activities in Iraq focus on registering and protecting refugees, advocating for open borders, distributing life-saving items, providing essential services and counseling, as well as preventing and responding to sexual gender based violence.
UNHCR continues to urge the Iraqi government to ensure that all borders remain open for Syrian civilians who need to flee the country. Since October 2012, the border at Al Qa’im in Anbar Governate has been closed to all but a few individuals allowed to cross for emergency medical care or family reunification. In addition, the closure of the border between the Kurdistan region and Syria since May 19 of this year, in both directions, has prevented refugees from crossing into Iraq.
The two Syrian refugee camps in Iraq are established in Al Qaim and Domiz. Domiz hosts over 40,000 refugees and is critically overcrowded, with some 3,500 families obliged to share tents with other families because there is no space to construct new tents. In some cases, more than 15 refugees are living in tents designed for 5 people. Congestion and warmer temperatures are increasing the risks of disease and tensions between camp residents. The number of children under five years of age suffering from diarrhea has doubled since February. UNHCR continues to appeal for new land for additional camps.
Urban refugees in Iraq are experiencing increasing poverty due to long periods of unemployment and lack of access to services. Tensions are rising within the refugee community as a result of the lack of freedom of movement, particularly for urban refugees who have no documentation. The soaring summer temperatures also pose challenges for urban refugees, many of whom cannot afford rising electricity expenses. Some urban refugees have expressed general fear of becoming victims of the unstable security situation in their host cities.
Some refugees living in Al Qa’im refugee camp have begun returning to Syria--a result of both push and pull factors including frustration over living conditions, limited freedom of movement, and no access to the labor market or other sources of income.
Approximately 80,000 Syrian refugees have sought shelter in Egypt since the beginning of the conflict. The majority come from Homs or Aleppo, drawn to Egypt through family or community ties. It is likely that number of refugees will significantly increase by year’s end, in part because some refugees currently in Lebanon or Jordan perceive better living conditions and economic opportunities in Egypt. Because there are no camps in Egypt, the refugees have found housing in Cairo neighborhoods and other urban areas. UNHCR operates a registration center in Cairo and mobile centers in Alexandria and Damietta that provide protection services for refugees throughout the country. The potential for secondary movement to Egypt from Lebanon and Jordan is considered significant as refugees seek countries that are more affordable for them to live with their families.
The conflict in Syria has placed an unbearable strain on the population of Syria. Over 1.6 million Syrian refugees are now hosted across five countries. By the end of the year it is estimated that half of the population of Syria will be in need of aid. This includes an anticipated 3.45 million Syrian refugees and 6.8 million Syrians inside the country, many of whom will be displaced from their homes. Neighboring governments and their populations have been extremely generous in welcoming and assisting the refugees. Yet, the overwhelming message from my recent trip is that this welcome is now under severe strain as the Syrian conflict continues, the refugees keep arriving, and resources are increasingly stretched. If our goal is to encourage the host countries to keep their borders open and continue allowing refugees to access basic services, then we as an international community must do more to assist these governments and their local communities. While we must certainly be smart in how resources are used and prioritized, the reality is that significant additional resources will be needed for this year and likely beyond. New donors, including the private sector, must be mobilized, and development agencies must work hand-in-hand with the humanitarian organizations. The experiences of the refugees in the neighboring countries may well determine what a future Syria looks like, and the welfare of the host countries will determine the future stability and prosperity of the entire region.