Last Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that calls for the elimination or removal of all of Syria’s chemical weapons by placing them under international control. For now, at least, foreign military intervention in that country is looking less likely. But the resolution will make little difference in the lives of the more than two million Syrians who have been forced to flee their country during the two-and-a-half-year conflict.
Two million is the number of Syrians formally registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many of whom are living in increasingly overcrowded camps in neighboring countries. An additional five million are estimated to be displaced within Syria, after having their homes destroyed or feeling unsafe in their communities. Many more millions are believed to have sought refuge in cities and towns across the border, often living illegally and struggling to find work. In all, more than one-fourth of all Syrian citizens have been displaced from their homes since 2011.
A popular destination for refugees is Za’atari Refugee Camp in the north of Jordan, only a few kilometers south of Daara, the working-class city in Syria where the uprising began two and a half years ago. At that time, Za’atari was a desert village with little more than a Jordanian army base and a healthy population of snakes and scorpions. Today, with more than 120,000 people living there, it is the second-largest refugee camp in the world and the fourth-largest population center in Jordan.
The Syrians living in Za’atari complain about the desert camp’s inhospitably arid conditions. “One of the largest complaints among the refugees is that breathing was so hard,” says Nada Shawish, an aid worker with Islamic Relief USA who spent one year living in the camp.
“We are very worried about these harsh conditions,” adds Anwar Khan, Islamic Relief USA’s founder. “In the summer little children have died from the heat, and in the winter they have died from the cold. We are worried about both the elderly and the young.”
Refugees have been known to return home from Za’atari, feeling that even war-torn Syria is less miserable than life in the camp.
Lebanon is another common destination for Syrian refugees, who now make up 25 percent of the nation’s population. Unlike Jordan, Lebanon has no UNHCR-administered refugee camps – meaning that Syrian refugees need to rent their own housing, which is often far more expensive than what they left behind in Syria. Many refugees live in empty schools and abandoned buildings, and an increasing number are being pushed into the streets.
Many Lebanese blame Syrians for being willing to work for lower wages and taking jobs from the local population. There are also fears that the growing refugee population will stir tensions and bring Lebanon into the violent Syrian conflict – even as the country continues to recover from its own civil war, which ended in 1990. While Lebanon is technically at peace, it is still rife with sectarian tensions in both its Parliament and in the streets. “Lebanon is a civil war without the guns,” says Dellair Youssef, a Syrian student who has been living in Beirut since June 2012. Hezbollah, which is formally allied with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, carries much of the political power in Lebanon. An influx of Syrian refugees – who fought and fled the Assad regime – could easily tip the political balance and launch the country into chaos.
Despite the extreme strain on host countries and the dire humanitarian conditions in Syrian refugee camps, the international community has done little in terms of humanitarian relief for Syrian refugees. Most international humanitarian relief organizations like Islamic Relief USA – and even United Nations initiatives such as UNHCR – are under-equipped for the massive exodus that continues to pour out of Syria. “Supplies may seem just like a band-aid on the wound, but it is really needed,” says Shawish. “Everything from water to mental health counseling to emergency surgeries for trauma patients to food and clothing – all of these things are extremely needed on a daily basis. I firmly believe that if we are going to get through this, we are going to get through this together.”