"We have not seen a refugee outflow of such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide" -United Nations High Commission for Refugees director António Guterres
"The Arab Position" melts as people peer from "Syrian Refugees" tent – Source: Al-Quds Al-Arabi, December 18, 2013
Thousands of Syrian refugees living in makeshift camps in Lebanon are weathering a winter storm that brought snow, rain and freezing temperatures to the country. Source: UNICEF.
The civil war in Syria, which has been raging for three years, has created an unprecedented refugee tragedy: The largest displaced population is probably the "domestic refugees" – those who have remained in the country despite having lost their dwellings to the destructive forces of war. Nearly as large a group – and the focus of this paper – are the "refugees" proper, namely those forced by circumstances of war and violence to leave their country for an unknown future in mostly neighboring countries.
Demographic Structure of the Syrian Refugees
One of the unique aspects of the Syrian refugees is the preponderance of women and children amongst them. With male heads of families either dead or remaining behind to take part in the civil war, almost half of the refugees fall in the age category of 0-17:
Age Group Percent
Source: UNHCR (September 2013)
The UNHCR estimated the total number of Syrian refugees through September 2013 at 2,241,100, distributed as follows:
These number have certainly increased since September 2013 and are likely to continue to increase next year unless a political settlement to the conflict is found, which, at the moment, does not seem feasible. Indeed, the destruction of dwellings, infrastructure, businesses, factories, schools and hospitals makes the return to normalcy beyond the reach of millions of Syrians.
The numbers, of course, are probably not entirely accurate. They may, to some extent, be deflated because of those refugees – particularly those with some means who moved to Lebanon or Jordan – who have chosen to find a dwelling on their own. On the other hand, governments hosting the refugees have had a tendency to exaggerate their numbers in an effort to gain more aid. For example, Egypt claims to be host to more than 300,000 refugees, while Lebanon claims the figure to be in excess of one million. We will adhere to UNHCR figures because they reflect the number of refugees who have officially registered as refugees with the UN agency.
A major irony in the refugee problem is that the two countries that are providing the largest political and military support to the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia, are not on record as providers of material support or shelter to Syrian refugees. (It is perhaps also ironic that the winter storm Alexa, that both heightened and aggravated the situation of the Syrian refugees, originated in Siberia.) But Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two countries which have provided most of the support to the regime's opponents, have not opened their doors to Syrian refugees either. While all four countries have been arguing either for the regime or for its opponents about convening an international conference in Geneva to bring settlement to the conflict, when it comes to the human dimensions of the conflict, they remain largely bystanders while a tragedy of incalculable dimension and severity is unfolding before their eyes. There are few cases in history where the disconnect between the political calculus and the human suffering is so glaring. The cartoon above dramatically illustrates this point.
The refugees are straining the resources of Jordan and Lebanon with insufficient foreign aid trickling in. Syrian refugees, except those in Lebanon, live in tent-filled camps devoid of electricity, running water or adequate food supplies. In Lebanon, a refugee family receives the equivalent of $275 monthly to cover the cost of food and shelter, which often pays for shelter only. In Jordan, the biggest camp is Al-Za'tari, located in the northern part of the country, close to the border with Syria. It accommodates 120,000 refugees, making it the fourth largest "city" in the Hashemite Kingdom. One half of the camp dwellers are children.[i] A reporter for CNN, Mohammad Jamjoon, observed "scenes of despair" everywhere. One girl was described as "sockless and in slippers, trudg[ing] through the snow gathering what is left of it for water. Later, she will need it for cooking."[ii]
Refugee children may be destined to be illiterate and malnourished. OXFAM has reported that in Lebanon only 25 percent of the children attend schools. UNICEF, the UN agency for children, reports that the deterioration of education in Syria and among Syrian refugees is the worst in the history of the region. In Syria itself, 3 million children have ceased going to schools because of the fighting and the destruction of their schools. By UNICEF's estimates, there are one million Syrian child refugees in neighboring countries, or more than the combined under-18 population of Los Angeles and Boston.[iii] About 500,000-600,000 of Syrian children refugees are outside any schooling program. In some parts of Syria, school attendance is about 6 percent. Many of these children are forced to work, often in factories for long hours for small wages. Others peddle cigarettes or candies to earn a few pennies to support their families. The refugee children lack proper nutrition and many of them are subject to violence, exploitation, and sex abuse.[iv]
For more than six decades, the Middle East has been preoccupied with the Palestinian refugees. That will no longer be the case. The enormity of the number of the Syrian refugees and the very special demographic structure will likely shove the Palestinian refugee issue onto a back burner. It is the nature of history that new problems displace old ones. There is an important Roman legal principle of Lex posterior derogat priori ("most recent law overrules previous ones on the same matter"). And so will be the case with refugees.
* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is senior analyst emeritus at MEMRI.