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What is the international community doing for Syrian refugees?

Shayma Bashawiah

June 4, 2014

It has been over three years now since the popular revolution in Syria was sparked by the Arab Spring. What began as a popular demonstration demanding the overthrow of the authoritarian regime of Bashar Al-Assad turned into an all-out civil war—as the regime clamped down on the opposition while anti-government factions fought with each other. The real and bitter price of the Syrian civil war has been paid by the civilian population.

It is now widely reported that the current refugee crisis borne out of the Syrian civil war is one of the most catastrophic witnessed in human history: 2.7 million refugees, nine million internally displaced persons, and over 150,000 dead from a population of 23 million. United Nations has made its biggest appeal to date—$5 billion dollars, twice the appeal during East Africa’s food crisis in 2011, and more than three times the relief for the 2010 Haiti Earthquake—to assist with humanitarian relief, and some fear $5billion will not be enough.

Dubbed “the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world” the Syrian refugee and humanitarian crisis has been compared to none other than the Rwandan genocide and the Second World War. While Syrians are poised to surpass Afghans as the largest refugee population what is the international community doing to respond to the crisis and to meet the basic needs of the millions of refugees?

Like these other crises, imperialism is to blame. The popular revolution in Syria has been all but hijacked by the various warring factions as it becomes the latest battlefield for regional rivalries—between Tehran and Riyadh—and global imperial aspirations, as a proxy war between the US and Russia. While the “international community” was readily available to pour huge resources into military intervention—whether implicit or explicit—it is all but absent when it comes to the responsibility of assisting refugees and providing immediate relief for the humanitarian crisis.

Neighbouring states
Out of the 2.7 million refugees, over 2 million are located in the neighbouring states—Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey—as Syrians leave behind everything they know and own to free for their lives. Around 133,000 Syrian refugees are in Egypt, 220,000 are in Iraq, 600,000 are in Jordan, and over 670,000 in Turkey. The highest concentration are in Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people which now has 1 million Syrian refugees.

Despite the large number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the state has refused to set up camps. Refugees have had to settle in slums and construct makeshift shelters under bridges and in old construction sites—forcing them to live under abysmal conditions without basic utilities such as clean water. Recently Human Rights Watch has condemned Lebanon for arbitrarily denying refuge to Palestinian-Syrian refugees and forcing them to return to war-torn Syria.

Over half of the refugees are children aged 17 or under.  Recently, UNICEF reported that at least 10,000 refugee children in Lebanon are malnourished while approximately 2,000 are at risk of dying due to acute malnutrition. The main causes are, says UNICEF, are "poor hygiene, unsafe drinking water, diseases, lack of immunization and improper feeding practices of young children.”

Yet, the plight of Syrian refugees does not end there. Other challenges include lack of education opportunities, shortage of housing, lack of employment opportunities, and lack of medical care for acute and chronic medical conditions. The lack of resources for refugees is forcing some to resort to child labour, women entering unwanted marriage and exchanging sexual favours for financial gain.

Jordan in the face of a budget deficit and growing unemployment must find a way to assist the 450,000 Iraqi refugees already there and absorb the newly registered Syrian refugees as well. But refugees are not to blame for this. It was the US Iraq War that created the violence that has driven Iraqi refugees into Jordan; US and its ally Saudi Arabia who have intervened to undermine the Syrian revolution and create a civil war driving people across the border. And neighbouring states like Jordan, Egypt and Turkey get billions of dollars in military aid from the US each year.

The West
Although still falling far short of the $5 billion appealed for by the UN, the international community seems much more generous when it comes to contributing funds towards the UN relief programs than assisting refugees with resettlement. Imperialist powers are providing contributions to affected regions in the hopes of containing the crisis the West created, while restricting the entry of refugees based on anti-migrant racism. This has benefited far right parties in the recent elections, while forcing refugees to resort to illegal avenues to reach the shores of these states—one must only remember the dead bodies of Syrian refugees that reached Lampedusa beach while attempting to cross through illegal means. This has led a Syrian refugee to remark to The Guardian, “we suffer twice, first in Syria and now as refugees. I feel like I'm fighting the world to be with my family”. Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide and it seems the world still has not learned its lesson.

The US, while contributing $1.3 billion in aid, only accepted 31 refugees for resettlement out of a total of 135,000 applications—rejecting a large number of the applications under “anti-terrorist” legislations. The acceptance rate amounts to a ratio of 1 in 4000. Similarly, the UK contributed £500 million but has until recently been refusing to welcome refugees, and has only agreed to resettle 500. Europe has now agreed to provide humanitarian relief to 60,000 Syrian refugees, with a disproportionately large number of applicants accepted in Germany and Sweden. But this is still a small number, compared with Turkey that has accepted 10 times more refugees as some European Union member states.

Canada has a long history of anti-migrant racism. While the Harper government announced it would settle 1,300 Syrian refugees, it only welcomed 10 in 2013. As Janet Dench from the Canadian Council for Refugees explained, “It was clear at the time of the announcement that there was no clear intention to make them arrive by the end of 2014. We know that if you want people to arrive in the resettlement program you have to make provisions to make that possible.” Instead, the Harper government has been busy gutting healthcare for refugees.

On June 13 join the third annual day of action against cuts to refugee health.

If you like this article, come to Marxism 2014: Resisting a System in Crisis, a weekend-long political conference June 14-15 in Toronto. Sessions include “Global resistance to imperialism”, “WWI: slaughter and resistance” and “Ukraine and inter-imperial rivalry”.


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