Facing diplomatic gridlock in Syria, UN focuses on humanitarian help

This article was published by the Interdependent on 23 August, 2012.

When the Syrian Army bombed Nahla’s home in Aleppo last month, she fled for her life with her five children, across the border to Lebanon. She now lives in Shatila, a suburb of Beirut, in a sparely furnished apartment; mattresses are her only possession. Receiving no aid from any agencies, and surviving off her husband’s $500 salary he earns as a chauffeur, she is just one of Syria’s 170,000 refugees.

Syrian refugee chidren in a hut in Arsal. Photo credit: Marta Bogdanska

As refugees have discovered, fleeing the bullets of the Syrian conflict leads to a new kind of fight for survival. While violent clashes rage with no resolution in sight, UN agencies are focusing on the daunting task of aiding the flood of Syrian refugees pouring into neighboring countries.

During her visit to Syria last week, Valerie Amos, UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs, emphasized the gravity of the situation, calling upon all parties to respect human rights and to protect civilians in the crisis. Amos estimates 2.5 million Syrians need humanitarian aid inside the country, including 1.2 million internally displaced people.

As a result of the ongoing violence, however, this humanitarian crisis has impacted Syria’s neighbors, where UNHCR is assisting more than 170,000 refugees. Struggling to keep up with the ever-growing refugee population, UNHCR has had to adjust its response plan significantly, and in response to the latest figures, it will release a new plan and appeal next month.

Escalating violence, bleak diplomatic solution

The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, with violence increasing daily. In a report released last Wednesday, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry (CoI) concluded that government forces and Shabbiha fighters had committed crimes against humanity, such as murder, torture, indiscriminate attacks against civilian populations, and acts of sexual violence. CoI also concluded that to a lesser degree, anti-government troops were guilty of war crimes, including murder and extra-judicial killings.

Fighting between the two sides is likely to continue, since a UN-brokered diplomatic solution looks less hopeful. Two weeks ago, Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League Special Envoy, resigned from his post, citing “finger-pointing and name-calling” in the Security Council. Although a successor, 78-year-old Algerian Ladar Brahimi, was appointed last Saturday, paths for diplomatic reforms are bleak. “Without serious, purposeful and united international pressure, including from the powers of the region, it is impossible for me, or anyone, to compel the Syrian government in the first place, and also the opposition, to take the steps necessary to begin a political process,” Kofi Annan said after his resignation. To make matters worse, the last of the 300 UN military observers who were brought in under the Annan brokered six-point plan for political reconciliation left last Saturday.

Accepting that the conflict might have to be determined militarily, Security Council President, Ambassador Gerard Aoud of France, said the council “would like to at least prove in the humanitarian arena, which is becoming more and more serious, that the Council can act.”

Unparalleled humanitarian needs

UNHCR has registered 170,000 refugees in Syria’s neighbors Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. However, these may be gross underestimations, because not everybody registers. In Syria’s tiny neighbor, Lebanon, UNHCR has registered 37,000 refugees, but the Syrian activist group the Local Coordination Committee estimates there are as many as 90,000 Syrian refugees in the country. The major discrepancy in this number is because many refugees remain afraid to make their presence known or are unaware of the option of acquiring help through UNHCR.

Several families The InterDependent spoke with had no knowledge of UNHCR’s registration initiative. “I don’t know about any organizations,” says Nahla, 30, who fled to Lebanon from Aleppo a month ago. “We are living off my husband’s check, about $500 a month.” This is not enough to cover costs; the family, including their five children aged from four and eight, live in a single room. She will not be able to afford to send her six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds to school when the school year resumes next month, even if local schools would have space for them.

Abriard, 30, tells a similar story. She and her husband Hassan and their three children fled Dara’a two months ago, after their house was destroyed during shelling that also took the life of their two-year old nephew. The video Hassan shows of the dead little boy is heartbreaking. Although they have escaped the fighting in Syria, they still don’t feel safe. A recent spate of kidnappings of Syrians in Lebanon has made many Syrians wary of venturing outside. Asked whether he feels safe now he has left Syria, Hassan snorts, “Have you seen the news?”

No sign of abating

It cost Hassan’s family $200 in bribes to cross the border. Another Syrian cites $1,000 per household as the standard price the Syrian border police require. “It depends on who is on duty,” says Khaled Saleh, who runs an emergency relief effort on behalf of the Future movement political party at the Masnaa border crossing, to the question of how many Syrians get through and at what price. Sometimes the border is quiet; at other times, a couple of cars a minute come through with mattresses, suitcases, and fans packed on roofs and stuffed in between families. Following the Damascus bombing, as many as 11,000 crossed here in two days.

With the fighting in Aleppo worsening, the refugee stream is again picking up, although most opt for Turkey. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkish camps hit 70,000 on Monday, up from 25,000 in April, and UNHCR is scaling up its humanitarian assistance in the camps there too.

The Turkish government warned that it would run out of space soon; it can accommodate 100,000 people. “We should be able to accommodate them in Syria. The UN may build camps in a safe zone within Syria’s borders,” Ahmet Davutoglu told al-Hurriyet newspaper on Monday. Opposition members have long called for a “no-fly” zone to support their struggle against the Syrian regime. However, how such a safe zone would be imposed remains unclear. The United Nations Security Council’s political gridlock will prevent a mandate from the council, which meets on August 30 to discuss the humanitarian issue.

Struggling to keep up

Not only are UN agencies straining to assist the onslaught of Syrian refugees, but they are also faced with the difficult task of financing their response plan. “Overall, UNHCR’s part of the Regional Response Plan in four countries (Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan) is 74 percent funded. The overall plan across seven UN agencies and 36 NGOs is only 33 percent funded,” says Ariane Rummery, Regional spokesperson for the Syrian situation. “But this plan was based on a population of 185,000 refugees regionally.   As there are already 170,000 registered, we need to issue another plan and another appeal, which should be due out next month.” If financing fails to come through, they will have to cut down on the number of people they can assist, Rummery says.

Already there are waiting lists for registration. Atef from Dara’a tried to register with UNHCR on Thursday. They gave him an interview appointment on the 8th of November. “Previously, the waiting time [in Beirut] was about 25-30 days, but with the need to also deploy people to the North and the East, we have a longer waiting time and are now giving appointments for November,” says Rummery, stressing that the agency is “redoubling” its efforts to bring down the waiting time in the weeks ahead.

The biggest concern right now in Lebanon is shelter. Previously, most refugees, especially in the North, managed to find shelter with families, but the recent influx of refugees has resulted in hundreds of refugees being housed in schools. In Majdal Ansar, 60 people are living in one school. They sleep on mattresses on the classroom floors, their fates uncertain. “I am far from my homeland, I am imprisoned and can’t go wherever I want,” says Abu Mohammed, who fled with his family from Homs last month with only the clothes on his back. “I can’t even afford to buy pajamas,” he laments. Next month, when schools start again, it is unclear where they will go, although UNHCR is trying to find a solution for such cases.

At least these families still have solid shelter for now. Others in the Arsal region such as Lina, who fled with her one-year-old daughter after her house was bombed and husband killed in Kseyr in March, are living in tents. Rummery also expresses concern about such situations, claiming, “I met families living in a very windy area in Arsal in a tent which was not really protecting them from the elements….They really needed everything, money, better shelter, clothes etc.” Meanwhile, Lina has no hope for the future. She says, “Each day we say we’ll have a better day, but it only gets worse.”

To see this article with images of Syrian refugees by Marta Bogdanska click here

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