Syria’s 22-month-long civil war has created a refugee crisis of historic proportions that threatens to destabilize countries in the Middle East and has far outpaced the ability of foreign governments and global relief agencies to respond, says a top U.N. official.
“The concern we have is that the speed with which this crisis is deteriorating far exceeds the ability of the international community to cover the needs,” Panos Moumtzis, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, said in an interview.
The United Nations estimates that the war has displaced 2.5 million people inside Syria, and more than 612,000 have fled their country. Every day as many as 3,000 continue to flee. The refugees are pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt. Most are women and children.
“In terms of the overall numbers, it is very clear the region is facing a humanitarian disaster that is deepening by the day,” said Sharon Waxman, a member of the International Rescue Committee’s Commission on Syrian Refugees who visited Syrian refugees in November.
“Even if this civil war comes to a swift end, the humanitarian crisis is almost certain to last for years given the scale of the displacement, the destruction and the risk of ongoing sectarian violence and regional instability.”
Largest appeal in history
“This is the largest appeal in history,” said Mr. Moumtzis. “It is becoming obvious that this is not going to be a short emergency.”
The International Rescue Committee, in a report this week on the crisis, concluded that “current assistance levels are drastically insufficient to address existing needs, let alone the barest requirements to respond to a lengthy humanitarian emergency and post-conflict recovery.”
Syrian President Bashar Assad has shown no signs of stepping down or ending the civil war that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 60,000 people since it started in March 2011.
The strain on nations that are hosting the refugees is beginning to show.
Jordan is struggling to cope with more than 180,000 Syrians. In Zaatari, a camp in the northern desert, the refugees frequently clash over sparse supplies and poor living conditions.
In Lebanon, where the refugees live among the local population, deadly gunbattles have erupted between supporters and opponents of Mr. Assad, fueling domestic sectarian strife.
“We were concerned about the stability of Lebanon… In Jordan, people are complaining about government resources being stretched by the refugees. … In Iraq, the arrival of refugees is reopening old wounds with ethnic tensions between Shias and Sunnis,” said Mr. Moumtzis, referring to rival Islamic sects.
“The neighboring countries have been extraordinarily generous while they have very limited means themselves,” he added. “Within the region there is a high level of insecurity and instability. At the moment it is holding together, but we are concerned, with the crisis deteriorating, about the possible impact on the neighboring countries.”