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
Representatives of U.N. member states, U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations will gather in Kuwait City on Jan. 30 to pledge humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees.
The U.N. has appealed for $1.5 billion, with $500 million targeted for those affected by the war who remain inside Syria. The rest will cover the needs of the refugees scattered across the region.
"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."
Only 30 percent of the more than 612,000 Syrian refugees actually live in camps. The rest, so-called urban refugees, have moved into neighborhoods where they crowd into rented apartments or abandoned buildings and compete for scarce resources and services. Their presence has caused prices of commodities and rents to soar and created resentment from the host population.
Many of the refugees fled with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Now, as an unusually harsh winter sets in, they are ill equipped to cope with cold weather.
Crisis inside Syria
Inside Syria, food, water and medicines are in short supply, several Syrian activists said in Skype interviews this week.
The Assad regime's forces have targeted hospitals and doctors, depriving civilians access to medical care. Children are routinely kidnapped and tortured, and women raped.
Syrian refugees said sexual assault was the "primary reason" their families fled Syria, according to the report by the International Rescue Committee.
"Many women and girls relayed accounts of being attacked in public or in their homes, primarily by armed men. These rapes, sometimes by multiple perpetrators, often occur in front of family members," the report said.
"To say it is a humanitarian crisis at this point is a bit of an understatement," said Yassar Bittar, a Washington-based member of the Syrian American Council, who earlier this month visited makeshift camps in Syria for those who have fled their homes.
While the camps are located in areas controlled by the rebels' Free Syria Army, they are vulnerable to airstrikes by the regime's jets.
"The international community should also focus on helping Syrians in camps inside Syria," said Miss Bittar. "These people are freezing. They desperately need fuel and food."
Those lucky enough to leave Syria bear horrific physical and emotional scars.
Mr. Moumtzis recalled how a woman he met in Lebanon told him of her family's nightmarish escape from Syria.
Syrian forces attacked the truck in which they were traveling and two of her children, who had been sitting in the back with her, were killed. She didn't have the heart to tell her husband, who was also wounded, about their deaths. By the time they reached the Lebanese border, he too had died and she had to have both her legs amputated from her own wounds.
"It's an extraordinary story, but it is also a common story," said Mr. Moumtzis.
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