Refugees need mattresses more than missiles
While the nation's attention is focused on the debate over whether to lob cruise missiles into Syria, millions of Syrians have abandoned their homes with little but the clothes on their back, fleeing the violence and chaos engulfing their communities.
They set out on a dangerous trek to reach neighboring countries but sometimes are stuck inside Syria because borders are closed to them. Thousands are trapped in appalling conditions, living in tents or under tarps, lacking food, medical supplies and sanitation. Little aid reaches them.
Instead of wasting hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of dollars raining missiles and misery on the Syrian people, America should put its resources into helping these desperate souls.
As assistant secretary of state at the time of the massive Iraq refugee crisis, I oversaw a U.S. program providing life-saving assistance to vulnerable refugees. Ironically, the largest number of Iraqis fled to what was then a stable Syria, where they were assisted and protected.
Today the tables have turned as Syrians are seeking refuge in Iraq. When the border was opened recently, 44,000 poured into Iraq in a two-week period, despite Iraq's continuing sectarian violence.
More than 2 million Syrians refugees have registered with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. By definition, a refugee has crossed a border and fled to another country. Over 5 million additional Syrians are internally displaced persons trying to find safe haven someplace within their war-torn country. Many have moved repeatedly seeking safety.
Regardless of who prevails in the Syrian civil war, the losers are Syrian civilians. In a country of some 22 million citizens, nearly one-third of the population has been displaced. Seventy-five percent are vulnerable women and children.
Lebanon is staggering under the load of 800,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan and Turkey are each hosting about a half-million. Hundreds of thousands more are in Iraq and Egypt.
The lucky ones have moved in with relatives or friends. A minority of the displaced are in crowded refugee camps. The majority are living in squalid urban areas or makeshift camps .
The influx of refugees has placed a huge burden on neighboring countries, most of which are already unstable. Lebanon and Jordan have reached the saturation point.
Lebanon has been hosting more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees for decades, and the caretaker government of Lebanon is unwilling to allow new refugee camps to be set up for the flood of Syrians.
Making up more than 20 percent of Lebanon's population, Syrian refugees live wherever they can find shelter — often in derelict structures lacking water and heat. They compete with Lebanese citizens for shelter, food and jobs, leading to price inflation, unsustainable demands on schools and health facilities. and a spillover of violence.
Jordan hosts over 500,000 Syrian refugees and is permitting the establishment of camps, which facilitate aid reaching the refugees. The largest refugee camp, Za'atari, began one year ago with several hundred refugees. Today, 120,000 people are crammed on two square miles of blazing-hot desert sitting atop Jordan's primary aquifer. With tents and tin sheds as far as the eye can see, the camp is now the fourth-largest "city" in Jordan.
The U.N. High Commission on Refugees has the international mandate to identify refugee crises. With the help of the Red Cross, nongovernment agencies and donor countries, United Nations High Commission on Refugees builds camps like Za'atari. Imagine creating a city the size of Fargo, S.D., in a matter of months. Besides providing shelter and food, camps require potable water, electricity, latrines, medical care, schools and public safety.
Even more difficult than providing assistance to refugees in camps is getting help to the internally displaced persons struggling to exist in Syrian war zones. Already, more than a dozen aid workers have been killed.
The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to refugees, contributing over $1 billion to date to the Syrian crisis. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees estimates it needs more than $5 billion to meet what may be the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Instead of sending missiles to Syria, Americans should send mattresses and medical supplies.
Ellen Sauerbrey is a former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration in the George W. Bush administration.