Western nations may be asked to accept tens of thousands of Syrian refugees because the exodus from the civil war is overwhelming countries in the region, the UN’s refugee chief has warned.
With no end to the war in sight, the flight of nearly 2 million people from Syria over the past two years is showing every sign of becoming a permanent population shift, like the Palestinian crises of 1948 and 1967, with grave implications for countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, UN and other humanitarian aid officials say.
One person in six in Lebanon is now a Syrian refugee. The biggest camp in Jordan has become the country’s fourth-largest city. In addition to those who have crossed borders, at least four million Syrians have been displaced within their own country, meaning more than a quarter of the population has been uprooted.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said the situation was already far more than just a humanitarian crisis. If a resolution to the conflict is not found within months, the UN will look to resettle tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in countries better able to afford them, including Britain. Germany has already offered to take 5,000, but other offers have been “limited,” Guterres said.
“We are facing, in the Middle East, something that is more than a humanitarian crisis, more than a regional crisis, it is becoming a real threat to global peace and security,” Guterres said.
“We are already seeing the multiplication of security incidents in Iraq and Lebanon, and Jordan is facing a very difficult economic situation,” he said.
Guterres compared the Syrian refugee issue to Iraq’s situation during the last decade, when more than 100,000 people were resettled. “If things go on for a prolonged period of time then resettlement will become a central part of our strategy,” he said. “We would like when the time comes ... to be able to launch a resettlement program as massive as the one for Iraqis.”
The Syrian exodus has already surpassed almost every other refugee crisis that international organizations have dealt with in the past 40 years. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s provide the closest parallel, with both conflicts having a strong ethnic-sectarian dimension and the specter of partition rising as state control crumbles.
The knock-on effect on regional countries has been telling. Tensions between refugee communities and local populations have increased dramatically in Jordan and Lebanon as the influx of people piles pressure on local services such as schools and hospitals and disrupts job markets. The upshot has been a greater effort by Syria’s neighbors to “manage” the flow of refugees into their countries.
“Turkey and Jordan have become so overwhelmed and at the same time with some very worrying consequences on security, with the infiltration of armed people, that the border has [to be] managed, which means refugees are still coming, but they have to come in a gradual way which means we have a number of people stranded waiting to cross,” Guterres said.
Some refugees have found life so wretched in camps that they have started to return home. At present this is still a trickle. “They are not going home, and nor can they be expected to at a time when communities are being slaughtered and Syria is disintegrating,” said one Jordanian official who declined to be named. “We are living the reality of a long and devastating war with perhaps unmanageable consequences for us.”