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Middle east

Humanitarian crisis deepens along Syrian borders

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2012-07-24

Humanitarian aid organizations are struggling to deal with an avalanche of refugees amassing along Syrian borders as well as internally displaced people fleeing violence in the country.

Fatima al-Khatib hurriedly left Damascus last week and made her way west towards neighbouring Lebanon. After a three-hour trip she was able to cross the border, eventually finding refuge in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

The escalating violence in the Syrian capital had become intolerable for Khatib, who is originally from Syria’s northern province of Idlib. "I wouldn’t dare open the windows in Damascus. I thought I could die any minute,” she told the Lebanese Daily Star.

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Khatib is part of a rapidly growing number of Syrian refugees displaced by the country’s 17-month uprising. What had begun as a trickle of refugees from provincial towns, most of whom headed for Turkey, has developed over the past month into a tidal wave leaving Syria’s main cities.

Lebanese authorities said that more than 30,000 Syrians passed through Masnaa - the primary border point between the countries - between July 19 and 21.

While some exiled Syrians have been welcomed by family and friends, many more end up in hotels or makeshift shelters. "Our priority is to find them housing,” said Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

"However, they also need medical care, food, blankets. Lebanon is limited in its capacity to care for sick people. There is a strong sense of solidarity, but the refugees' fate is largely dependent on NGOs and therefore those groups need money."

According to a July 20 report by the UNHCR, around 120,000 Syrian refugees - many travelling as families - have registered with the agency since last summer.

But the real number is likely to be much higher. Besides Turkey and Lebanon, Syrians have also flocked to Jordan and Iraq in the past months.

On Monday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered his country’s borders open to Syrian refugees fleeing the violence back home.

Reaching the internally displaced

NGOs have also expressed concern over the plight of internally displaced Syrians. Between 1 and 1.5 million Syrians have been forced to migrate within the borders of their country since the conflict started in March 2011, according to figures from the Syrian Red Crescent.

Because of the rapidly changing battlefronts in Syria, it is also difficult to give precise figures for this category of refugees, known as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, by the UN agency.

"For the past week, given the increase of violence in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, our efforts have been focused on the displaced," said Hicham Hassan, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "The need for humanitarian assistance is growing with the rise in insecurity."

According to a July 21 report by the ICRC, nearly 60 schools have been opened in rural Damascus to accommodate displaced families that represent around 11,800 people. Many parks have also been converted into IDP camps.

Hassan said it was becoming particularly difficult to provide medical treatment to the injured and to guarantee the safety of humanitarian staff. Five Syrian Red Crescent workers have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.

Rationing funds

In early July seven UN agencies and 36 NGO partners issued a joint appeal for approximately 160 million euros to tackle Syria’s rapidly worsening refugee crisis, but that was before the latest surge in refugees.

The aid agencies' cry for help seems to have been heard, in part. The Arab League announced on Monday that it would offer 82.5 million euros (100 million dollars) in aid to Syrian refugees.

"That sum covers only the basic and immediate needs of refugees: shelter, food, medical care," the UNHCR’s Wilkes told FRANCE 24.

The European Commission also said it would double its emergency assistance for Syrian refugees and provide 63 million euros in funds.

But it remains unclear how the emergency aid will be distributed and used. International aid groups, including the Red Cross, have come under fire in recent years for alleged mismanagement of donations.

Irina Novakova, a press officer for the European Commission in Brussels, said EU funds would go to international agencies and NGOs on the ground, such as the UNHCR and the Syrian Red Crescent. "We never work with governments or any political office whatsoever. Our aid is distributed among the professional organizations who are dealing with the people on the ground," Novakova told FRANCE 24.


 

Date created : 2012-07-24

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