NEW YORK – Predicting the number of Syrians leaving their homes has one rule of thumb: Just keep raising the totals. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does this periodically. Now, after two years of war, the agency estimates that 7 million Syrians, or one-third of the population, are displaced in their own country or refugees in other countries. This movement already represents the largest forced migration since Afghans fled their country following the Soviet invasion in 1979.
The U.N. says that more than 2 million refugees are in neighboring countries. The real numbers are higher, as many Syrians have fled to neighboring countries without registering with the UN. Many refugees remain outside of camps in those countries. Sizable numbers are huddled along the borders of Turkey and Jordan waiting to enter. Worse, no one knows how long the present 2 million will remain refugees.
One needs to pay tribute to the extraordinary and costly effort by U.N. agencies and numerous NGOs to keep Syrians alive and safe under trying conditions. There is room and need for a greater effort by the U.S. and its friends and allies, not to mention countries such as Russia and China that have been quick to preserve Syrian President Bashar Assad but have stayed on the humanitarian sidelines.
The refugee burden, not surprisingly, has fallen mostly on four bordering countries: Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Turkey is managing well and is more capable than its neighbors of taking in more refugees, although an increase would stoke sectarian differences and political tensions. The opening for those allowed by the government to cross the border, however, continues to narrow. The biggest burden falls on a very weak Lebanese state, where the Syrian war has already provoked considerable internal violence. If Damascus were to fall, refugees would inundate Lebanon. A troubled Jordan shares only a slightly lesser burden and also needs enormous economic help. Iraq — and particularly Kurdistan, whose inhabitants were massively displaced after the first Gulf War — has recently accepted significant numbers of refugees.
Because the civil war shows no sign of ending, helping more refugees and the internally displaced — possibly up to 2 million more — requires that all regional countries remain politically able to keep their borders mostly open and that donor countries provide even larger sums. The longer-term development and economic needs of some host countries also require far more attention. To help stop even more people from leaving Syria, sizable funds will be needed to deliver more food and other essential goods in both government- and opposition-held areas — a difficult and often dangerous task.
Can neighboring countries handle another million or more Syrian refugees?
Turkey has the capacity to take many more refugees, perhaps as many as another half a million, however politically unpopular that will be. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the strongest and most vocal supporter of destroying Assad and has impressively supported maintaining refugees; additional outside funds would be both politically and financially useful.
Kurdish Iraq can host considerably more than the present 200,000 refugees, and not just Kurds from adjoining areas. More financial assistance from Baghdad, which has just begun, would help. Stories from recent Kurdish refugees have made clear that the lack of food and basic necessities, not violence, in that part of Syria is driving flight. That points to the need for getting more assistance into Syria quickly.
Jordan and Lebanon are increasingly overburdened, so Syrians are also going to Egypt, Libya and parts of eastern Europe. The 100,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt have been increasingly troubled, and many are struggling to leave. Muslim European countries such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania could support limited numbers of Syrian refugees. And Iran should not be overlooked as a source of support and refuge, whatever the political complexity. Unlike Turkey, Iran gave refuge to more than a million Kurds after the first Gulf War.
Should Western governments get a free pass on accepting Syrian refugees? Certainly not, although they will find it politically hard to accept large numbers of Muslim refugees. Nevertheless, the West must demonstrate its willingness to bear part of the burden. So far this fiscal year, the U.S. has admitted just 33 Syrian refugees. The new fiscal year will permit President Barack Obama to provide for a significant number of Syrian refugees within the 70,000 total allotted to the U.S. refugee program. In turn, the U.S. willingness to accept more refugees can also help accelerate resettlement efforts by other Western countries. Under normal U.S. procedures, resettlement could take a few years. So as the U.S. has done with other refugee groups, it must expedite processing.
Who will pay for all the humanitarian requirements? Funding shortages have been chronic. A succession of U.N. conferences have gotten most of the necessary pledges, but they have not been fulfilled, especially by rich Arab states that are quicker to supply weapons to jihadists. Russia and China, meanwhile, have contributed a paltry $17.8 million and $1.2 million, respectively. The U.S. pledge of almost $1 billion has been the biggest, but that’s not overwhelming given the growing magnitude of the problem. The U.N. refugee agency estimates requirements of $3.1 billion through the end of this year, only 40 percent of which has been delivered.
In a year of sequestration, many would consider the U.S. contribution impressive. In another sense, however, the U.S. humanitarian response has been dismaying. Obama has not made opening American pockets to Syrians a major public concern, perhaps out of fear of being seen as taking over the Syrian problem. He has not spoken to the public except through White House statements or brief references to what the U.S. has already provided, his top officials have not banged on doors, and U.S. participation at pledging conferences has not been at high levels. The response of U.S. churches, normally a mainstay of such humanitarian efforts, has apparently been stunningly weak.
The U.S. is agonizing over how to respond to the apparent use of chemical weapons by Assad’s regime. It is surprising, however, that for more than two years, Americans, a very generous people, have paid so little attention to the destruction of a major Middle Eastern state and its people’s continuing travails. And regardless of what happens to Assad’s chemical arsenal, there is no end in sight.
Morton Abramowitz, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand and Turkey.