SEATTLE — On June 30, 2014, a former branch of al-Qaeda known as the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (Levant) declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate stretching from the Syrian city of Aleppo, to the Iraqi province of Diyala. ISIS, under the command of its khalifa, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has since then greatly contributed to the displacement of many in the Levant.
ISIS arose from a region already experiencing debilitating conflict and seeing many of its people displaced; the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. intervention in Iraq and the occupation of Palestinian territory imperiled many civilian lives in Western Asia. As World Refugee Day and the first-year mark of the caliphate’s declaration approach, the international community must reflect on the condition of the displaced people of the Levant, and the exacerbating effect that ISIS has brought to the region.
Syrian Refugees and Displaced People
The Syrian Civil War is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring, which took place in 2011. As Syria enters its fifth year of conflict, the war has culminated to a costly fate. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of June 15, 2015, the conflict in Syria has produced 3,991,672 registered refugees, 52 percent of which are boys and girls under the age of 18. In fact, the number of refugees has been on a steady increase since the beginning of the conflict, with a jump of registrations at the beginning of 2015.
Most Syrian refugees have taken shelter in various neighboring countries. Jordan has received about 630,000 refugees, while Lebanon and Turkey, which have received the highest number of refugees, have seen an influx of about 1.2 million and 1.8 million respectively.
Moreover, on June 16, 2015, about 23,000 refugees, 70 percent of which were women and children, fled from northern Syria into Turkey’s Sanliurfa province in order to escape the fighting between Kurdish YPG and ISIS forces. In response, AFAD, Turkey’s disaster and emergency management authority and UNHCR provided 27,000 articles of children’s clothing, 33,000 blankets and 8,000 mattresses.
Although much effort has been invested, the situation in Syria has not improved. There are currently 12.9 million Syrians who have remained inside the country and are in need of life-saving aid, and much worry persists. According to UNHCR head, António Guterres, refugees and their host countries face insufficient funding:
“Humanitarian assistance budgets are vastly insufficient to meet even the most basic needs, and development actors must step forward to support the longer-term efforts.” He adds, “The situation [in Syria]is becoming unsustainable.”
Inadequate funding will eventually undermine the work that has thus far been accomplished for many displaced Syrians.
In addition to funding issues, Syrian refugees were denied informal entry into Jordan in early June, leaving hundreds in the desert just inside Jordanian state boundaries. According to Human Rights Watch, these refugees “have only limited access to food, water and medical assistance.” Jordan has begun to feel the weight of this heavy influx.
Palestinian Refugees’ Search for Sanctuary
Syrians do not make up the entirety of refugee-seekers in the Levant. Many Palestinians in Syria initially entered the county as refugees. United Nations Relief Works Agency figures from 2011 show that more than half a million Palestinian refugees resided in nine camps within the country. Additionally, Lebanon accepted about 450,000, and Jordan housed over 2 million Palestinian refugees in 10 camps.
In the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk, Palestinians have been without water, food and electricity for some time and face attacks and bombardment from both Assad security forces and ISIS militants. As a result, many have fled and from the 160,000 Palestinians who once resided in this camp, only 18,000 remain. Unfortunately, those who have fled to Lebanon will no longer receive UNRWA’s monthly cash assistance of $100 per family for housing and $27 per person for food due to limited resources.
Matthias Schmale, UNRWA director in Lebanon, explains that this assistance comprised the main source of income for 95 percent of these families. Schmale says, “Among all the refugees fleeing Syria to Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are particularly vulnerable, as they have very few alternatives for service provision and suffer from restrictions on their access to the job market. Moreover, because of their uncertain legal status, they are at risk of detention, abuse and deportation. The suspension of the housing assistance will be disastrous for this already vulnerable community.”
There aren’t many options left for Palestinian families fleeing Syria, as Jordan has blocked them from entering the country since 2012. There has also been an initiative to detain and deport all Palestinians who enter Jordan using falsified Syrian documentation. According to Human Rights Watch, Jordanian authorities “in some cases have arbitrarily stripped [Palestinians] of their [Jordanian] citizenship and forcibly returned them to Syria, in violation of Jordan’s non-refoulement obligation.”
Iraq and its Internally Displaced People
Iraq has one of the highest numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Levant. There are, as of May 2015, nearly 3 million IDPs whom depend heavily on international support, and the number keeps growing.
On May 17, almost 25,000 people fled the city of Ramadi, Iraq after an ISIS assault on the city, according to UN News Centre. Agencies such as he World Food Program, UNICEF, the World Health Organization and UNHCR began to concentrate their efforts in order to provide vital aid to Iraqis in need. UN News Centre reports that more than 2.5 million displaced people and refugees are receiving aid. However, they also stress that low funding will make humanitarian aid inaccessible, especially in Iraq, where the fall of Ramadi to ISIS and the potential of an Iraqi government offensive to recover Mosul could potentially uproot and displace many more people.
“Measures must be taken to ensure protection and that needs, including shelter and humanitarian assistance, are prepared for a potentially deteriorating and nation-wide IDP crisis in Iraq,” stresses Chaloka Beyani, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons.
“IDPs from all ethnic and religious communities are surviving in precarious conditions, often under the threat of violence and further displacement and with inadequate shelter, healthcare, food and water,” he stated. “The situation of hundreds of thousands of IDPs living in areas controlled by ISIS is unclear and deeply worrying.”
Many Iraqi IDPs are not allowed access to safe locations under suspicions of security threats due to their identity, place of origin, or age, reports UN News Centre. Some even face arrests and detention due to their perceived threat toward IDP communities.
Though much work has gone into ensuring the safety and livelihood of the displaced people of Levant, many of the organizations working on the ground are extremely financially limited. The sheer need for aid has eclipsed much of their budgets, and these agencies face ever growing funding gaps. UNHCR in particular has calculated a funding gap of a little over $3.6 trillion, with funds received covering only 20% percent of their 2015 appeal.
More recent developments in the international community have seen the donation of $121 million by Kuwait to UNHCR’s Syrian crisis response, just in time for the beginning of Ramadan, June 17. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine the strain of a summer fast in the desert, away from home, so the donation comes at a very crucial moment.
Additionally, as of June 15, Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, has been invited by the government in Damascus to begin discussing the dire situation that plagues the Syrian people.
UN Spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, explained: “During his visit, Mr. de Mistura intends to raise with the Syrian Government the issue of protection of civilians, underlining once again the unacceptable use of barrel bombs and the incontestable duty of any government, in all circumstances, to protect its civilians, under international humanitarian law.”
Overall, the international community has not sufficiently responded to the continually developing humanitarian crisis in the Levant. Amnesty International’s latest report on the global refugee crisis highlights the international community’s neglect and ignorance toward the crisis in the Levant. Though vast numbers of displaced people have taken refuge in neighboring countries, these have not seen much international support from outside of the region, and many are overstrained. The uncertain fate of nearly four million people depends on the international community’s speedy and proportionate response, one, which has not yet come.
If you are curious about what life is like in a Jordanian refugee camp, why not see for yourself here? These are the kinds of conditions that the international community must commit to uphold for victims of violent conflict who have been uprooted from their homes through no fault of their own. However, international nongovernmental organizations cannot do it alone. Behind them, they need the support of governments and their people.
– Jaime Longoria
Sources: Amnesty International, The Guardian, Human Rights Watch, IB Times, UNHCR 1, UNHCR 2, UNHCR 3, UNHCR 4, UNHCR 5, UNHR, UN News Center 1, UN News Center 2, UN News Center 3, UNRWA 1, UNRWA 2,
Photo: International Business Times