The United States and European countries must increase the number of refugees offered permanent resettlement, as well as the number offered temporary protection. Non-Syrian refugees in the region must be offered such protections as well.
Beirut, 2 December 2014 – On the day the United States announced they would conduct air strikes against militants in Iraq, a Syrian woman here asked a Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) staff member a seemingly simple question: "do you think a Syrian life has less value than anyone else's?"
The present growth in militarism represents only the most recent deterioration of the situation of the Syrian people who have had to contend with ever increasing suffering as a result of a brutal conflict that has continued to deepen for nearly four years. As a result, more than 191,000 are dead and millions more are displaced within Syria or are refugees in neighbouring countries and beyond.
"No one has come to save Syrians ... We've been dying for four years, but we aren't worth saving, no one cares for us," the woman lamented.
Her statement echoes the sentiment of the majority of Syrians who feel abandoned by the international community and who are desperate for this war to end. No matter what political or military arguments are made, they fail to change the reality of the suffering of civilians who have borne the brunt of this war physically and psychologically.
"As a Syrian, who has lived here in the midst of this chaos for four years, even I am confused. Daily, alliances are changing, names are changing, there are speeches and conferences abroad, but the reality is the same: violence, violence and more violence. We – the civilians – are the ones who suffer," says Samer* a JRS volunteer in Syria.
The figures speak for themselves: nine million Syrians internally displaced, three million registered refugees in neighbouring countries, of which more than 50 percent are women and children. There are countless others who are neither registered nor accounted for: the dead, the imprisoned, the disappeared; those who have emigrated and those who have made harrowing journeys hidden in freezer trucks or risked their lives in dinghies crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe – and the numbers keep growing.
Jesuit Refugee Service staff in Syria note that any one family can be displaced many times as they are constantly forced to flee again and again to evade new violence. As territorial borders and alliances shift again, so the conflict follows the displaced from one precarious haven to another.
Making sense of this complex situation is not easy. Many international, regional, religious, ethnic, socio-political and economic factors are fuelling it, making any resolution seem far beyond anyone's reach. Since the Geneva II peace talks among the government, the opposition and their international supporters earlier this year stalled, there has been no more talk of negotiations, and a renewed escalation in violence.
"The situation in Damascus is very unpredictable at the moment, especially in the areas where we have our centres. We have to take each day as it comes. We do our best to assist those in need, but it is a very precarious situation," said Nawras Sammour SJ, JRS Middle East and North Africa Director.
The front line humanitarian response to this tragedy has come primarily from civilian networks. On the local level, this takes the form of spontaneously formed groups of people ranging from just a few to maybe 20 or more individuals from a variety of backgrounds, who have come together to provide humanitarian aid, human rights protection, information gathering and documentation of events. Spurred to compassion and to action by the circumstances they find themselves in, Syrians from all walks of life have responded with impartial, non-violent action.
"Local grassroots groups can often get food to extremely vulnerable people more quickly and efficiently than UN agencies and large NGOs. Security and local knowledge are key. These agencies should rely more on these smaller local networks to reach otherwise inaccessible populations," said Fr Sammour.
"I never thought I would do this kind of work, I'm a pharmacist by profession, now I'm in charge of distributing food baskets and hygiene kits to thousands of displaced families who have lost everything," said Samer.* We (Syrians) know the shock of fleeing your home, the constant fear of some random attack, death is with us every moment of every day."
Hanna* assists with humanitarian relief efforts in Aleppo, where two million people are displaced to the western side of the city; this side of the city only has the infrastructure to cope for – at maximum – one million people.
"What do I miss the most?" muses Hanna, a wisp of hair escaping from her hijab. "The ordinary things. I miss having coffee with my friends on Saturday evenings, I miss sitting around as a family watching TV and discussing our lives."
"Now it's just my dad and me. He's only staying here to look after me because he won't leave me alone in this city, and my choice is to stay and help. But I know he misses my Mum, I sometimes feel so guilty that he's still here because of me. He's old, he should be looked after by my siblings and me, not stuck in this war looking after me.
Barrel bombs – old oil barrels filled with TNT and scraps of metal – have rained on the eastern side of the city into residential neighbourhoods, causing civilians to flood into the western side or out to the rural areas. Aleppo, Syria's largest city and one of the oldest cities in the world, proud of 4,000 years of civilization, now lies in ruins. A part of humanity's history systematically obliterated.
An Iraqi who had sought refuge in Syria years ago now finds herself again seeking a safe place for her family. "We are just so tired, it's time to leave and never come back. There is nothing more for us, nothing more for our children. I want my children to grow up away from this madness." Her tone is weary, resigned to a fate that she never wanted, and certainly did not choose.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, Muslims and Yazidis are seeking safety in the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are sleeping in the yards of churches, mosques, schools, abandoned buildings, streets and public areas. Those who are lucky have tents; others are exposed to the elements. Local communities have responded with open arms, but the experience of Syria has taught us that the burden cannot be left to host communities indefinitely.
These people cannot be left outdoors in temporary accommodation; the seasons are changing and in Syria and Iraq winter is bitterly cold. Recently, Kurdish authorities delayed the start of public school by one month so that people sheltering in schools could have a safe-haven for just a while longer while authorities and aid agencies decided what to with them. Such ad hoc efforts, while well intentioned, are no solution to a problem that will certainly continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
The European Community should ensure a safer passage to Europe for those who are fleeing and seeking asylum. European states must also share the responsibility of resettlement.
"We're disappointed that diplomatic efforts and the political engagement of many countries is not leading to a negotiated settlement of the conflict," said Andrea Lari, JRS Advocacy Advisor.
"JRS believes that the fighting parties should be brought together – with a wide range of observers and facilitators, including countries in the region and those countries outside the region with a geopolitical stake in the conflict – sitting around the sametable and hammering out steps to suspend the fighting, rebuild the country and stop the conflict all together."
While long-term solutions remains elusive, JRS projects in Syria continue to help communities resist and survive the worst effects of the war that threatens to overwhelm and destroy them.
As a Syrian who lives in Damascus, and oversees JRS projects across the country that provide emergency relief, food, rent support and psychosocial support to 300,000 Syrians a year, Fr Sammour knows first-hand the effect of four years of violence on the people. "We have to give our support to all those who are doing their best to resist the senseless violence of war," says Fr Sammour.
At the most basic level, food security is the one of the most urgent priorities for those forcibly displaced by the Syrian conflict. Despite significant increases in the numbers of Syrians receiving food aid, almost half of those in need still did not receive assistance.
Fighting renders local supply lines and markets unstable within Syria. Many donors are pushing to move to a voucher system as opposed to providing food baskets. While this may be helpful for refugees in countries like Jordan and Iraq where food is available, the instability within Syria, affecting the availability of food for local purchase renders this system too unreliable.
In addition to food shortages, Syrians have experienced a dramatic reduction in essential services and an exponential rise in poverty rates. This poverty cuts across the many cultural, religious and ethnic communities in Syria. In response, JRS serves all marginalized groups – Sunnis, Shi'a (including Alawites), Druze and Christians. Working with all communities to meet basic needs provides an opportunity to foster inter-religious dialogue, which will be essential to the achievement of a peaceful future.
Although coordination in Syria and the surrounding countries between JRS, Jesuit networks, local Christian and Muslim groups and secular organizations, and services delivered by other networks of organizations help civilians receive much needed support, present levels of assistance are far from sufficient to meet the escalating needs. The international community has not adequately supported the network of local Syrian groups engaged in humanitarian initiatives, a situation that needs to be urgently corrected.
"Peace must be looked for and built together through small actions every day," Pope Francis said while visiting the region earlier this year.
These words capture the profound longing for peace from the people of the Middle East, and are the message that JRS staff, their families and local communities wish to send to the international community.
Recommendations for Action:
- The international community must increase pressure on all sides to return to peace negotiations and find a solution to the crisis in Syria.
- Greater support must be provided to the neighbouring countries (Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey) both to improve infrastructure and meet immediate needs in order to allow them to sustain the increasing burden of hosting millions of refugees.
- Within Syria, more assistance must be provided to those local organizations that are able to reach deep within war affected communities to reach people in need who cannot otherwise be reached by international aid.
- The United States and European countries must increase the number of refugees offered permanent resettlement, as well as the number offered temporary protection. Non-Syrian refugees in the region must be offered such protections as well.
- The European community must ensure a safer passage to Europe for those who are fleeing conflict and seeking asylum, including appropriate access to asylum procedures.