Syria’s violence prompts worst humanitarian crisis in a century

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community gather for humanitarian aid at Nowruz camp, in Derike, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed)
Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community gather for humanitarian aid at Nowruz camp, in Derike, Syria, Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed) AP

Nearly half of Syria’s population has been displaced either internally or externally as refugees in the worst humanitarian crisis to strike the Middle East in at least a century, according to new data released by the International Rescue Committee.

The complex civil war, which has now morphed into a three-way free-for-all among rebels, the Syrian regime and a caliphate of Islamic extremists attacking virtually everyone, has driven at least 3 million people from Syria into neighboring countries. The movement is stressing already fragile nations such as Jordan and Lebanon, who have born the brunt of the exodus even as both deal with their own unstable internal political situations.

Turkey also has received hundreds of thousands of refugees and continues to struggle to control its own border; thousands of foreign Jihadi fighters have used Turkey to access the Syrian battlefield. They offset the tens of thousands of Syrian fleeing the fighting, leaving southern Turkey awash in desperate refugees and militants of all stripes.

In terms of world history, the IRC, considered one of the world’s most effective aid organizations, says the situation has reached a level of disaster not seen worldwide since the Rwandan genocide, more than 20 years ago that saw fewer people – about 1.5 million _ displaced but nearly a million killed. The casualties in the Syrian conflict have been estimated by the United Nations conservatively at over 200,000 dead since it began in early 2011.

The lack of a coordinated international effort to address such a enormous catastrophe in the volatile region makes no sense in the modern era, according to an IRC official.

“This new milestone is as unacceptable as it is tragic. This level of human suffering, anguish and misery does not belong in the 21st century – it is a devastating new hallmark of human failure,” said IRC president David Miliband. “It should not take these numbers for the crisis to hit the headlines – we are witnessing the biggest humanitarian catastrophe for a generation in one of the least stable and most dangerous parts of the world. This crisis needs more public attention, more international financing and crucially more political endeavor to tackle the root of the crisis: political dysfunction that has led to violence, chaos and death.”

The situation in Lebanon, which has absorbed at least 1.2 million refugees into an already unstable population of about 4 million people – and an additional estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees that have been living in camps for decades – poses the greatest concern. With a government widely considered the least effectual in an already unstable region, Lebanon has refused to formulate an official government plan to deal with crisis, leaving virtually all of the aid and organizational work to either outside aid groups or even to the refugees themselves, who instead of living in camps where the population can be easily accessed by aid groups – such as the enormous Zaatari Camp in northern Jordan – are scattered throughout Lebanon in small makeshift camps, private homes, or even living on the streets.

Their presence – and violent overflow from the battlefields in Syria – has already lead to a series of skirmishes centering around the eastern Beqqa city of Aarsal, which has nearly tripled in size from its peacetime population of about 50,000 people. Over the last month, what had been small scale occasional clashes between rebels and either the Lebanese Army or the Syrian regime aligned Shiite militant group Hezbollah turned into a full scale battle that saw dozens of Lebanese army soldiers killed, wounded or captured and much of Aarsal destroyed.

In a video released Thursday, militants from the Islamic State reportedly beheaded one of the Lebanese army captives amid threats of more killings to come if Islamist prisoners held by the Lebanese government were not released. Jordan’s efforts have resulted in a giant camp city set 6 miles from the border, where refugees are isolated from the rest of the population. The Zaatari Camp in July was estimated to have 81,000 residents.

The report, however, points out that as staggering as the Syrian numbers might be, the situation in neighboring Iraq, where the Islamic State overran much of the northern and central portions of the country in a June blitz that saw much of the Iraqi army disperse, has forced the internal displacement of well over a million Iraqi people as well.

The relatively stable Kurdish Autonomous Region, whose security forces have so far kept the Islamic State from overrunning its major population centers has absorbed at least half a million Iraqi Arabs on top of tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds who had previously fled fighting in their home country.

With refugees from Mosul, Tikrit and a slew of small Christian villages overrun by the militants, virtually all the public space in the capital Irbil is filled with tents, as are all the churches and mosques. But with Kurdish and Arab interactions tense over the possibility of Islamic State militants, which include a sizable contingent of Kurds already, infiltrating the KRG to conduct terror attacks, security forces have already begun cracking down on refugees and turning away many from the border.

“We’re full, look around Irbil,” said one Kurdish security official, speaking on background because the policy has not been formalized even if it is in effect. “We’ve got 500,000 extra people to feed and 3 million to protect. And a war to fight.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent, reporting from Irbil, Iraq.