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Syria On Track To Become World's Largest Source Of Refugees

Feb 28, 2014
Originally published on February 28, 2014 8:35 pm

A photo from Syria is grabbing the world's attention: a sea of people lining up for food amid the rubble of a Palestinian refugee camp inside Syria.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was so moved by the image, he took to the Senate floor, saying "a country of 23 million people, a proud country, is being transformed before our eyes to a land of rubble, skeletons, refugees and ghosts."

Syria was once a destination country for refugees. Now, it is fast becoming the world's biggest source of them. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres offered a stark reminder at a recent U.N. gathering.

"Five years ago, Syria was the world's second-largest refugee-hosting country," Guterres said. "Syrians are now about to replace Afghans as the biggest refugee population worldwide."

That's saying something, since Afghanistan has been in conflict for more than four decades. Guterres says if current trends continue, there could be 4 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year.

"Neighboring countries have provided them safety since the beginning, at an enormous cost to themselves," he said. "Few refugee influxes have ever generated this profound an impact on their host countries, with such dramatic demographic, economic and social consequences."

Aid groups need to start looking at the long-term needs of host countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, says Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps.

"This is a refugee crisis that isn't going away," Pont says. "The bordering countries are being destabilized both by the conflict and by the refugee presence itself, and there's a real need to invest in the communities."

Pont says this could mean building up schools and hospitals. In Jordan, where water is scarce, he says Mercy Corps has been trying to manage tensions between local communities and refugees.

"Before this crisis started, Jordan was the fourth most water scarce country in the world," Pont says. "It is now the third most water scarce country in the world, which is a pretty appalling statistic."

This is one reason that Jordan, a new U.N. Security Council member, played a key role last week in getting the first binding U.N. resolution that deals with the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Jordan's ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, says he hopes the resolution will create enough pressure on the parties to improve the humanitarian situation and thus ease the pressure on Jordan.

He expects that Jordan anticipates spending $2.8 billion in the next year to help Syrian refugees, while also keeping an eye on Jordanian families, who have opened up their homes to Syrians.

"We are absolutely straining every effort and every nerve to be as welcoming and accommodating as possible, but we do still need a great deal of help and there has to be greater burden-sharing across the international community," the prince says.

Zeid fears donor fatigue, but still he points out that rich countries have bailed out big banks. So he's hoping they will look at tiny Jordan in a similar way.

"Compared to them, the struggling economy of a country that's opened up borders to host refugees fleeing a terrible conflict, there doesn't seem to be a commensurate response," he says.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This week, one picture from Syria is grabbing the world's attention. It shows a sea of people lining up for food. The backdrop is the rubble of a Palestinian refugee camp inside Syria. Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia was so moved by the image, he took to the Senate floor.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: A country of 23 million people, a proud country, is being transformed before our eyes into a land of rubble, skeletons, refugees, and ghosts.

BLOCK: Syria was once a destination country for refugees. Now, it's becoming the world's biggest source of them. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the long-term implications.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N.'s refugee agency recently came out with staggering new figures about the crisis in and around Syria.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Five years ago, Syria was the world's second largest refugee-hosting country. Syrians are now about to replace Afghans as the present biggest refugee population worldwide.

KELEMEN: And that's saying something since Afghanistan has been in conflict for more than four decades. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, told a general assembly session this week that if current trends continue, there could be 4 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year.

GUTERRES: Neighboring countries have provided them with safety since the beginning at an enormous cost to themselves. Few refugee influxes have ever generated this profound an impact on their host countries, with such dramatic demographic, economic, and social consequences.

KELEMEN: And aid groups need to start looking at the long-term needs of these countries, says Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps.

NIGEL PONT: This is a refugee crisis that isn't going away. The bordering countries are being destabilized, both by the conflict and by the refugee presence itself, and there's a real need to invest in the communities. It's super important that we start that now.

KELEMEN: That means building up schools and hospitals and managing tensions between local communities and refugees, tensions that are rising, Pont says, over water in Jordan.

PONT: Before this crisis started, Jordan was the fourth most water scarce country in the world. It's now the third most water scarce country in the world, which is a pretty appalling statistic.

KELEMEN: That's one reason why Jordan, a new Security Council member, played a key role last week in getting the first binding U.N. resolution that deals with the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Jordan's ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, calls on Syria and the rebels to obey the resolution and stop besieging cities.

PRINCE ZEID RA'AD AL-HUSSEIN: One hopes that this would create enough pressure on the parties in Syria to reach an understanding on the humanitarian condition, which will then ease the pressure on us in Jordan.

KELEMEN: At the moment, though, he says Jordan expects to spend $2.8 billion in the next year to help hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country. And the government also has to keep an eye on Jordanian families who have opened up their homes to refugees.

AL-HUSSEIN: We are absolutely straining every effort and every nerve to be as welcoming and as accommodating as possible. But we do still need a great deal of help, and there has to be greater burden sharing across the international community.

KELEMEN: Prince Zeid fears that donor fatigue may be setting in. But if rich nations can come up with money to bail out big banks, he's hoping they'll look at tiny Jordan in a similar way.

AL-HUSSEIN: Compared to them, the struggling economy of a country that's opened up its borders to host refugees fleeing a terrible conflict, there doesn't seem to be a commensurate response.

KELEMEN: Lebanon, too, is under severe pressure from this refugee crisis. Secretary of State John Kerry is to attend a meeting on that in Paris next week. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.