Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1138, 7 - 13 March 2013
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1138, 7 - 13 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Misery beyond the frontlines

As Syrians living inside the country continue to suffer from daily artillery and air attacks, a further two million refugees abroad are living in often difficult conditions waiting for the regime to fall, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled their country since the conflict began some two years ago, with the poorest among them often seeking shelter in refugee camps in neighbouring countries or staying as guests with relatives abroad. Those refugees able to scrape together some money have been luckier and have been able to rent homes abroad, trying to immerse themselves in new lives elsewhere. Most Syrian refugees are concentrated in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
Heavy artillery attacks and air raids by forces loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have targeted towns and cities across the country, causing great destruction in residential areas and triggering unprecedented waves of refugees. The pursuit of activists by the security agencies has forced the latter to flee abroad to avoid death or arrest, while hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled to neighbouring states out of fear that they could share the same fate as relatives killed by military and security forces if they stay in Syria.
Syrian refugees are flocking to border regions every day to escape the conflict, often assisted by revolutionary brigades in crossing the border to safety. However, in some regions where the revolutionaries are not in control, refugees have been forced to pay some $300 to be smuggled across the borders. Night-time escapes are especially perilous since refugees are obliged to cross open territory and sometimes rivers, and they are in danger of being shot at by security forces patrolling the borders to prevent them from crossing.

TROUBLING FIGURES: A recent report by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) revealed that the number of registered Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring Syria since the start of the uprising two years ago has now reached more than 750,000.
Of these, Jordan is hosting 260,000, Lebanon 203,000, Turkey 184,000, Iraq 102,000 and Egypt 20,000. The UN expects the number of registered Syrian refugees in neighbouring states to rise to 1.1 million by June if the conflict continues.
However, the figures only take into account refugees registered with the UNHCR. Some of these live inside refugee camps, while others do not. The actual number of Syrian refugees is far greater because not all of them have officially registered. Some estimates put the unregistered refugees at around 1.3 million, which brings the number of refugees outside Syria to some two million — more when one remembers that the number of refugees can rise by 10,000 in a single day.
Six Turkish provinces are now home to 14 refugee camps housing 153,000 Syrian refugees. However, many Syrians who entered Turkey with regular travel documents have refused to stay in these camps and have moved to Turkish border towns instead to live at their own expense despite the financial burden. In the first months of living in the camps, the refugees in Turkey suffered appalling conditions: water and fuel were often unavailable, and Syrian women were forced to carry water from neighbouring Turkish villages, with other refugees gathering firewood for cooking and to keep warm.
As the number of refugees increased, the Turkish authorities in cooperation with the Gulf states and Arab and Turkish charities were able to provide food, healthcare, clothes and other services to the refugees. Now life is bearable in the Turkish towns close to Syria where tens of thousands of refugees have fled, and local people have provided the Syrian refugees with jobs and housing at reasonable prices.
Yet, not all problems have been solved. Refugees living in the camps are forced to live in tents that do not keep out the cold, and young people can barely find jobs in Turkish towns. If they are in luck and find employment, what they are paid is hardly enough to cover bare necessities.
Iyad Bitar is one example of the tens of thousands of young Syrians who have fled to Turkey. “I turned 18 last month and fled to avoid the draft in Syria,” Bitar, who lives in the Hatay refugee camp, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “If I had joined the regular army in Syria, I would have been forced either to kill women and children or be killed by the revolutionaries. I don’t want to carry arms: I want to live, study and raise a family in the future. That’s why I decided to leave Syria, and I will not return until this madness is over,” Bitar said.
Most Syrian refugees in Turkey do not see a solution to the crisis any time soon, and they do not feel there is a secure future in Syria. Even living close to the Turkish border with Syria they can hear the guns and rocket attacks. They are preparing themselves to live outside Syria for a long time, and some have started to learn Turkish in order to start a new life outside their country of origin.

DESTITUTION IN THE DESERT: Jordan has the most Syrian refugees, with more than some 320,000 of them being registered and even more who are not.
The largest refugee camp in Jordan is Al-Zaatari in the north of the country near the border with Syria where more than 135,000 refugees are located. It has a poor reputation because of its location in the middle of the desert far from any inhabited areas. The infrastructure is poor, and there is little clean water or other amenities.
The Jordanian authorities prevent the refugees from leaving the camp unless they have a Jordanian sponsor, and Syrians living there suffer from poor food and other conditions. They do not eat meat or dairy products because of the lack of refrigeration, and there are no materials to keep warm. Those living in the camp lack aid and assistance, and reports by the international NGO Human Rights Watch have criticised the way in which Jordan has been dealing with the Syrian refugees on its territory, particularly by preventing them from moving freely in the country.
Jordan has refused to let in Palestinian refugees living in Syria, and Jordanian police have used tear gas at the Al-Zaatari camp in order to disperse crowds when handing out humanitarian aid.
UNICEF has reported that there are 55,000 refugee children in Jordan alone, and an estimated $57 million is needed to meet their needs for the first six months of 2013, especially in terms of education and psychological and social support. UNICEF, however, does not have access to this kind of money, and this bodes ill for the children’s future.
While some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, France and Italy, have donated small field hospitals which operate well and have plentiful supplies, these hospitals cannot conduct complicated surgery, and there is a lack of awareness among the refugees of the health problems in their community. Another problem is that some have taken advantage of the aid and have tried to bargain with the plight of their brethren, deliberately spreading rumours about the charities in order to undermine donor trust in them.
“Many unaccompanied children came to the camp, and no one knows the fate of their families,” Aswan, a female aid activist who did not want her full name to be published, told the Weekly. “Some older children told UNHCR officials that their parents had been killed by regime soldiers, but the younger ones could not say what had happened.”
“All those who arrive at the Al-Zaatari camp come with only the clothes on their backs. They do not own anything because their homes and all their property have been destroyed. They are looking around for refuge and don’t know what awaits them. Their only concern is to leave the hell in Syria,” she said.
There have been reports that some female refugees have been “sold” under the pretext of marriage, and aid and religious charity workers have reported that Syrian girls as young as 14 have been forced into marriage contracts for “conjugal relations” that are handwritten and not officially registered. Some of these last only a few days, or hours, and they are entered into in return for money. According to the UN and aid agencies, at least 500 Syrian underage girls were forced into such contracts last year
Many of those who have fled Syria for Lebanon are also living in poor conditions. Most of them have not found appropriate housing or healthcare. Most do not have jobs, and they refuse to register with the authorities for fear that the information will be forwarded to the Lebanese security agencies or Hizbullah, which is allied with the Syrian regime. This information might then be relayed to the Syrian security agencies, and there have already been cases of the forced returns of prominent Syrian activists.
Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in collective housing, sometimes former schools or even fields and parking lots. They lack basic protection from the elements. Sometimes up to 12 people share one room. According to the international NGO Doctors without Borders, more than half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have access to healthcare, and some 75 per cent do not benefit from social support. Half cannot afford the cost of medicines, and one third of patients stop medication for chronic diseases because they do not have the money to treat them. Only 30 per cent of children have been vaccinated, and 72 per cent of pregnant women lack prenatal care.
Salem Jandali, a Syrian refugee from Homs, lives in one room on a farm in Tripoli with his wife and six children, one of whom was paralysed after shrapnel penetrated his back. Jandali lost two others in an air raid over Homs. The doors and windows are covered with plastic bags, and on the floor there is a tattered mat and several thin mattresses. These constitute all Jandali’s worldly possessions. He works on the farm itself for a small daily wage, but says he has fled the war in Syria only to be met with other clashes in Tripoli. “I want to go back to Syria and die there with dignity,” he said.

HOMESICK FOR SYRIA: While the Syrian regime continues to pound the activists leading the revolution, many Syrians have headed to Cairo in search of safety. Some 20,000 have registered with the UNHCR, but owing to Egyptian official and public sympathy with their plight no Syrian refugee has been forced to live outside or under canvas.
According to activists and opposition figures, the Egyptian government has allowed the refugees to be active in politics and civil affairs, and a presidential decree has ordered that Syrian students should be treated in the same way as their Egyptian peers. Syrians entering Egypt do not need a visa, and they can live in Egypt for three months without seeking further papers. There are very active Egyptian charities assisting the Syrian refugees and sometimes providing them with housing, financial aid and even jobs. However, poorer Syrians do not come to Egypt since the airfare for a family of five can cost more than $1,500.
After the Syrian military destroyed the industrial areas in Damascus and Aleppo, a large number of businessmen moved overseas to the UAE, Egypt or Turkey. An estimated three per cent of the 50,000 Syrian businessmen who fled their homeland went to Egypt.
Bassem Ajloni, the owner of a printing business in Damascus, left Syria a few months ago with his family for Cairo to escape the violence. Once there, he bought a new printing press and began operations. “We became accustomed to life in Egypt very quickly,” Ajloni told the Weekly. “Our customs in Syria are almost identical, and living in Egypt is cheaper than in Lebanon or Jordan. The Egyptian people are very sympathetic towards us — even the barber refused to take any money when he found out I was a Syrian who had fled the war.”
“Yet, despite this welcome we are still dreaming of the day we can return to Syria. If my business here succeeds, I will continue travelling between the two countries,” he added.
The large flow of refugees has in some cases overwhelmed some neighbouring states already facing unstable conditions, with host countries finding it difficult to provide for the basic needs of the refugees. These are more than simply the cost of food and shelter, since there is also the burden the refugees can put on infrastructure, especially water and energy resources. Some political, security and social problems are also emerging that have the host countries worried.
“The refugees have political, demographic, economic and security impacts on the host countries,” Fayez Sara, a prominent Syrian opposition figure, told the Weekly. “In some cases, the refugee issue has becomes a source of political disputes in these countries. Lebanon is divided politically between the government that supports the Syrian regime and the opposition that stands by the refugees, for example. Turkey is also split between a government that opposes the Syrian regime and an opposition that is close to Damascus.”
“Meanwhile, the majority of Shias in Iraq support the Alawite regime of President Al-Assad, while the Sunnis are in solidarity with the Syrian opposition that is demanding its overthrow. This divide is threatening to lead to a doctrinal clash in these countries, which is why their governments choose to isolate the refugees in camps far from inhabited areas and keep a tight grip on their movements.”
Many months have now passed, and the Syrian refugees are still facing much the same difficulties, while the majority of the international humanitarian and aid agencies continue to ignore them. Thousands of refugees live off the generosity of Syrian or local charities in the host countries, while the governments of these countries meet only minimum needs and have been asking the UN for more funds to improve their conditions.
The UN has admitted that the amount of humanitarian aid allocated to the Syrian refugees in neighbouring states has not been enough for their numbers, and these are continuing to rise on a daily basis with some camps in Turkey and Jordan already having reached capacity.
Although more than a year has passed since many Syrians fled their country, they still dream of returning home. They yearn for their former lives, neighbours and memories, and they are waiting for the regime to fall in order to return to their homes — if they can find these intact after all the destruction.

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