Syrian refugee crisis worsens, will require more international support
Pressure on neighboring countries mounts as conflict continues,
says USCCB delegation
A delegation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Migration and Refugee Services' (MRS) office recently returned from visiting the Middle East to study the situation of Syrian refugees. The delegation, led by Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, visited Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey October 7-20. The delegation also looked at the plight of African refugees in Egypt. The following are the findings and recommendations from their mission.
The number of Syrian refugees continues to increase, placing the most vulnerable at risk. According to the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the outflow of Syrians could reach 750,000 by year's end and as many as 1.5 million by the end of 2013. Neighboring countries told the delegation that services to the refugees could be cut back or the refugee flow limited without more support from the international community. Vulnerable refugee cases, including women with children, the elderly and disabled, and unaccompanied children could suffer the consequences, as protection falters and resources become scarce.
Iraqis residing in Syria have been denied entry into neighboring countries and remain in limbo. Iraqi refugees who fled the war in Iraq now face another conflict. Iraqis are being denied access to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and must return to Iraq before entering those nations. Iraqis who have been approved for UNHCR for resettlement to the United States continue to await their interviews in a third country.
Religious minorities, especially Christians, are at extreme risk, as they were in Iraq. The delegation heard many stories from Christian families that they are being targeted in the conflict, similar to the persecution many of these groups experienced during the Iraq war. This persecution could worsen if the conflict dissolves into a sectarian and ethnic civil war. Some remain at risk in neighboring countries.
Vulnerable African refugees in Egypt lack protection and support. The delegation heard horrific stories of the torture and trafficking of Eritrean refugees in the Sinai peninsula, some of whom have escaped to Cairo. Women and children refugees from Sudan lack protection in Cairo and face harassment and discrimination. Many urban African women refugees fear leaving their homes for fear of harassment or attack.
As the conflict in Syria continues and intensifies, more international support will be required to assist Syrian refugees to find durable solutions. To date, only about one-third of the UNHCR international appeal for Syrian refugees has been met. The resources of the receiving nations are being stretched and tensions between residents and the new refugees are rising. The United States has given approximately $132 million for support of the refugees, but more will be needed as the refugee numbers rise. Of particular need are refugees residing outside of the camps, both in Turkey and Jordan. The United States and other nations should consider resettlement for vulnerable cases that cannot remain in a neighboring country.
The United States should urge neighboring countries to receive Iraqi refugees from Syria and should expedite the resettlement cases of Iraqis referred for consideration to the United States. The delegation spoke with Iraqis in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey who lived in Syria and escaped the conflict there. Many entered these countries after returning to Iraq and have resettlement cases pending with the U.S. government. Some have even been accepted by the United States for resettlement, pending a complex security clearance process. These refugees should receive expedited consideration by the U.S. government.
The U.S. government should work with the Egyptian government to halt the trafficking and torture of Eritrean refugees in the Sinai peninsula. Eritrean refugees fleeing their country are being captured and tortured by local tribes in the Sinai peninsula. This hideous practice should be stopped by the U.S. and Egyptian governments as soon as possible. Victims who have escaped the torture remain at risk from their torturers and should receive emergency resettlement. Moreover, the situation of refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the Sudan should be examined to prevent them from migrating north and becoming vulnerable to kidnappers. For example, rescuing Eritrean children from camps in northern Ethiopia should be strongly considered.
Vulnerable African refugees in Cairo who are unable to integrate and remain at risk of harassment and attack should be considered for resettlement. Women refugees with children from Sudan, Somalia, and other African countries are unable to support themselves and live in fear of harassment and attack in Cairo. Only 1600 of a possible 2000 refugee resettlement slots referred by UNHCR were resettled last year. The United States should increase the level in 2013 and meet the quota. Particular attention should be paid to the completion of processing in Sallum camp, near the Egyptian-Libyan border.
The United States should urge neighboring countries to protect religious minorities fleeing the Syrian conflict. Christians and other religious minorities fleeing Syria remain in fear in neighboring countries and should receive special attention. Many are afraid to ask for protection from UNHCR for fear the information will be shared with the Syrian regime; others are afraid to go to organized camps for fear of further persecution by elements in the camps.
The Syrian conflict is nearly two years old and there is increasing anxiety that it could last for an extended period of time. Absent an end to the fighting, Syrian refugees will remain in neighboring countries and their numbers will increase. The international community should share the burden of caring for the refugees now rather than when it reaches a crisis point, with the potential for destabilizing the entire region.