Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The Crisis in Regime and Refugee Exodus in Syria

Aparajita Das

The United States of America (USA) andEuropean Union (EU), among other countries, have agreed to grant asylum to a fixed number of Syrian refugees. (1) This is a commendable step towards burden sharing of refugees, by countries which do not share common boundaries with Syria. The flight of more than 2.2 million people from Syria is stands marked today as one of the worst humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that this count might touch 3 million by end of 2013. The Syrian refugees face an uncertain future and their consistent outflow is causing a severe strain on host countries. As the winter sets in, well-off countries should provide more material help and safe passage to their soils.

The Regime: The civil unrest began in March 2011 with hundreds of Syrians staging protests demanding the resignation of President Basher Al Assad. The street protests soon degenerated into an internecine armed conflict, with pro-Assad and anti-Assad activists using indiscriminate force, killing and committing other human rights violations, resulting in huge flow of refugees. More than 100, 000 Syrians have been killed so far. (2)

Syria, a Sunni majority nation, was ruled by Basher’s father Hafez al Assad, an Alawite (a Shia sect), since 1970. Basher came to occupy the office of the president following the death of Hafez in 2000. Initially, Basher, unlike his father, did introduce some political reforms but that did not last long. Political arrests resumed, social gathering, media and internet began to be monitored again. (3)

The Protests: Popular protests first began in Daraa and soon spread to other parts of the country. According to a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) report, the strife degenerated into an “overtly sectarian” conflict, with Sunni rebel groups fighting against the Assad government. The report adds that while minorities such as Alawites, Christians, Armenians, Druze support the government, often the Sunni opposition groups have attacked these minorities. (4)

The 28 month old internal conflict got messier day by day with both government and rebels getting assistance and diplomatic support from other countries and non-state actors. Assad is using the Syrian army, Shahiba, an unofficial pro-government militia group to crush the movement. Lebanon-based Shia militant group Hezbollah is fighting for Assad. (5, 6) The main anti - Assad group is the National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, a coalition of different opposition parties, including Muslim Brotherhood. (7) The al-Nusrah Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, is the main militant group against Assad. (8)

While Iran and Russia back Assad, the US, the EU and Arab League have been pressurising Assad to step down. (9) In August 2013 Assad had allegedly used chemical weapons against the opposition, killing more than 1000 people. There were similar allegations against the rebels. (10) The UN investigators, next month confirmed the use of Sarin gas against the rebels. Following which the UN Security Council passed a resolution asking the Syrian government to dismantle all chemical weapons and Assad agreed to abide by this resolution. (11) The government has used cluster bombs, scud missiles against opposition whereas rebels have staged suicide bombings against civilians and government officials.

The Refugees: Most refuges have taken shelter in neighbouring Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Majority of them are women and children. These refugees, until they return to Syria, would compete for every basic needs, like jobs, education with the host people. Lack of basic amenities might trigger riots, which has been reported from camps in Jordan. What is alarming is that since 2013, there has been a steep spike in refugee outflow. Majority of them depend on aid for their daily survival. The presence of such high number of displaced people is causing financial drain for host countries. People in crowded camps are also vulnerable to contagious diseases. Jordan’s Zaatari city has more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. Reports from these camps indicate incidents outbreak of polio and organised crime. (12)

Some of the refugee camps, according to Amnesty International, USA, are being used to recruit militants. Such a situation poses a risk to the host nation. Zaatari camps are being used by Nusrah Front to recruit soldiers. Even among refugees there is discrimination. For instance Jordan has refused the entry of the displaced Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, who were residing in Syria.Turkey, which is backing the rebels, is housing about 516, 383 refugees. But reports suggest that there are many unregistered refugees in Istanbul and other south-eastern cities. (13)

Recently some refugees from Turkey were caught while illegally attempting to cross over to Greece. They weredetained by security forces and deported back. Such forceful return is against international and EU laws. Since March 2011, more than 20,000 people have tried to enter Greece and about 8,000 were detained on their arrival. Uninhabitable conditions in camps are likely to encourage illegal migration to better-off countries like Greece, but they might not be welcome due to different factors such as economic slowdown as in case of Greece. (14)

While Egypt has opened its borders to Syrians, it has refused the entry of Syrian refugees of Palestinian origin to seek protection under the office of the UNHCR. There are about 300,000 Syrians in Egypt now. In the beginning no visa was required to enter Egypt but when President Mohammad Morsi was ousted, restrictions on entry was imposed. The Egyptian authorities were reacting to reports that refugees were participating in pro-Morsi rallies. There are also reports that the interim government had unlawfully detained and forcefully returning some refugees, which is again violation of principle of non-refoulement. (15, 16)

Lebanon is the smallest host country with about 800,000 registered and unregistered refugees. Hosting such large size of refugees is likely to cost Lebanon about $2.6 billion, according to a World Bank estimate. (17) Hosting such high number of refugees is unsustainable unless the international community provides financial aid and shares some burden. Iraq has witnessed consistent flow of refugees from northern Syria, where rebels are trying to establish their rule. There are about 202,040 Syrians in Iraq. (18)

IDPs: As the conflict enters its third year, there are about 6.5 million internally displaced people (IDP), waiting for safe homes and other humanitarian assistance. The UNHCR on August 2013 shipped relief material to camps in Damascus and Idlib. The UNHCR and other aid agencies might not be able to provide timely help due to security reasons, making the IDPs more vulnerable to disease and other security threats. (19)

Other than the UNHCR, WHO, Caritas Lebanon, People in Need, International Medical Corps, CARE Jordan, Arab Women Organization are some of the non-governmental organisations which have been providing aid to these refugees. Western countries and some of the well-off West Asian countries should step in to rescue of these helpless Syrians. Italy has already allowed more than 4,500 Syrians, Canada has agreed to take in 1,300 Syrians, and US 2,000. Germany and Sweden have offered similar help. (20)

The UN has appealed for US $2.9 billion for helping the refugees and another US$1.4 billion would be required for IDPs. In addition to this the Lebanese and Jordanian governments have appealed for US $ 449 million and US$ 380 million, respectively. (21)

Conclusion: The western, better-off West Asian countries should be more forthcoming in aiding refugees, and also grant them permanent residencies. At present the neighbouring countries are too strained or unstable to provide safety to these helpless Syrians.

The refugee crisis is unlikely to be resolved immediately as there are no signs of Assad stepping down. The opposition might require to fight for long and sustained campaign unless international community intervenes in a decisive way. Even opposition groups are faction ridden and do not have one voice. If Assad resigns, security situation is likely to remain fragile and might not be encouraging for refugees to return.


1.Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Countries Agree to Special Quotas for Syrian Refugees” The New York Times, 1 October 2013, URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/02/world/europe/special-quotas-for-syrian-refugees.html

2.UNHCR, “Discovering the Human Faces of a Tragedy” (accessed on 12 November 2013), URL: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/syria.php

3.Syria’s Civil War: Key Facts, Important Players, CBC News, 31 October 2013, URL: http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/syria-dashboard/

4.Joe Sterling, SaadAbedine and Salma Abdelaziz, “Syrian Fight Now ‘Overtly Sectarian’, UN Says” CNN, 20 December 2012, URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/12/20/world/meast/syria-civil-war/

5.Asher Berman, “Criminalization of the Syrian Conflict”, Institute of War, 16 May 2012,URL: http://www.understandingwar.org/article/criminalization-syrian-conflict

6.Hezbollah’s Elite Leading the Battle in Qusayr region of Syria, YaLiban, 22 April 2013,URL: http://www.yalibnan.com/2013/04/22/hezbollahs-elite-leading-the-battle-in-qusayr-region-of-syria/

7.Syrian Opposition Groups Reach Unity Deal, USA TODAY, 11 November 2012,URL: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2012/11/11/syrian-opposition-deal/1697693/

8.Bill Roggio, “Al Nusrah Front Claims 3 More in Suicide Attacks”, Long War Journal,27 November 2012,URL:http://www.longwarjournal.org/threat-matrix/archives/2012/11/al_nusrah_front_claims_3_more.php

9.Holly Yan, “Syria Allies: Why Russia, Iran and China are Standing by the Regime”, CNN, 30 August 2013,URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/29/world/meast/syria-iran-china-russia-supporters/

10.RajiniVaidyanathan, “Obama: US cannot Ignore Syria Chemical Weapons”, BBC News, 7 September 2013,URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-23999066

11.Syria Civil War Facts, CNN, 31 October 2013,URL: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/27/world/meast/syria-civil-war-fast-facts/

12.Ashish Kumar Sen, “Syrian War Refugees Find Crowds, Crime and Contagion at Camps”, The Washington Post, 5 November 2013,URL: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/5/syrian-war-refugees-find-crowds-crime-contagion-at/?page=1

13.Stephen Sarr, “Greek Border Police Illegally Deporting Syrian Refugees”, The Irish Times, 12 November 2013, URL: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/greek-border-police-illegally-deporting-syrian-refugees-1.1591361?page=2

14.BehzadYaghmaian, “Syrian Refugees: A Need for Global Burden Sharing”, The Globalist, 31 October 2013,URL: http://www.theglobalist.com/syrian-refugees-need-global-burden-sharing/

15.Mariam Rizk, “HRW report: Egypt detains Syrian refugees and coerces them out of the country”, Ahram Online, Monday 11 Nov 2013, URL: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/86159/Egypt/Politics-/HRW-report-Egypt-detains-Syrian-refugees-and-coerc.aspx

16.1500 Syrian Refugees detained in Egypt, IOL News, 11 November 2013,URL: http://www.iol.co.za/news/africa/1-500-syrian-refugees-detained-in-egypt-1.1605477#.UoHESvlgdX8

17.Dominic Evans, “World Must Help Lebanon Handle Syrian Refugee Flood,” Reuters, 3 November 2013
URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/03/us-syria-crisis-lebanon-idUSBRE9A205K20131103

18.UNHCR, “Discovering the Human Faces of a Tragedy” (accessed on 12 November 2013), URL: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/syria.php

19.Peter Kessler, “UNHCR’s Largest Shipment of Supplies for Syrian IDPs Leaves from Dubai,” UNHCR News,15 August 2013,URL: http://www.unhcr.org/520ce47b9.html

20.Daniel Pipes, “Syria’s Refugee Problem and the West,” National Review Online, 25 September 2013,
URL: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/359411/syrias-refugee-problem-and-west-daniel-pipes

21.UNHCR, “Discovering the Human Faces of a Tragedy” (accessed on 12 November 2013),URL: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/syria.php

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