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EU Refugee Woes Shadow of a Bigger Problem

Courthouse News presents the concluding chapter of its November series on U.S. strategy against the Islamic State.

WASHINGTON (CN) - Turmoil in Syria has Europe struggling to meet the refugees at its door and douse the flames at their feet, but experts say a crisis has beset Syria's neighbors as well.

Since the March 2011 start of the conflict in Syria, more than half of its population is on the move. At least 4 million refugees have fled Syria, and another 8 million remain displaced within the country.

Countries surrounding Syria have borne the brunt of that burden, with refugees now making up 20 percent of the population in Lebanon - the biggest number of refugees per inhabitant in the world.

The group represents 10 percent of Jordan, which has admitted 650,000 refugees, about half the number in Lebanon, Amnesty International reports.

Turkey has taken about 2 million refugees - more than any other country.

A July report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees meanwhile shows that the numbers of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea jumped by more than 80 percent in the first half of 2015. Europe saw more than 850,000 refugees and migrants enter by sea in 2015, UNHCR statistics show.

Though that number represents about 1 percent of the EU's total population, UNHCR spokesman Chris Boian said the large number of people entering Europe is evidence of a bigger problem in the region they are fleeing.

"The situation is very dire," Boian said in an interview, noting that it might be too late now to contemplate how much longer Middle Eastern host countries can endure the strain.

Meanwhile, billions spent in aid has proved insufficient to meet the scope of the crisis. Boian said the current UN budget appeal is only 40 percent funded, and the necessary international response is not coalescing.

"The international community has failed to step up and meet the challenges this situation poses," he said.

The problems are numerous

Above all, refugees want to go home, Boian said. When that's not feasible, they prefer to integrate into regional countries. Resettlement to a third country is the least preferred - and least common - option.

He noted that the UN refugee agency for resettlement will consider only the most vulnerable among the refugees - like widows, orphans, single mothers and torture victims.

Mercy Corps, a humanitarian aid organization that operates in Syria and the regional host countries, has been working with the many Syrian refugees going on their fifth year in limbo.

With few opportunities and resources available in host countries, refugees have to decide whether to stay and wait it out, or go someplace else, Mercy Corps spokeswoman Christine Bragale said interview.

But the problems pile up while they wait.

Syrian refugees are exhausting their resources and savings. According to a 2015 vulnerability assessment by UNHCR, Unicef and the World Food Program, nearly 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon recently reported being in debt.


Amnesty International says 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line.

Food assistance has also grown scarcer. Only 11 percent of Syrian refugees surveyed in Lebanon were determined to be food secure - the World Food Program had to cut its food assistance earlier this year from $30 to $19 per person per month for lack of funding, according to the assessment.

A new donor boosted that number to $21 in October, the agency said, but the assessment shows that reliance on food vouchers in Lebanon has increased sharply, from 14 to 54 percent. Refugees compensate by cutting meals and portion sizes.

Bragale said that for the first time in the agency's history, needy families in northern Syria have told Mercy Corps that it has become their only source of food assistance from all aid organizations operating on the ground there.

Meanwhile the growing competition for affordable housing, jobs, medical care and education compounds the strain between host communities and refugees, Bragale said.

Work restrictions in host countries have prevented many Syrian refugees from gaining access to formal labor markets, and only about 50 percent of refugee children from ages 6 to 14 are going to school, the vulnerability assessment found.

Schooling is either too expensive, or children have to skip school to work.

"That's why you have so many people getting on boats," Mark Hetfield, the president of refugee-advocacy organization HIAS, said in an interview.

The deteriorating conditions have driven some refugees to risk the harrowing journey to Europe, usually a second or third migration for Syrians, he said.

Continued instability at stake

Working to reduce tensions and forge stronger social connections between refugees and their host communities, Mercy Corps has been rolling out common spaces - like playgrounds - and programs that focus on building conflict-resolution skills.

Bragale said the organization needs more funding for projects that can help manage the long-term aspect of the crisis.

While projects focused on conflict resolution, economic development and improving governance are critical for long-term sustainability, Bragale said, other issues remain.

A quarter of all Syrian refugees are between the ages of 12 and 17, a group in high need of psycho-social support, education and skill-building programs, Bragale added.

"What we see is a tipping point," Bragale said. "You have a generation that's going to be charged with rebuilding their country that is not going to be equipped to do that."

Added to that, Jordan is among most water-stressed countries in the world. Aging water infrastructure and broken pipes mean that enough water to meet the needs of 2.6 million people gets wasted each year, Mercy Corps reported last year.

Given that more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in cities and towns, even more stress gets added to an already limited resource. Jordan was projected to exhaust underground water supplies as soon as 2060, but that was before the refugee crisis, Mercy Corps notes.

"That alone could create a huge crisis over the next year," said Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project with the Institute for Policy Studies.

Hetfield at HIAS said the protracted refugee crisis is "extremely destabilizing" for the region, setting the stage for a lost generation.


"It's dangerous to leave them there with no solution and no hope, in such large numbers," he added.

Root causes and U.S. strategy

While the stakes are incredibly high, Bennis expressed optimism about the ongoing Syrian peace talks in Vienna. A truce between the major regional and global powers could cut off arms supplies to all sides, she said.

But that would be a only difficult first step.

"Talks that don't include Syrians at the end of the day aren't going to work," Bennis added.

Despite her optimism on the diplomatic front, Bennis worries what escalating U.S., French and Russian military airstrikes after the Paris terror attacks mean for Syria.

"We've been at war against terror for almost 15 years. Clearly that's failed," Bennis said. This month's carnage in Paris makes it hard to argue otherwise, she added.

"Terrorism survives wars," Bennis said. "People don't. So that's the lesson of all this. Terrorism will survive this - it's not going to go away. There's got to be a different solution that looks at root causes, that changes the root causes."

With U.S. President Barack Obama hosting a visit by France President Francois Hollande on Nov. 24, meanwhile, the White House noted that coordination against the Islamic State is at the top of the meeting agenda.

For Bennis, the military aspect of the Syrian crisis prevents diplomatic and humanitarian efforts from coming to fruition.

A military strategy "didn't work in Afghanistan, it didn't work in Iraq, it didn't work in Libya, and it's not going to work in Syria," she said. "There's absolutely no reason to think so."

The UNHCR's Boian also said that addressing and resolving root causes of the conflict is the best response for solving the refugee crisis.

In the meantime, the UN agency believes that Europe needs a more cohesive and equitable resettlement policy for its Syrian refugees.

Boian said the approach has been "piecemeal" so far, and may be more problematic after the Paris terror attacks.

The anti-refugee backlash

Unacceptable for the UN is the anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S. after the attacks.

"It is entirely wrong to scapegoat the victims of this violence," Boian said, noting that this is his agency's official position.

With France honoring its pledge to take 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years, even after the attacks, Hetfield found the U.S. backlash against refugees shocking.

"I never would have predicted this in my wildest dreams," said Hetfield, whose group, HIAS, is the world's oldest refugee-resettlement organization operating in the U.S.

Last week, the U.S. saw 31 governors announce their opposition to resettling refugees, while the House of Representatives voted to "pause" new admissions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

Hetfield said such responses let lawmakers say they are protecting their people. "They found an enemy they can deal with in a very measurable way," he said.

"Never mind that they're spreading hatred and xenophobia," he added.

Although states do not have the legal authority to override federal law on the resettlement of refugees, Bennis says "they do have the authority and the power to make their lives so miserable that no refugee would want to go there."

Bennis called the level of rhetoric against refugees and Muslims "absolutely shocking."

"It's Klan-style racism," Bennis said. "These are people that face death if they don't get succor somewhere, and these people don't care about it."

Anti-refugee rhetoric has not completely salted the earth here yet, however.

President Barack Obama has vowed to veto the federal legislation, should it gain the support of the Senate, and civil rights groups filed suit in Indiana on Nov. 23 to challenge Gov. Mike Pence's refugee-resettlement opposition.

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