As Obama contemplates a military strike against Assad, more than 5,000 Syrians are fleeing the country every day. Many, including the UN, are calling the situation a "humanitarian catastrophe."
A young family abandons their home in Aleppo in an effort to flee the country but is stopped on the street, detained and tortured for two days. Later they manage to illegally cross the border to Turkey before heading back through Syria into Iraq. Five days after leaving home, the family is now in the treatment tent of the international medical aid organization "Doctors Without Borders" at the Peschkabour checkpoint between Syria and the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq.
No matter whether rich or poor
The family members are being treated by doctor Tancred Stöbe, chairman of the board of directors for the German arm of the aid organization. "They were completely exhausted and had a frozen facial expression," he said. "The children had diarrhea and fever and had to be treated on the spot." Again and again, the refugees told the physician of attempts to prevent them from fleeing Syria.
Syria's 20-million citizens are so distressed that many of them have decided to flee the country regardless of the hardship and risks. Ever since President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents engaged in a relentless, bloody war, more than 2 million people have fled Syria, according to the United Nations. Every tenth Syrian is currently on the run.
The wave of refugees cuts across all social strata and age groups – children, women, doctors, teachers and merchants. "The conflict doesn't distinguish between rich and poor," said Karl-Otto Zentel, national director of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg. "The families flee the country the moment they feel personally threatened," he told DW. CARE is currently assisting Syrian refugees in urban centers in Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt.
After walking for days, the refugees that arrive at the border are completely exhausted. They include pregnant women and wearied children, many of them feverish or dehydrated due to thirst or diarrhea, according to Stöbe, who notes that only robust people even dare undertake the journey. "Only relatively healthy and mobile people can make it across the border," he said.
Imminent destabilization of neighboring countries
Lebanon alone registered more than 700,000 Syrian refugees by the end of August. Jordan has accepted slightly more than half a million and Turkey slightly less than half a million. Around 160,000 Syrians are now living in Iraq and more than 100,000 have managed to flee to Egypt. According to the UN, countries in the region have accepted 97 percent of Syrian refugees.
Housing, employment, medical care and, ideally, education are among the services these countries are expected to provide. But the refugee numbers are so large that they pose a challenge to local social structures. For example, Lebanon's population has grown by nearly 20 percent as a result of the refugees. This increase has led to social tension and rising rents, according to Otto Zentel with CARE.
The EU also warns of a destabilization of Syria's neighboring countries. Kristalina Georgieva, EU commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, said in Brussels that the "exodus in Syria" has meant "a tremendous sacrifice for the generous host countries."
Hollywood star and UNHCR goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie warned of the consequences that the wave of refugees presents. "If the situation continues to worsen at this rate, the number of refugees will continue to rise and some neighboring countries could face collapse," she said.
Frustrated new arrivals
The prospects for the millions of refugees to return to their homes are difficult to assess, given the rising violence in Syria. And there are no signs of an imminent solution to end the war between the Assad regime and the Syrian opposition.
The refugees are aware of that. Stöbe notes that Syrians who have just fled the country "are unable to show any emotional response." During a visit to a camp where refugees have been living for a couple of weeks, however, he said they appeared "happy and relieved" to be there. "We're seeing a third response in the refugee camps where people have been for months and years," he noted. "Many of them are frustrated after realizing that their temporary accommodation has become a permanent one."