Thousands of Syrians have fled from the violence rocking their nation to neighboring countries. But the governments of the receiving countries face enormous logistical challenges to provide for the refugees.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the Syrian government was quick to open its borders to the countless numbers of people fleeing from the war against Saddam Hussein. Even today, some 100,000 Iraqi refugees still live in Syria.
But the situation has changed in the meantime. The government under President Bashar al-Assad has become dangerous for its own people. Growing numbers of Syrians are choosing to flee in view of the resoluteness with which the regime is trying to crush the revolution in its own country.
The numbers are dramatic: some 40,000 Syrians are on the run, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of them - around 17,000 - are in Turkey. A similar number have sought refuge in Lebanon, and an estimated 8,500 are in Jordan. An unknown number of Syrians have also crossed the border into Iraq.
Flight from repression and violence
The refugees couldn't be certain of their safety anymore. The uprising, which has been going on for over a year, has led to a wave of violence - not only on the part of the regime. Those fighting for the revolution are also resorting to brutal methods, said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. Armed opposition elements were also not shying away from kidnappings, torture and even executions.
However, the violence by opposition groups was not comparable to that being used by government troops. Refugees mainly feared the regime's forces, said Marie von Möllendorff, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa division at Amnesty International Germany. Most human rights abuses were being carried out by the Syrian government, she said.
"There are also reports about human rights abuses by opposition groups," Möllendorff said. "But that is really a minority."
Möllendorff said the reports reaching Amnesty showed that people were mainly fleeing from the regime's repression. No one was safe anymore from the violence. People had to reckon at all times with government attacks and abuse. Many refugees also feared falling victim to collective punishment. If a person joined the revolution, he also jeopardized the lives of his relatives. In addition, a wave of arrests was rolling through the country, Möllendorff said. Citizens were being randomly detained. The very suspicion that a person had connections to the opposition sufficed to be taken into custody.
"Nobody is immune to arrest," she said. "In the prisons themselves, torture is the order of the day. This includes methods like simple beatings, but also electroshock and rape. The Syrian government is pulling out all the stops."
Major logistic challenges
The wave of flight from Syria has led to grave consequences. Already now, neighboring countries are facing considerable logistic challenges in admitting and providing for all of the refugees. According to Solvang, the number of Syrians seeking refuge has steadily increased. Currently, some 20,000 Syrians are living in refugee camps.
"Most of them hardly took anything with them on their escape," Solvang said. "They are dependent on help of any kind. Tents, cots, blankets - they need everything to survive."
Together with the humanitarian organization Turkish Red Crescent, the Ankara government has set up eight tented camps and a container city in Kilis to deal with the influx, as well as makeshift schools and mosques. Turkey has to date assumed responsibility for assisting, sheltering and protecting the refugees in the camps. But the aid up until now will soon not suffice. All signs are pointing to a further increase in refugees and signs of strain are showing among the communities that are hosting them.
The UNHCR estimates some 100,000 people will need help in the next six months. It has called on the international community for support. Providing for the Syrian refugees would require $84 million (63 million euros). The European Union already previously made seven million euros available for refugee relief.
"There is a clear need for international support to be stepped up," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva recently.
Positive signals spark new hope
For the first time, though, the refugees and aid workers have heard positive news from Damascus. Earlier this week, Assad signaled a willingness to cooperate. His spokesman said the government had accepted the six-point plan put forward by the UN-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan. This was "an initial important step" toward ending the violence in Syria.
Annan's plan foresees among other things that government troops pull out of the major protest centers. In addition, aid workers are to get access to the battle zones and prisoners should be released. But it is still unclear whether the regime will stick to its promises. Should Assad do so, the many refugees can hope to return home soon.
Author: Kersten Knipp / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge