NPR reported today that Syria could be on track to become the world's largest source of refugees. They could have even more than Afghanistan, which has been in conflict for the last four decades. And the refugees are straining resources of host countries.
Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was so moved by the image, he took to the Senate floor, saying "a country of 23 million people, a proud country, is being transformed before our eyes to a land of rubble, skeletons, refugees and ghosts."
Aid groups need to start looking at the long-term needs of host countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, says Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps.
"This is a refugee crisis that isn't going away," Pont says. "The bordering countries are being destabilized both by the conflict and by the refugee presence itself, and there's a real need to invest in the communities."
"More than nine million Syrians need humanitarian aid," Kaine said. "But they've not been able to receive basic humanitarian aid -- food and medicine -- due to the actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime and also due to the complicity of the regime's patron, Russia. The denial of humanitarian aid is a war crime, pure and simple. Thousands are dying of starvation. Cases of tuberculosis, polio, typhoid and other diseases are expanding at an exponential rate. And none of this is an accident. The Assad regime is using forced starvation and forced sieges as a weapon to destroy the Syrian people."That is around 40% of Syria's population.
Given the fact that tuberculosis, polio, typhoid, and other such diseases are on the rise at an exponential, if the world fails to put a stop to the violence in Syria, this could turn into a worldwide health catastrophe as diseases that were once thought to be nearly eradicated would spread around the world again.
"Witness this photo. Look at the destruction. Look at the rubble. Look at the throng of hungry people stretching into the distance. See the hunger in their faces and bodies, and look at the questions in their eyes. It is incumbent upon the Syrian regime to allow unhindered access of humanitarian aid to all Syrians. Opposition groups have that same obligation."Kaine recently returned from a trip to Lebanon that he made with Maine Senator Angus King. He reported:
"When the Russian government and their people see this picture, it should remind them of their own history," Kaine continued. "During the siege of Leningrad during World War II, the Nazis used these same tactics, forced starvation and siege, as a tactic of war to cause horrible deprivation to the Russian population of that city. Russians should look in the eyes of these victims of intentional starvation and grapple with their responsibility to them. Russia can cause the Assad regime, just as it did in August, to open access so that these people can have food and medicine. Russia has finally agreed to words on paper at the U.N., but the world will watch the actions of this nation."
We're witnessing one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II, and it can be stopped. It can be stopped. Last summer, my Armed Services colleague Senator Angus King of Maine and I visited Turkey and Jordan to explore the dimension of the refugee crisis in both of those nations. We visited refugee camps; we talked to government leaders and NGOs about the damage and the stressed communities that result from the unprecedented displacement of Syrians.As Senator Kaine noted in his speech, refugees are even going into Iraq.
Last week the Senator from Maine and I visited Lebanon to see the scale of the Syrian crisis in that country. In a country of slightly more than 4 million people, there are already over 1 million Syrian refugees who have fled into Lebanon in the last three years. 1 in 4. Think of the scale of that refugee crisis if we were to receive in the United States war refugees of that scale, it would be 75-80 million people, nearly one in four.
In Lebanon last week we met with government leaders, NGOs and the UN High Commissioner on refugees, and what we learned was staggering. The Lebanese people have been unbelievably resilient and welcoming, almost beyond the point of belief. The water and health infrastructure of that nation are strained to the breaking point. The Lebanese economy, already fragile, is teetering. Schools in Lebanon now operate on double shifts with Lebanese children in the morning and refugees in the afternoon, accommodating tens of thousands of refugee children with more coming every day.
The problem is, too much of the world is indifferent to the crisis in Syria. And until the world wakes from its indifference, nothing will change.