Governments and NGOs in the Middle East are having to provide support for no fewer than six million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) resulting from current conflicts – with the figure set to rise, as Gerald Butt reports.
International charities and aid organizations are stretched to the limit dealing with the growing problem of families forced to leave their homes, and in many cases their countries, to escape the various theatres of violence across the Middle East and North Africa. Making matters worse over recent days has been the unusually harsh winter weather, compounding the misery of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees sheltering in Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has been “working around the clock” to help the millions of Syrian refugees and other IDPs scattered across the Middle East endure severe winter storms that have swept through much of the region. UNHCR teams and partners have been working to replace damaged tents, provide repair kits, deliver emergency supplies and offer alternative shelters to those who have been forced to abandon their homes. However, despite the best efforts of governments, the UNHCR and many other international agencies, the situation across the region remains precarious for most refugees, particularly given the poor conditions in which many people already live and the scattered nature of the population.
According to UNHCR, the situation in Lebanon, where refugees are spread out in some 1,700 different locations, is of particular concern. More than 100 shelters and tents have been damaged, and flooding and standing water are a serious problem in places hit by heavy rains and high winds. In coastal areas in the south high waves have flooded some settlements.
In Za’atari, Jordan’s largest refugee camp which is accommodating nearly 85,000 Syrians, dozens of families were recently moved to emergency shelters after their tents collapsed under the weight of snow. UNHCR highlighted the experience of a young couple who were trying to protect their three small children from the cold when the roof of their tent fell in on them. “We had a small stove burning in the tent to keep warm, and it fell onto my son and burned his back,” said the child’s mother. “It was pure panic, we were all very scared. We ran out of the tent and were told to come here.” Her son was treated at a makeshift hospital inside the camp.
UNHCR says that more funds are needed “to meet these critical challenges and to help some of the most vulnerable people,” with needs continuing to outpace money coming in.
There seems little hope that the pressures on UNHCR and other aid organizations will diminish in the foreseeable future with violence in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere making more and more people homeless. Based on a rough calculation (UNHCR figures) the MENA region today is having to cope with some six million refugees/internally displaced resulting from recent conflicts – that’s the equivalent of the total population of a country like Jordan. The figures are staggering: Syria 3.7 million, Iraq 1.5 million, Yemen 340,000, Libya 100,000. These statistics are not all totally up to date and are likely to be higher.
Then, of course, there are five million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN – and an uncounted number of migrants from the Middle East seeking to reach Europe. The MENA region is becoming a global repository of human misery.
For a part of the world which, according to a string of recent UNDP reports, is lagging behind many others in terms of education and social and economic development the expansion of the refugee problem is little short of catastrophic. It means a further setback in education for millions of Arabs, the likelihood of yet more people being unemployed and state funds being diverted from vital economic investment projects to provide short term stop gap solutions to the problem of millions of people left with few possessions and scant prospects. Only a miracle that brings to an end the various conflicts – the catalysts of the refugee crisis – would be likely to change the current picture.
Gerald Butt, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, is an analyst and author on the region.