Syrians fleeing the violence in their country have been greeted with tremendous hospitality but the burden on neighbouring nations is growing as refugees keep coming, the UN co-ordinator for Syrian refugees says.
“We decided for the last 12 months to help the Syrians quietly. But it became a vacuum,” Panos Moumtzis told Reuters in an interview. “There is a sense of urgency in terms of the funding to be able to move fast with humanitarian aid.”
Since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago, government forces have mounted a crackdown on the opposition that has killed at least 8,000 Syrians, prompting many Syrians to flee abroad. With no end to the violence in sight, the refugee crisis is expected to continue.
Since his appointment this month, Moumtzis, previously UN co-ordinator for Libyan refugees, has spent five days in Lebanon and four days in Jordan and plans to travel to Turkey next week.
Those three main destinations together account for about 40,000 refugees, according to the latest rough headcount by the UN refugee agency. But the UN itself now says the real figure is probably more than twice as high.
Moumtzis helped launch an $84mn UN appeal for Syrian refugees on Friday that anticipates about 100,000 needing support in the next six months.
“This is not a worst case scenario appeal. This is just responding to the current needs for about 100,000 people in the region,” Moumtzis said. “As we register more and more people every day, and while there are people crossing the border so we’re going to see the numbers actually increase.”
The UN appeal document says that humanitarian agencies should also be prepared for as many as 205,000 refugees in a “potential mass influx”.
“The state of security and violence and Syria has immediate reflection on the neighbouring countries. When there were tensions in Homs and in Idlib we saw a wave of people crossing into Turkey or crossing into Jordan,” Moumtzis said.
“In Jordan, where I was at the border 48 hours ago, there were about 150 people crossing the border every day. In Lebanon, the numbers were smaller, about 10-15 families every day. In Turkey, while I was on this mission during a period of 72 hours we had 1,500 who crossed.
“Some people crossed through official border points, others crossed through fields. Everybody is trying to get into safety whichever way they can manage.”
Turkey’s government has organised eight tent cities and one temporary housing city but most Syrians who crossed into Jordan and Lebanon are being hosted by local communities, billeted with families in their own homes.
While the locals and their governments have so far shown extraordinary generosity, there was bound to be friction with the new arrivals eventually, Moumtzis said.
“After a while, the hospitality wears out even with the best will in the world,” he said.
He cited a Syrian family who had to wait for their Lebanese hosts to finish with the pans before they could cook their own meal and a Lebanese family he visited who were hosting 15 refugees in their living room.
“They told me: ‘Those people have to flush the toilet, they have to take a shower. Our water bill has gone up two and a half times since they arrived.’ At the bare minimum you would say there should be some financial support for the water bill, for the utilities, the electricity.”
But the refugees don’t want to stay a minute longer than they have to.
“All the Syrians that I’ve talked to, they all talk about going back as soon as the situation allows. They don’t think this will happen immediately but there is a very strong attachment to the country, to the homeland, and the first thing they said was: ‘We don’t know how long we’ll be here but as soon as possible we’d like to be able to return back home.’”