Political war, human misery in West Asia

It is heartrending when the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) points out that the number of Palestinian refugees receiving its food handouts has increased 10-fold from 80,000 in 2000 to over 8,00,000 in 2014. Worse still, a once prosperous businessman in Gaza is now reportedly standing in the UNRWA food line – a tragic human consequence of occupation and war.

If the decades-long Palestinian crisis involving about five million refugees overall is one end of the spectrum, West Asia’s refugee problem has increased manifold during the last few years owing to the unending war in Syria and the instability in Iraq.

According to the UNRWA, four years after the war began, there are more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt; another 50,000 have sought asylum in more than 90 countries outside the region; and over 1.4 million have abandoned their homes and sought safety in neighbouring countries.

Overall, about 11 million – including 6.5 million internally displaced people –require humanitarian assistance at present. The problem stands amplified when most of the Syrian refugees are women and children, nearly a million below the age of 10 years.

In Iraq, the worsening security scenario and armed conflict in Anbar and Ninewa governorates, the strongholds of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, have triggered massive internal displacement. According to Iraqi and the Kurdistan Regional Governments, about 1.8 million people were displaced by insecurity during the first nine months of 2014. Many of the displaced have sought refuge in the Kurdistan Region, which is also hosting most of the Syrian refugees. The enormity of the relief operations forced UNHCR to launch its largest single aid operation in more than a decade by targetting about half a million internally displaced people.

Elsewhere in the region, at least 1,40,000 Libyans and 3,34,000 Yemenis have been displaced within their countries as of September 2014. In addition, Yemen hosts 2,46,000 registered refugees, most of them Somalis.

With winter well underway, the refugee crisis has overwhelmed relief agencies. According to UNHCR, its warehouses are almost empty and cash reserves low. In addition, insecurity is posing challenges in the delivery of humanitarian operations. With more than 85 per cent refugees living among host communities across the region, and in urban areas, it is putting pressure on the respective countries and governments’ resources – overcrowded hospitals and schools, rising unemployment, and water, sanitation, and energy shortages. This is also putting the citizens under strain and anxiety while co-existing with extremely poor refugees, who are sometimes forced to resort to harmful mechanisms for survival, thus contributing to social tension.

Solutions distant

 While political solutions to the region’s problems appear distant, relief experts believe that addressing the refugee crisis is a workable proposition. The problem, however, is the growing financial cost of addressing the crisis and poor international aid response. The United Nations has sought $7 billion from the international community to provide relief for the Syrian refugee crisis. For its part, UNHCR has made at least half a dozen attempts for funds since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis – a total of $6 billion. Unfortunately, it has received just over half that amount.

 Some of the numbers above are astounding when compared to Germany accommodating only about 70,000 Syrians since 2012; Canada offering to accept 1,300 Syrians over two years; Japan contributing just 17 per cent of its promised share; and South Korea only 2 per cent. Even the wealthier Arab countries have yet to fulfill their promises.
 The United States is currently the largest donor, giving 63 per cent of its fair share – a financial cost it has had to bear for being an adventurous and inefficient political broker in the region.

 While the economic slowdown in recent years in many of the usually-generous donor countries could be one of the reasons for the poor inflow of aid, one of the consequences was the UN World Food Programme’s recent temporary suspension of its food aid for 1.7 million refugees in the region.

 In such an environment, the international community has a vested interest in a stable West Asia. In view of the refugee crisis becoming a serious long-term challenge to the political, economic, social and humanitarian systems, international assistance should be comprehensive, innovative, long term and, more importantly, two pronged. It should not only help refugees, but also the countries hosting them to avoid further instability.

(The writer is a Dubai-based political analyst and honorary fellow of the University of Exeter, UK)

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