Syrian Refugees: A Moral and Humanitarian Imperative for the United States

Entrance to the Sabra and Shatila Refugee Community in South Beirut, Image: Peter Billerbeck

When President Obama is sworn in for a second term this January, his administration will face a multitude of foreign policy challenges. Among them is the crisis in Syria which has metastasized into a full blown civil war, which is tragically unlikely to end in the near future. Much attention has rightly been paid to the brutal killings and repression perpetrated by the Assad regime, with a death toll now reaching over 30,000. However, beyond the headlines lies the predicament of the surge of Syrian refugees facing the region.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, upwards of 100,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring Turkey and over 80,000 to both Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey has a played a pivotal role in assuring Syrians safe haven, but has recently shown signs of straining over capacity as previously announced limits are reached and exceeded. As the protracted nature of the conflict has become reality and the Assad regime remains intransigent, domestic forces within Turkey are resisting the Erdogan administration’s policies of acceptance. All the while, conditions in camps along the Turkish-Syrian border worsen and Syrians face harsh natural elements, unsanitary conditions and few prospects for economic livelihood or integration in their adopted state.

Neighboring Lebanon faces no less significant of a challenge. While so far many Syrians fleeing to population centers in Lebanon have been accommodated in established communities, among extended families or other support networks, these capacities are nearing their limits. This summer, in interviews I conducted with Lebanese political, academic and social leaders, many expressed concern for a Lebanese state already burdened by over 400,000 Palestinian refugees who have become de-facto permanent residents. One leader, Simon Abiramia (MP of the Free Patriotic Movement) detailed legislative efforts to afford greater job opportunities to youth refugees. While some have prospered, the hardships of day-to-day economic livelihood remain a struggle for the majority. A visit to the communities of Ain el Helweh, Sabra or Shatila makes plain this harsh reality of indefinite refugeehood where conditions remain unhealthy, underdeveloped and largely ignored by governmental authorities.

Some may claim that the nature of Syrian refugees is incomparable with the plight of stateless Palestinians; however, that notion presupposes Syria will be a state safe enough to return to in the near future. A more sober assessment foresees the potential of a persistent unstable state emerging should the Assad regime collapse, much like post-2003 Iraq. In that case, Syrian refugees in Lebanon will find themselves facing effectively the same conundrum as the Palestinians.

Ensuring refugee camps in neighboring countries do not devolve into permanent squalor and misery is not only a moral and humanitarian imperative but also a necessary bulwark against broader trans-border sectarian instability and clashes with the potential to engulf the entire region.

Therefore, the United States must do more to vigorously support the efforts of aid organizations and neighboring states to shoulder the weight of the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Though the U.S. State Department has pledged and apportioned non-lethal aid to opposition groups operating within Syria as well as existing efforts from other refugee organizations totaling over $100 million USD, more can and should be done to provide relief to those fleeing the brutal Assad regime. This should not be construed as a call for intervention but rather a call for relief efforts from the State Department, USAID and non-governmental partner organizations be granted a broader mandate and increased resources to assist refugees desperately in need. This means expanding the initial assistance already provided through multilateral organizations in Western Turkey to more remote Turkish border regions, the Bekaa area of Lebanon and northern Jordan.

While calls for aggressive covert action, no-fly zones, militarized safe zones and other doors to intervention are thrust open, we must be wary of such options for the risks they entail. However, we should immediately pursue increased support and humanitarian aid for those Syrians struggling as refugees in neighboring countries.

As we have seen in other cases of brutally drawn out civil conflicts, while global powers are plotting and strategizing, refugee populations are all too often forgotten and purposely ignored. The examples of Sudan, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan are only a few of the most recent cases – Syria must not be another.

Peter Billerbeck is completing his Master’s of Science in Foreign Service at Georgetown University and was awarded a National Council on U.S. – Arab Relations Summer Lebanon Fellowship. All views expressed are his own. 

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7 comments to Syrian Refugees: A Moral and Humanitarian Imperative for the United States by Peter Billerbeck

  • Anne H.

    The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) defines a Palestine refugee as a person “whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict”.[5] The descendants of the original Palestine refugees in the male line “are also eligible for registration.”[5] UNRWA aids all “those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance”[5] and those who first became refugees as a result of the Six-Day War, regardless whether they reside in areas designated as Palestine refugee camps or in other permanent communities. A Palestine refugee camp is “a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate Palestine refugees and to set up facilities to cater to their needs”.[5] Today, 58 UNRWA recognised refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank habor only “one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.4 million.”[5] The UNRWA definition does not cover final status.[5][16] In many cases UNHCR provides support for the children of Palestine refugees too.
    Registered descendants of UNRWA Palestine refugees are, like “Nansen passport” and “Certificate of Eligibility” holders (the documents issued those displaced by World War II) and UNHCR refugees [17] are inherited the same UNRWA Palestine refugee status as their male parent.
    Based on the UNRWA definition, the number of original Palestine refugees has declined from 711,000 in 1950 to an estimated 30 to 50,000 in 2012. According to Bogumil Terminski from the University of Geneva the original Palestinian diaspora is about 65,000. An estimated 5 million Palestine refugees are registered in total in 2012. In 2012 the number of registered descendants of male parents of the original Palestine refugees, based on the UNRWA registration requirements, are an estimated 4,950,000.

  • Jeff

    On December 6th NPR Morning Edition had an article by Deborah Amos confirming many of the concerns raised in your article. Amos’s article highlights the lack of humanitarian aid making its way to refugee camps and winter is already upon them.’Save the Children’ has a Syria Children in Crisis Fund. This agency has been around for a long time. At the bottom of its website, it shows that 89.1% of all expenditures go toward program services. Also the United Nations Great article!

  • Ceyda

    Wonderful fair analysis of the issue–and it is great that you put forward tangible suggestions.

  • Suzan

    What a great Post Peter!

    From a Lebanese perspective, I see that the longer the Assad Regime stays, the more likely the Syrians refugees will establish their own “Sabra & Shatila and Ain Al Helweh” town in Lebanon. And just as you observed those camps have none or little if any supervision by the Lebanese government. I do not anticipate a solution for the Syria’s crisis due various facts. First, the fact that limited International intervention has taken place in the crisis. And by that I do include the various UN ambassadors have visited the site and failed multiple times to reach to any agreements and the sanctions that are placed against the regime, there is much that can be done. The Assad regime, clearly, isn’t like any other; the brutality that has taken place is beyond word description. I may have expanded on your “humanitarian crisis” perspective, but we ought to keep in mind that if the battle continues as is, Syria will enter the bloodiest battle of our time. Equally important, the current battle is between opposition and Assad’s regime. However, once the Assad regime collapse, and it will sooner or later, the conflict will become a Sunni-Alawite conflict. As a result, the refugees are most likely to remain in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and throughout the region. In addition to your “humanitarian crisis” aid to various organizations’ perspective, I completely agree that if a stop is not put to the Syrian Crisis, it will become another “brutally drown out civil conflict such as in Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

    On another note, I was truly delighted to have met you during the U.S. – Arab Relations Summer Lebanon Fellowship in Lebanon. I look forward to see more posts.

  • Pam Nice

    This is an excellent argument for U.S. humanitarian intervention in this crisis. The plight of Syrian refugees has been widely overlooked as the U.S. weighs the pros and cons of supporting the Syrian opposition. The haunting parallels to the Palestinian refugees remind us of the destabilization that refugees inevitably bring to the entire region. This should make us think twice before turning away at this historical juncture.

  • Pasu

    Just read the whole thing and really liked the way It put together.

  • Mike

    Great post, Peter