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

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.