A View from the Syrian Border on the Humanitarian Crisis

March 19, 2015 By John Glenn

This week marks the start of the fifth year of conflict in Syria with more than 200,000 Syrians killed, nearly 8 million displaced inside Syria, and another 4 million, half of whom are children, having fled in neighboring countries. Once considered a middle income country, Syria’s life expectancy has fallen by 20 years since 2010.

As the international community struggles with what to do, I visited a refugee camp on the border of Syria that highlights the crisis and the urgent needs. Kilis is a town of 80,000 people where 20-30,000 Syrian refugees have fled the fighting in need of medical care, food, and housing. Just beyond the walls of the refugee camp, our guide pointed to a tower in Syrian territory controlled by ISIS – a stark reminder of the danger from which they have fled. (See photo)

In Kilis, 25,000 refugees live in 3,600 distinctive shipping containers that have been converted into temporary homes. They offer a dry, safe and private space for families with a bath, toilet, and kitchen that stand in contrast to many other tent camps with fragile homes built on mud. The camp’s facilities, run by the Turkish state, are impressive and have been covered favorably in the media, visited by Senators McCain and Lieberman and former-USAID Administrator Raj Shah.

Neatly laid out in rows and blocks, the camp includes schools where the one-third of the refugees who are children learn in Arabic after kindergarten, medical facilities, an open air market and grocery store, and buildings for art, weaving, and music classes. The entrance and exit to the camp are strictly controlled, with each refugee fingerprinted and entered into a computer system to prevent the camp from being infiltrated by extremists.

Yet its 25,000 people are clearly one small piece of the challenge. Six container camps and 16 tent camps in Turkey hold only 12 percent of the more than one million Syrian refugees in the country. Last December the U.N. World Food Program, which has been providing food vouchers, announced cut backs in its program to refugees in countries neighboring Syria because of shortfalls to international donations.

The refugees in the camp are fortunate to live in a safe and clean environment and expressed their appreciation to Turkey during our visit, but they also seem to live in kind of stasis without a future. As the conflict continues, their livelihood remains unclear beyond the hope to one day return to their homes inside Syria. They have the status of “temporary protection” under Turkish law, with no plan to provide them with training, skills, or resources to build a new life.

Many more Syrians, an estimated nearly 60,000, live as “urban refugees” in the nearby cities of Kilis and Gazientep, where international humanitarian organizations like CARE are critical to responding to humanitarian needs. Over dinner, John Uniack Davis, who leads CARE’s work in southern Turkey, told me that his team helps provide food, winterization kits, clothes, and hygiene kits to refugees in the cities and inside Syria. They provide sanitation infrastructure and try to move people into longer-term livelihoods on both sides of the border where possible. Their work is supported by USAID, as well as the British development agency, the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and ECHO.

As lawmakers consider their support for the International Affairs Budget in the coming weeks, it may be hard to see a solution on the horizon, but failure to renew our response is almost certain to make things worse, not better.   The terrible truth is that a resolution to the crisis is unlikely as long as the fighting continues and the warring sides think they have something to gain in continuing to fight.

Yet Syria remains at the nexus of American national security and humanitarian concerns. The rise of the Islamic State threatens the territorial integrity not only of Syria, but also of Iraq where so much has been invested for over a decade. American allies like Turkey and Jordan are struggling to meet the urgent demands for shelter, medical care, and clean water for refugees on their borders. They have risen to the challenge with the assistance of the international community in the past four years, but are struggling to continue to do so.

The United States is the single largest donor, having provided over $3 billion in assistance, but with little appetite for significant boots on the ground, American diplomacy and development will remain critical to the amelioration and resolution of the crisis. We cannot simply look away now.

My visit to Kilis was part of a meeting of the Global Atlanticists network of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.