The international community’s response to the Syrian crisis is growing even more shameful with the passage of time. Since Syria’s war began in 2011, governments in the developed world have very obviously put political and military considerations before humanitarian concerns. Not surprisingly, the consequences have been disastrous for millions of Syrians — both refugees and those internally displaced — and are only likely to get worse.
While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it needs $3.7 billion to provide basic care for Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa in 2014, as of October 23, the agency reports it has only received 51 percent of the money. The situation in Lebanon is yet more dire. UNHCR, as of October 23, says it still needs a staggering 57 percent of the $1.5 billion it asked for in 2014 to assist the country bearing the brunt of the burden.
Whether it is living in lockdown in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp, risking death being trafficked across the Mediterranean from Egypt or bracing for winter in a tent on a floodplain in Lebanon, Syria’s refugees deserve more help from the international community for two simple reasons. First, it is the moral thing to do. Refugees are victims, full stop, and it is the world’s responsibility to make sure they are taken care of. Developed countries need to either open their own doors to these refugees or pay to make sure they are well taken care of in the states hosting them.
Second, it is in everyone’s interest to make sure Syria’s refugees are not forced to live in desperate and often disgusting conditions. As the Ebola outbreak has reminded us, infectious disease is a global problem, and the more squalid the conditions Syria’s refugees are forced to live in, the higher the risk. Further, angry and poor refugees — or opportunists exploiting a poorly monitored situation — can very easily breed instability in host nations, a problem we’ve already seen in Lebanon. And finally, paying for a lost Syrian generation will almost certainly cost more than pitching in now to make sure refugees have a decent opportunity to return home as educated, skilled workers eager to rebuild a nation.
The case for meeting UNHCR’s regional appeal, therefore, is clear. However, at the risk of sounding biased, Lebanon deserves special attention. For all the criticism Beirut receives for its inadequate — and sometimes racist — response to the crisis, one must remember how heavy a toll this crisis is putting on Lebanon. The country could certainly do a better job assisting and accommodating Syrian refugees, but a state that cannot provide basic services to its own citizens cannot be expected to deal with a sudden 25 percent increase in population. Syrian refugees in Lebanon face housing problems, scant access to safe drinking water and a waste management disaster among other concerns. The risks of letting the squalid conditions so many refugees live in worsen are great, from infectious disease outbreaks to increased extremism. It is an understatement to call the refugees’ need urgent. The international community must contribute now as the cost of doing so far outweighs the cost of doing nothing.