The Syrian refugee crisis, which is already straining aid groups and fueling tensions in neighboring countries, will get much worse if that nation’s civil war continues through the year, U.S. officials said.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told a congressional panel yesterday in Washington that the number of Syrian refugees may quadruple to 4 million by the end of the year, surpassing the 2.7 million Afghans now listed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees as the largest refugee population.
The anticipated surge in refugees highlights international concern about the potential for the Syrian conflict to destabilize the region, particularly smaller countries such as Jordan, with a population of 6.5 million, and Lebanon, with 4.1 million. The Zaatari camp in Jordan, temporary home to more than 100,000 Syrians, would be that country’s fourth largest city already, Ford said in his testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Officials in neighboring countries have told U.S. diplomats about their concern that the flood of refugees will have a destabilizing effect in societies composed of ethnic and religious factions, according to Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration issues.
“When you have these extra burdens put on a country it can really provoke tensions among different communities,” she told the committee.
A majority of refugees live with local populations, not in refugee camps. About three-quarters of the refugees are women and children.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told Congress on March 19 that 8,000 people a day were fleeing Syria in February, up from 3,000 a day in December.
There are 1.2 million refugees in the countries neighboring Syria and 6.6 million people displaced from their homes who remain in Syria. The refugee figure will be at least 3 million by the end of the year, he predicted.
“It’s the staggering escalation we are witnessing,” he told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey will each have a Syrian refugee population of 1 million by the end of the year, he predicted.
“And that, of course, represents a dramatic impact in the economies, in the societies, in the security of these countries,” Guterres said.
About 2,000 to 3,000 refugees are arriving daily in Jordan, adding to the 350,000 refugees already there, he said.
Lebanon, an already fragmented society with 370,000 Syrian refugees, is most at risk of a spillover from Syria’s turmoil, he said.
“For Lebanon, we are facing an existential threat,” he said.
Syria’s worsening humanitarian crisis risks overwhelming the international community’s capacity to respond, he said. All of the agencies involved in this humanitarian response are dramatically underfunded and some anticipate running out of money by the end of this month.
Guterres thanked the U.S., the largest funder, for its support while saying that nations have delivered only about a third of their promised aid for UNHCR, leaving a $700 million shortfall.
The U.S. has provided $385 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria.
Nancy Lindborg, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s assistant administrator for democracy, conflict and humanitarian assistance, asked lawmakers at the House hearing yesterday to “urge all countries to meet pledges they made at pledging conference in Kuwait in January.”
Nations promised more than $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid for the Syrian crisis at that meeting.
“There is not enough money to reach the scale of this need,” Lindborg told the House panel.
The U.S. also is “asking neighboring countries to keep their borders open” despite the pressures this is causing, Richard said.
Secretary of State John Kerry this week called the refugee situation in Syria a “global catastrophe.”
As long as President Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “continues to attack his own people with Scuds, with aircraft, with tanks, there is an imbalance in this which is creating more and more refugees pouring into Jordan, pouring into Lebanon, pouring into Turkey, and that is becoming a global catastrophe,” he said at the State Department.