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The Syrian Refugee Crisis Poses Ethical Questions for the UN and Others


The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. MILMA KETTUNEN
The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The United Nations is grappling with how to address the needs of the refugees in the long term as the war slogs on. MILMA KETTUNEN

Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, 2.9 million people have fled the country to refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and beyond. This has not only destabilized many Middle Eastern countries, but it has also caused continuous public debates inside nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations over what the proper response, both in dollars and in services, should look like. The crisis has also spurred the UN to be pointedly direct with Europe, asking it to take in more refugees, given the paltry amount it has resettled so far.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is requesting $3.74 billion in assistance for the remainder of 2014, so it can reach Syrian refugees. The money will be distributed across such sprawling UN camps as Zaatari in Jordan and in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, in addition to facilities in Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. Of the $3.74 billion, 41 percent is to be dispersed in Lebanon, 28 percent in Jordan, 13 percent in Iraq and 14 percent in Turkey. As of June, 33 percent of the multibillion-dollar request had been met.

The distribution of money is based on the number of refugees living in camps, of which Lebanon and Jordan are hosting the majority. Many registered refugees are not living in camps, however, with that number currently at 85 percent, based on UN figures.

With growing numbers of refugees and no end in sight to the Syrian conflict, neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon are facing major ethical quandaries. According to a report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the war in Syria could cut Lebanon’s annual gross domestic product growth by 2.9 percent each year, a process that likely began in 2012. In Jordan, the massive influx of refugees has caused an increase in housing prices and decreased access to basic social services for Jordanians. Municipal infrastructures have been strained, with access to education, affordable housing and food supplies now much harder to come by.

The UN refugee agency has dedicated 25 percent of financing requirements to food, 11 percent to health, 12 percent to protection and 14 percent to other basic needs. Livelihoods, shelter, education and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) make up the remainder of the agency’s monetary needs. In addition, winterization support is needed rapidly for the millions of refugees in camps; heating, fuel and proper shelter for the cooler months is a top priority.

Another area of concern is the prevention and response to sexual and gender-based violence, both inside and outside the camps. The money allocated in this department will go toward psychological and legal services as well as the provision of, among other materials, postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits, which reduce the risk of infection after sexual abuse.

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With almost half a million refugee children not participating in any schooling, and roughly 3,000 schools destroyed from heavy fighting back in Syria, access to education is also paramount. Because of the increasing setbacks in guaranteeing education and security for millions of children, “A Lost Generation?” strategy has been developed by the UN to reverse the negative trends.

“Millions of Syrian children are at risk of becoming a ‘lost generation’ as they miss out on education, vaccinations and a number of critical interventions,” Maria Calivis, Unicef’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in an interview with PassBlue. “There is no better resilience strategy than investing in the skills, knowledge and well-being of children — their future and the future of Syria depend on them.”

The UN refugee agency and other intergovernmental organizations recognize the risk of such a lost generation and have been prepping refugee-hosting governments and aid workers to ensure that the more vulnerable populations seeking refuge are cared for.

With renewed fighting in Iraq from the advance of the extremist forces of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the more than 226,000 Syrian refugees in that country will undoubtedly need more attention. As the largest movement of refugees since World War II, the spillover effect of Syria’s conflict continues to be a chief concern among governments in the region and far beyond. Countries farther afield, in North Africa and Europe, are already seeing an influx of refugees arriving at their borders.

As a leading donor to the UN refugee agency, the European Union has offered financial assistance, but many European countries on the Mediterranean and bordering the Middle East have appalling conditions and detention centers, rejecting refugees who arrive in boats that are ready to capsize. Russia, Syria’s closest ally, has sent 12 refugees back to Syria, a violation of international law; Greece, Bulgaria and Spain are said to be guilty of this action as well.

In a recent editorial, The Lancet singled out Britain for putting “rigid rules of border security before a compassionate approach to victims of intolerable brutality,” adding that the country has accepted only 24 Syrian refugees in the UN’s resettlement program, with the rest of Europe pledging to take a mere 30,000 refugees in total.

The United States is the single-largest donor to the Syrian humanitarian crisis, giving more than $1.7 billion in aid. Yet it, too, has resettled few refugees: 36 people in 2013; as of February 2014, it added 25 more, to total 121 since 2011.


Alexander Brotman is the Joseph S. Nye Jr. External Relations Intern with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. in film studies and media and communications from Muhlenberg College. He has worked for State Representative Alice Peisch of Massachusetts, Africa Center in Dublin, Harvard School of Public Health and Amnesty International.

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