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Syrian refugee crisis nears a breaking point that must be stopped

Elizabeth Ferris and Jana Mason

A sprawling refugee camp in the middle of the desert — such as Jordan's Zaatari camp where 120,000 Syrian refugees live — brings multiple problems for the refugees and the aid groups trying to help them.

It also makes a stunning visual that attracts international media attention and is a political symbol of the burden that hosting governments face. Less known are the needs of 350,000 Syrians living as urban refugees in Jordan, mostly hidden from cameras and rarely the recipients of funding. But at least refugee groups can point the photographers in Zaatari's direction and wait for the attention and funds to trickle down.

In nearby Lebanon, that country's half-million Syrian refugees — more than in Jordan — have no camp to attract such attention. The refugees are dispersed in over 1,400 locations, ranging from large cities to small towns to vacant lots and empty fields.

They live in a dizzying array of shelter options; from substandard apartments rented at inflated prices, to unfinished or abandoned buildings crudely transformed into something close to livable, to the 250 "tented settlements" (shacks made of wood or tin or whatever materials the refugees can buy or scrounge) that dot Lebanon from Beirut to the Bekaa Valley.

Conditions are miserable: families are crowded, water is scarce, sanitation is poor. Yet, adults and children — many, many children including newborns — call these places home because returning to the violence of Syria is not an option.

Traveling in Jordan and Lebanon, we came away with one overarching impression: the Syrian refugee crisis in these two countries is, as others have observed, near the breaking point.

With funding severely limited, UN and nongovernmental aid groups struggle to protect and assist the most vulnerable of refugees, while governments and host communities show the strains and inevitable weariness the unrelenting crisis has produced.

Yet, these governments and their people have thus far been overwhelmingly generous in hosting more than a million Syrian refugees, absorbing much of the cost and putting their infrastructure at risk. How much more can they be expected to do, particularly if the number of refugees increases?

Both countries have economic and political problems of their own — including Jordan's status as the world's fourth most water-insecure country and Lebanon's increasing instability — which are intensified by the presence of refugees.

What it would mean, we wondered, if the "breaking point" were reached? Millions more refugees in these countries, living on the streets with virtually no assistance? A wave of violence against the refugees? A total breakdown of law and order in host communities? When asked their opinion of the best case scenario for the refugee crisis, virtually everyone we met said "the status quo." In fact, the pressures are likely to get much worse as the war in Syria escalates.

We wondered as well, what can be done to prevent the breaking point? We concluded that short of a political solution (clearly the best option though no one sees this as imminent), the best the international community can do is support the refugees and their host communities.

Simply put: more money is needed. Lots more money. In Lebanon, petty crime has increased significantly; people are stealing diapers. In Zaatari camp in Jordan, school-aged children who have nothing to do all day are vandalizing tents and containers. In both countries, there is a brisk trade in food vouchers. As we have seen in many other contexts, desperate people do desperate things.

While the US and other governmental donors have been very generous (with the US alone providing over half a billion dollars for the Syrian crisis), current levels of funding are simply not enough to meet even the most basic needs of the refugees and the communities affected by their presence.

On June 7, the UN and partners launched the largest humanitarian appeal in history, calling for $5 billion to help the millions of desperate Syrians, inside and outside their country. Traditional donors, including the US and the European Union, should step up and do their share. But much more is needed.

Development actors, such as the World Bank, should scale up their community development efforts in the region. How can countries or communities reach development goals without addressing the needs of refugees and host communities?

Gulf donors are pouring money into the region through various means and with varying results, but they can and should do much more.

The international system needs new ways of mobilizing funds; fresh approaches are needed to increase public fund raising, mobilize contributions from faith-based communities and engage the private sector.

Where are the benefit concerts for Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons? Where are the celebrities? Where are the SMS contributions? The consequences of a breaking point are too dire to contemplate.

More money is needed.

Elizabeth Ferris is co-director and senior fellow at Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, The Brookings Institution. 
Jana Mason is senior adviser for Government Relations and External Affairs at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The authors recently traveled to Lebanon and Jordan.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.