Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobani was “about to fall to ISIS.” Since the advance on Kobani, the Turkish government and aid agencies have been struggling to respond to the influx of more than 180,000 Syrian refugees into southern Turkey. The sudden, massive flow of refugees fleeing ISIS is the largest displacement in the Syrian conflict.
Humanitarian groups project that there will be 3.59 million Syrian refugees by December 2014, with annual budget requirements of US$3.74 billion (56% of which remains unfunded). For UNHCR, the Syria operation is now the largest in its 64-year history.
We spoke to Mohammed Abu Asaker, a regional communications officer with UNHCR, on how the agency is coping with the largest humanitarian crisis of its time.
Syria Deeply:What’s the current situation on the ground?
Asaker: We are facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the current era … the largest influx we’ve witnessed since the beginning of the conflict, and it continues to increase dramatically. Eighty percent of the refugees are women and children, 20 percent of them are elderly and disabled. Many say they personally witnessed attacks, fleeing violence and conflict. There are points where they can cross into Turkey from Syria, and UNHCR staff have been providing assistance in terms of medical, health and support to Turkish officials who are responsible for registration at the borders. We’ve scaled up our operations to support the large influx into Turkey by airlift, providing assistance to more than 200,000 people. Our assistance includes 130,000 sleeping mats, more than 100,000 blankets, 15,000 kitchen sets. There are vaccinations being provided to children below the age of 18.
In the last 5 days, 130,00 people crossed into Turkey, which is equal to the number of Syrian refugees Europe has accepted in the last three years.
Syria Deeply:What conditions are these people in?
Asaker: They arrive very weak, hungry, thirsty. Many have been walking for long distances, escaping from violence back home. They are crossing the border seeking protection. They want to survive. People leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Syria Deeply:Where are they living now?
Asaker:All refugees approaching the borders have been able to get into Turkey. There are 22 camps in Turkey hosting around 200,000 people. The rest of the refugees are living in urban settings. The Turkish government is setting up two extra camps to host the big influx of Syrian refugees. The vast majority of Syrian refugees live in areas across the border. The transit camp is being set up in Srooj.
Syria Deeply:What’s the biggest challenge in a displacement of this size?
Asaker:The challenges we have are on different levels. The first is the increased number of people crossing the border. It’s the response and life-saving humanitarian assistance to be provided for such a large number of people in such a short period of time, especially when we are dealing with such a gap in funding. UNHCR has only received half of the funds from the regional appeal it put out in December. In Turkey, only 25 percent of the funding that is needed has been provided. The second challenge is that we can’t predict whether the number of refugees will increase, especially because of the fighting going on the other side of the border.
Syria Deeply:What are the implications for local stability and social dynamics?
Asaker:In any of the host communities, there is a huge pressure on the economic and social levels and a huge burden on the host governments. This applies to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, who have shown a great amount of generosity towards the Syrian refugees. We are appealing to the international community to give the support and funds to the neighboring countries, to enable them to support the Syrian refugees.
Syria Deeply: How are the Turkish authorities going to cope?
Asaker:We very much appreciate that the Turkish government has kept its borders open, in spite of the huge number of refugees they host. According to the Turkish official statements, Turkey hosts more than 1.5 million refugees since the start of the conflict.
According to official statements by the Turkish government, Turkey has spent more than $2.5 billion of their own money to provide assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey, in the 22 very well built camps or by providing assistance to refugees living in urban settings. The pressure is only increasing on Turkey, which is why UNHCR has asked for burden sharing from the international community to maintain the support provided to refugees.
Syria Deeply: Turning to another border, is Jordan now barring Syrian refugees from entering the country?
Asaker:We witnessed a decrease in terms of numbers of Syrian refugees getting into Jordan. The official statement from the Jordanian government is that the borders are open and that there has been no change in their policy to open borders to Syrian refugees. There could be other reasons why people are going to other countries instead of Jordan. We haven’t received any notice from the Jordanian government that their borders are closed.