Dubai: The stream of refugees leaving Syria has turned into a virtual flood over the past week due to increased fighting in Dara’a and Homs, fuelled by fears the final days of the 22-month-old conflict is nearing a bloody end.
More than 4,000 Syrians arrived at the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan on Thursday, and another 2,000 overnight Friday. A further 6,400 were reported to have sought refuge there on Saturday.
The sudden surge of refugees prompted Britain on Saturday to provide a further £21 million (Dh121 million) in aid while international donors are due to meet in Kuwait on Wednesday to firm up relief measures.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are 670,000 Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, and alarmingly, that figure is expected to double by June.
Britain’s International Development Secretary Justine Greening said the £21 million new aid would “help deliver life-saving winter clothing, food and medicine”. Greening is visiting Jordan where Syrian refugees are arriving in unprecedented numbers and so far, the United Kingdom government has donated £89.5 million in aid for Syria.
The United Nations is hoping that international donors will commit to giving $1.5 billion when they gather in Kuwait City. The money is desperately needed for relief in the camps — with bitter cold and poor weather conditions adding to the woes of those living under canvas.
Valerie Amos, the undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said the $1.5 billion is needed for immediate relief for the growing numbers seeking safety outside Syria’s borders.
“The effect of nearly two years of conflict has had a terrible impact on people, especially on children. I repeat: four million people need help, two million are internally displaced, and 400,000 out of 500,000 Palestinians refugees have been affected,” she said while at Davos for the World Economic Forum.
“We hope that the [Kuwait] conference will yield the resources we need. If we do not receive these funds, we will not be able to reach the poorest and most vulnerable families who so desperately need our help,” she said.
The UN official said that she and her colleagues were “frustrated” by the challenges they were facing in Syria, “but every month we and our partners are feeding more people, delivering basic relief items, and supplementing basic health and education services. “What we are seeing now are the consequences of the failure of the international community to unite and to resolve the political crisis after nearly two years,” she said in a report from Reuters. “I hope that there is no doubt left in the mind of our political leaders as to the scale of the human tragedy unfolding in Syria.”
On Friday, a UN official told the BBC there had been a huge leap in the numbers of Syrian refugees entering the country, which was putting a considerable strain on resources.
The record influx of refugees into Jordan has prompted its monarch, King Abdullah II, to call for more international aid. His call came even as the Syrian government urged refugees to return in a bid that was met with broad scepticism among anti-government activists.
The accelerating flight from Syria into Jordan and Lebanon has occurred as fighting has raged near the southern city of Dara’a and in the northern province of Homs, where an increasing number of villages have been nearly emptied of residents, according to anti-government activists inside Syria and people who recently fled the area for Lebanon.
The government has recently stepped up its offensive in Homs in what may be an effort to clear a route from the capital, Damascus, to the pro-government strongholds on the coast. In the northern province of Idlib, rebels declared that they had taken over the central prison and freed scores of prisoners. Anti-government activists posted videos of fighters prying open barred windows to allow prisoners to escape.
According to Melissa Fleming, the spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the new influx consisting of families led by women, brought to more than 30,000 the number of Syrians reaching Zaatari so far in January, close to double December’s number.
Many had come from the city and the suburbs of Dara’a, she said, describing a “real day-to-day struggle to survive” in the face of combat damage, the closure of medical facilities and shortages of food, water and electricity.
The Zaatari camp, which opened in July, has about 65,000 people, and the agency said it was working with Jordan to open a second camp by the end of the month to initially accommodate 5,000 refugees and eventually 30,000.
Many families arrive with young children or babies, and Zaatari has recorded seven to ten babies born every day over the past month, according to Fleming.
Many Syrians arrived sick because of the collapse of medical services. Three children died in the camp this week, including a two-day-old baby, she said.
A UAE field hospital in the camp is treating 600 people every day.
The refugee agency reported that it was trying to register Syrians elsewhere in Jordan and expected to have 50,000 by the end of February, but it noted that the Jordanian authorities say 300,000 Syrians have entered the country.
The number of Syrian refugees in the region is approaching 700,000, the refugee agency said, with 221,000 registered in Lebanon, 156,000 in Turkey and 76,000 in Iraq.
“I cannot emphasise enough the challenges that we are all facing, both in Jordan and Lebanon, and it’s only going to get worse,” King Abdullah said. “What we’re asking from the international community is not just to help us with the refugee problems and their challenges as they face this harsh winter, but also stockpiling in Jordan so that we can move supplies across the borders to keep people in place.”
Jordan’s fears for its own stability surfaced last week when the country’s prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, said that if the Syrian government collapsed, Jordan would not accept more refugees but would use its military to create havens inside Syria for those displaced by conflict.
— With inputs from NYT, AFP, the BBC and Reuters