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Syria’s Invisible Refugees

Before there were allegations of chemical weapons—and breaking news that Bashar al-Assad had gassed 426 children—Bashar al-Assad and his regime had already killed 100,000 of his own people over the past two and a half years.

For most of it, the United States barely so much as blinked an eye.

Before President Barack Obama’s alleged “red line” was crossed and he started having to ask “difficult questions” with “difficult answers”—to bomb or not to bomb—more than two million Syrians had already fled their country and more than four million others had been forced to leave their homes, but had not yet left Syria.

Still, these voices—the voices of Syrians who have actually experienced, and in many instances, fled the conflict—remain almost invisible in the mainstream dialogue on Syria.

In the beginning, many refugees crossed the border into Turkey where what aid workers refer to as, “five-star camps” awaited them. Although Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has largely welcomed their presence, and the International Red Crescent has reportedly been attentive to the needs of the camps and the refugees, the increasing presence of Syrians is stirring tensions in once quiet and peaceful border towns

Those in the south—and many from Daraa, the largely working-class city where the conflict began—chose to cross the closest border into Jordan. Although many refugees settled in Irbid, Amman and other cities in Jordan as more and more refugees began to emigrate, the Jordanian government created the now notorious Za’atari Refugee Camp in the north of Jordan.

Za’atari was once a quiet desert village in the north of Jordan, with little more than a Jordanian Army Airforce base and a sparse population due to the overbearing desert heat, subsequent harsh winters and heavy presence of snakes and scorpions. Now it is the second largest refugee camp in the world and the fourth largest population center in Jordan. It is also thought of as one of the most desolate of camps, fraught with over-crowding and a lack of resources, at times not even allowing freedom of movement. Many refugees choose to return home, choosing war-torn Syria over the desperation and lack of opportunities in the so-called refugee camp.

Seventy-five percent of the refugees are women and children, often making the crossing after being widowed or leaving their husbands behind to fight in the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Another increasingly common destination for refugees is Lebanon—while at first most stayed near the Syrian border in the Bekka Valley, an increasing number are going to Beirut looking for work and to establish a new, albeit temporary life. However, unlike Jordan and Turkey, UNHCR does not establish formal refugee camps in Lebanon, forcing refugees to rent living spaces that are often far more expensive than they can afford, both due to Lebanese prices and an effort to curb to influx of refugees. Although this theoretically allows Syrians to assimilate into Lebanese society, in practice it is forcing an increasing number of refugees into the streets.

Increasing numbers are crossing into Iraqi Kurdistan, many of whom are former Iraqi refugees who sought refuge in Syria with the US invasion and subsequent sectarian violence in Iraq. Now, the violence in Syria has made it more appealing to return home—where it is far from calm.

To date, Sweden is the only country that has offered to grant full asylum to any and all Syrian refugees. However, it is the responsibility of the refugee to find their way to Sweden—a journey that for many is long, arduous, expensive and often nearly impossible. Germany is also piloting a program that will take 5,000 UNCHR-registered refugees living in Lebanon and grant them temporary asylum for two years, with the promise of an extension if the conflict persists. Many other Syrian refugees are now landing on Europe’s shores—often in Italy or France—where asylum will be a complete gamble, particularly in nations known for being hostile towards Arab immigrants.

Despite calling for airstrikes, which—despite the arguments for their justification—would unarguably quadruple or quintuple the exodus of Syrian refugees, the United States has only granted asylum to 33 Syrian refugees over the past year. Although there have been discussions of allowing as many as 2,000 refugees in—less than half of the number that Germany has extended invitation to, which is still criticized by experts as a “drop in the bucket”—it has been reported that they would first be screened for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist ties.

The United States is not a benevolent power, and their alleged “red line” on chemical weapons does not apply to every country or even themselves. In 2004, the United States attacked Iraqi civilians with white phosphorus and turned a blind eye while continuing to fund the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) when they did the same to Gaza—killing a similar number of Palestinian children as Assad killed Syrian children during Operation Cast Lead in 2008. However, instead of recounting this (and questioning the United States’ motives), the dialogue has been on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s involvement, the politics of a proxy war and what this means for Iran.

There are no easy questions with easy answers when it comes to Syria—particularly whether to, or not to intervene. But one easy answer might be that Syria is in dire need of a humanitarian—not military—intervention.

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