Since the spring of 2011 Syria has been plighted with a devastating internal conflict between the current regime and protesters calling for the dissolution of the Ba’ath party government. The government continues to claim that the conflict is led by ‘armed terrorist groups’. According to the United Nations over 10,000 people have been killed and over 100,000 refugees have fled Syria. The majority of them are residing in Jordan and have little in the way of shelter, healthcare and regular food.
David Willey, Former University of York student, is the Human Relief Foundation’s Emergency Response Manager. HRF is an organisation working to provide assistance to Syrian refugees crossing the borders of Jordan and Iraq. He studied at York as an undergraduate in Philosophy and Politics, and did a Masters in Post-War Recovery Studies. He told me that he’s worked in the Middle East, including Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, since 2008: “I was working for migration issues for the International Organisation for Migration within Iraq, when I saw the job opportunity within HRF, and how I could work with Syrian refugees, so decided to take up this great and fulfilling role. We’re working up to 18 hours a day, throughout the night, often seven days a week.”
Iraq remains the country of last resort for refugees. The fact people are fleeing there highlights how bad the situation really is.
There are a number of York alumni working towards the Syrian response, including the HRU’s CEO. For over twenty years the Human Relief Foundation has been relieving human suffering and saving lives in some of the poorest regions of the world. Launched in 1991 to alleviate the suffering of those affected by the war in Iraq, HRF has continuously strengthened and expanded its activities to struggling regions across the world.
David told me: “Within Jordan, there are over 59,000 officially registered refugees, but estimates are that there are actually around 200,000 refugees. Over 1000 refugees are crossing the border into Jordan each day. Over the last year, these refugees have been integrated into Jordanian host-communities, but with the situation deteriorating so rapidly, a new refugee camp is being opened over the next 48 hours. The vast majority of the Syrians arrive with no savings or belongings and rely completely on assistance from agencies such as HRF.”
Over the last year HRF has been doing emergency distributions of food and non-food-items (NFIs) to Syrian refugees, within Mafraq (a border town of Jordan with Syria): “We recently signed a partnership agreement with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to increase food distributions throughout the country. And HRF are now distributing food assistance to refugees throughout the country.”
Over £150,000 has already been spent to help relieve the suffering of 2,500 refugee families in the Governorates of Al-Ramtha and Al-Mafraq in Jordan. “Donations have contributed to providing shelter packs containing blankets, heaters and food parcels. HRF has also set up a mobile clinic with other organisations and is now distributing regularly all across Jordan. In June 2012, HRF’s Iraq branch managed to reach Syrian refugees who reached Dahuk in Iraq and provide them with food parcels.”
David revealed: “the situation of the refugees is very desperate, over 50% of the refugees are children, a great deal of these orphans. Most of the refugees require psycho-social assistance because of the issues which they have been subjected to within Syria. We are seeing issues of children watching as their parents are killed. We really want to expand our opportunities to be able to assist these groups. One family from Homs told me the day they decided to leave Syria was because one of their family members was shot in front of the family in their house. These are not unusual stories unfortunately.
“A new camp was opened a few months ago, ‘Za’atri’, where there are at present 30,000 refugees, with the number increasing each day. The Jordanian government, as well as the international community is responding to the crisis as best as possible, but resources are exceptionally strained at present. Jordan is a very poor country and the most water-scarce country within the world, so are struggling to absorb the refugees.”
When the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the borders of the country would be re-opened for Syrian refugees, David had to prepare for this huge influx of refugees across the border, by putting together key strategies for food and water distribution to refugees. “We have just launched an emergency appeal due to the deteriorating situation within the last week. There are around 8,000 refugees within Iraq, and the vast majority of these are Kurds going into the North of Iraq. The Iraqi government has a policy of hosting these refugees within camps, the biggest of these being Domiz in Dohouk.
“HRF has provided emergency distributions to this camp such as food, water and NFI’s within the last months. However, the reason that HRF has now launched an emergency appeal for Iraq is because of the situation regarding Iraqi refugees who had previously been forced to flee to Syria since 2003, now being forced to return to a country where they are at risk. These groups are exceptionally vulnerable, and HRF are working to support these groups to find shelter and access to basic services. The problems in Iraq are well known, and any influx of population is of concern to HRF. Iraq remains the country of last resort for refugees, and the fact that people are fleeing there highlights how bad the situation is. There are now 35,000 Syrian refugees within Iraq.”
HRF is working to meet the basic needs of refugees within Iraq and Jordan, but urgently requires funding to do this. David wants to be able to help more refugees, as he doesn’t expect the situation to improve any time soon. $31 will provide a refugee with food for a month. “We would appreciate any help from people spreading the news about the situation within the region.”
As a consequence of the sanctions enforced by America, the EU and Arab League, the IMF reports Syria’s economy contracted by 2% in 2001. There is high unemployment and limited resources. Despite some small initial steps towards liberalisation in Syria, when Bashar came to power in 2000, economic policy now favours the elite and opposition remains strongest amongst the swathes of poorer Sunni majority. In response to the initial opposition, the Assad regime reacted with a combination of concession and force, bringing the 48-year state of emergency to an end. And yet the government of Assad continues to punish silent dissent through butchery and force. The crisis in Syria is a human catastrophe. Assad continues to make a mockery of international and regional attempts to stabilize the situation.
This is a bloody battle which threatens to escalate into a full-scale civil war. I asked what students at York could do in response to this never-ending crisis. “Students should petition their local politicians to increase the aid budget for Syria, and can directly support the work of NGO’s themselves with donations. Money really does count here.”