Syria’s refugee crisis: history on repeat and no superhero to the rescue

The scale of the refugee crisis as a result of the never-ending conflict in Syria is well-known. Out of a population of approximately 22.5 million before the conflict started in 2011, some 6.25 million Syrians - more than a quarter - have now been forced from their homes. Of these, over two million have crossed one of Syria’s borders, with the rest trying to survive as best they can somewhere within Syria (like the thousands of civilians believed trapped in the besieged Damascus suburb of Moadamiya).

It’s a mass refugee crisis on a truly stunning scale and we’ve been here before. Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo: wherever there’s fighting there’s also fear and flight.

These examples of severe refugee crises are only the more obvious ones from recent years - they coincide with my time crashing the computers and jamming up the printers in my daily work at Amnesty. In fact, almost my first bit of volunteering at Amnesty was doing some modest paperwork for the “Great Lakes Team”, a group that was trying to monitor what was happening in eastern Zaire (as it then was) after enormous flows of people out of Rwanda following the 1994 genocide. Plus ça change.

But, seeing it before doesn’t make it any less awful this time around. So, whether it’s in Lebanon where about 800,000 people from Syria have already been registered as refugees (including many traumatised families living precariously in places like chicken slaughterhouses and former sheep pens); in Egypt where anti-refugee sentiment is on the rise and even Syrian children are being detained in police stations; or in Jordan where a mix of refugee camps and “assimilated” living is just about working - the human costs are unbelievably steep.

In Jordan, as a new Amnesty report makes clear, the “lucky” ones are in places like Za’atri refugee camp (now the second biggest refugee camp in the world), doing their best to cope with a lack of clean drinking water or school-less, demoralised children. Or, if they’re rather less “lucky”, they’re within the relative safety of Jordan’s borders but are detained in the incongruously-named Cyber City housing complex, a formidably bleak place near the northern Jordanian city of Irdid. Cyber City is notable because many of the people there are actually Palestinians from Syria, ie people who were historically already refugees from Palestine. In other words, they’re “double refugees”. If this wasn’t bad enough, they’re even caught in a sort of geopolitical administrative loophole. As Palestinian refugees they’re supposed to fall under the care of the UN’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and not the main refugee agency, the UNHCR. It means that if you’re one of the 9,000 Palestinians from Syria who’ve fled to Jordan you will not be eligible for UNHCR aid and you’ll likely have restrictions placed on your movements as well.

But … these are still the “fortunate” ones. There are disturbing accounts of how some people are being turned away at the Jordanian border (not least if they’re Palestinian in fact) and even some cases - unbelievably - of people being forcibly returned to Syria after they’ve made it to safety in Jordan. Meanwhile, Syrians are reportedly dying of starvation on the Syrian side of the border.

Last week the UK’s Department for International Development said it would be allocating £15.5m specifically for the Syrian-Palestinian double refugees, while announcing that the UK “has now committed £500 million in response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the largest ever response from the UK to a single crisis”. This is welcome, of course it is, but it’s still a relatively modest response compared to hosting hundreds of thousands of extra, impoverished people for years at a time, as both Jordan and Lebanon are now doing. Where, for instance, is the UK’s humanitarian resettlement offer for the most wretched of the Syria crisis? Nowhere, is the answer.

Meanwhile, puzzled by the name of the Cyber City refugee centre in Jordan, I’ve just watched an episode of the early-90s Japanese anime of the same name. I - foolishly - thought it might give me some clue over why the Jordanian authorities appear to be treating Palestinian-Syrian refugees so harshly. After struggling through 40 minutes of post-Star Wars kitsch, teen-friendly cyber-punk and a pounding electro-rock soundtrack (plus a steady diet of not-especially-entertaining swearing), I concluded that the gruff anti-hero Shunsuke Sengoku’s mission to save 50,000 people trapped in a threatened futuristic skyscraper … had very little to do with what’s happening to Syrians in Jordan or anywhere else. Modern refugee crises don’t seem to be resolved through superhero intervention. Unfortunately.



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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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