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Oxfam: Syrian neighbors can’t absorb growing refugee crisis alone

August 29, 2014 at 6:31 PM EDT
Over 3 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees since the conflict began in March 2011, going to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. And, according to aid workers, it’s getting worse. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Paul O’Brien of Oxfam America about the basic needs of the refugee population.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The three-and-a-half-year-old conflict in Syria reached another grim milestone today. The United Nations reports that more three million Syrians have now been forced to flee their country.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Most of the refugees have fled to bordering nations, some of which are buckling from the strain of the massive influx. One in four people in Lebanon today, nearly 1.2 million are Syrian refugees. Jordan has more than 600,000 Syrians, Turkey more than 800,000. And Iraq, now with a growing humanitarian situation of its own, has more than 200,000 refugees.

Joining me now with more is Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaign at Oxfam.

And welcome to you.

Another benchmark and a very large number. First, broadly speaking, how significant is that?

PAUL O’BRIEN, Oxfam America: It’s significant. It’s tragic.

We have been watching the numbers grow ever since Oxfam started working on this crisis. We have been calling on policy-makers both in the region, in the United States and globally to do something about it. No one has done enough. And so we see a tragic number like we do today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Inside Syria itself, how much do we know about the situation, where people are fleeing, how many there are?

PAUL O’BRIEN: We know it’s bad. We know that there are 11 million people with humanitarian needs on the ground in Syria still. That’s half the population.

A quarter-of-a-million of those, you just can’t even reach because they’re facing so much fear of conflict that no one can get near them. Oxfam is trying to reach about — it’s hard to verify, but we think about a million people with water, digging wells, sometimes trucking water, sometimes dealing with infrastructure.

It’s a very difficult place for an organization like ours in which to work, to verify that what we’re doing is being done well. We’re doing the best we can, but it’s hard for all the organizations.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned humanitarian feeds and you cited water.


JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a key one. What else?  What are…

PAUL O’BRIEN: The fundamental need is safety.

That’s what people really want, is the ability to stay where they are. Most Syrians would like to go back. Many are reluctant to because of safety. But the things we deal with when they don’t get safety is water, food security, shelter, basic fundamentals to get through the day. What we’re basically trying to do is help the population survive until we can start to help them rebuild their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in these bordering countries, and I cited some of the very large numbers, these put — this puts a great strain on many of these countries.

PAUL O’BRIEN: Yes, they’re buckling.

This can’t go on. For the countries that you mentioned, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, the populations of refugees there have grown beyond what they are capable of managing, if they ever were. It’s not economically viable. It’s not viable in terms of security. And we’re going to see the consequences of it if the international community more generally doesn’t come to their help.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so give us some examples of what is life like in border camps and elsewhere that you are seeing?

PAUL O’BRIEN: People are literally waiting to live. They are trying to rebuild lives.

It’s been three years now, so they’re trying to eke out an economic livelihood. They’re trying to work with local populations. Sometimes, they’re competing with local population for jobs. That won’t work in the long term if the numbers keep growing.

They’re not getting enough aid to get them anywhere near all of the ingredients they need to rebuild their lives. The U.N. tried to get the money it needed to serve these populations. It’s $2 billion short in terms of its most recent appeal.

And, actually, it’s not the United States that’s the problem on the aid front. It’s been quite generous, relatively speaking.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so where is the problem that you see?

PAUL O’BRIEN: Well, it’s sort of — it’s twofold in terms of the donors.

Other donors are going to have to step up to the plate in the same way. We have got to get the kinds of numbers that the U.N. is calling for maxed. That’s one thing. But because the numbers of refugees has grown so much and looks like it’s going to continue to grow, the neighboring countries cannot be expected to continue to absorb them.


PAUL O’BRIEN: So that presents a different question for the United States. Is it willing to start absorbing in resettlement flows some of these people?

JEFFREY BROWN: A much bigger question.

PAUL O’BRIEN: Yes, it is.

Since the crisis began, we have absorbed less than 200 Syrian refugees. And, collectively, the Europeans have absorbed less than 200,000, but that question is going to keep coming back to us.

JEFFREY BROWN: But just very briefly, you said and it looks as though the number will continue to grow. Every sign is that three million benchmark will be well-surpassed.

PAUL O’BRIEN: Absolutely.

And with the Iraq situation, it’s only likely to get worse. They are sometimes leaving for economic reasons, but, fundamentally, they’re leaving for security reasons. And the security situation is not getting any better. June or — sorry — July of this year was the worst month yet in terms of fatalities of civilians since the crisis started. So it’s getting worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul O’Brien of Oxfam, thank you so much.

PAUL O’BRIEN: Thank you.