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Syrian Conflict Sparks Humanitarian Crisis as Civilians Move to Refugee Camps

July 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Eleven days of shelling have forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes for safer areas in Lebanon and Jordan, where many struggle to find food and shelter. Ray Suarez talks to Michel Gabaudan of Refugees International about the humanitarian crisis as violence persists in Syria's largest cities.
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GWEN IFILL: That civil war in Syria has sparked a refugee crisis.

Ray Suarez has that part of the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Days of shelling have forced tens of thousands of people to flee Aleppo. Many are struggling to find shelter and food.

For more on the worsening humanitarian situation, we turn to Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International. He recently met with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

And, Mr. Gabaudan, how many people have been displaced? What’s the best estimate on how many are now refugees in Syria?  

MICHEL GABAUDAN, Refugees International: There are 120,000 Syrians who have been registered as refugees in Jordan, in Turkey, in Lebanon, and a few in Iraq.

But there are many more that have crossed into this country and have not sought to be registered.

RAY SUAREZ: And probably many that are internally displaced, no, inside the country, not having crossed borders?

MICHEL GABAUDAN: Indeed. Then the numbers are extremely varied. The estimates range from 400,000 to a million-and-a-half.

Whatever the real figure, these are astounding figures. And, unfortunately, aid doesn’t reach them well.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, has the Syrian government and, for that matter, have the rebels allowed international aid to reach people who are out of their homes?

MICHEL GABAUDAN: Well, I think agencies trying to get into Syria formally through government are not getting the visas and the mandates they need to operate neutrally, as all humanitarians seek to work.

There are agencies working cross-border, mostly in the medical field, trying to help those people in the Free Syrian Army who are helping the wounded. There are lots of clandestine hospitals, if you want. And the evacuation of these wounded is a key challenge.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you mentioned people who are making it over borders. Syria borders five other countries. Is there a difference in the way they’re being received in these various places? Are they being allowed to cross unmolested?

MICHEL GABAUDAN: Well, I have been very much impressed when I was in Lebanon and Syria to see that these countries have done three things that are uncommon: open borders, access to services, to schools and to the medical facilities, and no report of brutality or abuse by local security forces.

This is quite remarkable. Therefore, the welcoming of the Syrians has been very good. And it is important that we support these countries so that they keep on keeping their borders open. The only Syrians we can really help now are those who are getting out.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, are people who are trying to make it to the border being harassed? Are they under attack while they’re still in Syria?

MICHEL GABAUDAN: The — when we were in Lebanon, in the northern part of Lebanon, just across Hama, the border was very dangerous. It had been mined. We had reports of Syrian sharpshooters taking aim at refugees trying to flee.

So, most of them have then crossed either lower into Lebanon in the Bekaa Valley, and, increasingly, numbers are moving into Jordan.

In Jordan, they either move legally through the border, but that is proving more and more difficult, because the Syrians are putting their own checks on people who can leave. And, therefore, more people leave illegally in the eastern part of the border. And they are then picked up by the Jordanian army and brought into transit centers.

RAY SUAREZ: From what you’re saying, it sounds like people have terrible individual choices to make. They live in places where there’s artillery fire, gun battles, even now attacks by fixed-wing aircraft.

It’s dangerous if they stay. But it’s also dangerous if they move.

MICHEL GABAUDAN: It’s dangerous to move.

But, as I said, the neighboring countries have received them well, have kept their borders open, have not tried to limit their entry. Now that policy seems to be changing a little bit with the encampment policy that had been designed by Jordan. And we feel this may be a sort of light deterrent to say, you will still be welcome if you come, but we’ll put you into camps. You won’t have access to our whole country, as was the case previously.

And I think it’s because these countries realize that the situation in Syria is extremely unstable, is getting worse, is likely to keep on. And they say, if we keep — if we maintain our open border policy as open as it was before, how many hundreds of thousands are going to come? And I think these countries are becoming a bit worried. And that’s why…

(CROSSTALK)

RAY SUAREZ: But can they take advantage of international support?

If for instance, there are now camps with tens of thousands of people in Turkey, can Turkey turn around to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, international aid groups that you work with and say, help us out?

MICHEL GABAUDAN: Well, Turkey so far has managed alone pretty well.

They are reluctant to have lots of foreigners on their border, for reasons that are of national security, I imagine. But, yes, they should turn to international community if they can’t cope.

Other countries have turned to the international community. But, so far, for example, the regional response plan that has — the appeal that the U.N. has made to the international community has been funded only by a third.

So most agencies operating in Lebanon and Jordan are operating below their capacity because of funding shortage.

RAY SUAREZ: We should talk for a moment about the people who do this work. As the situation worsens in Syria, is it also becoming more dangerous to be a relief worker?

MICHEL GABAUDAN: I think for those people who carry out cross-border activities, it is dangerous.

We have seen that the Syrians have no qualms about shooting at people, doctors who provide relief. So — and most of the people working cross-border are Syrians. And they are helping their own people at great risk. There are lots of agencies working in neighboring countries who try to help them with supplies and, as I say, with evacuation.

I have seen people who have been operating in these field hospitals of terrible injuries survive and with limbs that have recuperated well. So they are doing an extraordinary work.

RAY SUAREZ: Michel Gabaudan, thanks for joining us.

MICHEL GABAUDAN: Thank you very much.

RAY SUAREZ: On our website, read a dispatch about how Christians are fighting for their survival in Syria. That’s by our partners at the international news website GlobalPost.