Almost forgotten as the world struggles to keep up with Donald Trump’s tweets, natural disasters, Brexit and more, Syria’s civil war reached two sombre milestones today.
It is six years since the fighting began – the conflict has now lasted longer than World War II. And the number of refugees who have fled for neighbouring countries has topped five million people for the first time, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
Half of Syria’s 22 million population has been uprooted, the UNHCR figures show, with 6.3 million people who are still inside the country’s borders forced from their homes.
And that figure of five million refugees “fails to account for another 1.2 million people seeking safety in Europe”, the International Rescue Committee aid organisation noted. Nearly 270,000 of these applied for asylum in Germany last year.
The EU is to hold a summit on the Syria crisis in Brussels next week. A group of 28 aid agencies including Oxfam, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee have urged the US, European and other governments to reverse recent measures that limit refugees’ right to asylum.
The five million figure includes refugees who have been resettled in Europe, but the UN high commissioner for refugees urged Europeans to do more to help share a burden that is still largely falling on countries bordering Syria, such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Turkey alone has nearly three million Syrians. In Jordan, 657,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UN, but the government says the true figure is 1.3 million.
Tens of thousands live in two large camps, but the majority live in homes and flats, able to access the job market but competing for scarce employment.
The situation is more complicated in Lebanon, where the government refused to allow the establishment of formal camps. It has 12 Palestinian refugee camps, mostly dating back more than 50 years.
The UN says about one million Syrians are in the country, though the government says the figure is higher, with many living in dismal conditions in informal camps.
Thousands of people, many of them Syrians, are stuck on Greece’s Aegean islands as a result of an EU-Turkish agreement that curbed the influx of migrants and refugees to the EU.
Elsewhere in Europe, France and Germany are both gearing up for crucial elections, with far-right candidates seeking to exploit public fears about immigration.
Babar Baloch of the UNHCR said: “This is not the time to shun Syrian refugees. Our hope is that humanity will not be put on a ballot.
“Europe went through this during the second world war and there were many countries which supported Europe. Syria is currently going through this trauma and it now needs the world’s support. We should not be turning our backs on people in need.
“The solution to the crisis in Syria is political but, in terms of support, it is humanity that is needed.
“We are asking other countries to come forward and help those countries neighbouring Syria that are hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees to share responsibility for resettlement and humanitarian admissions. Those desperate refugees are in need of resettlement.”
The US had pledged to resettle 64,000 Syrian but the Trump administration is seeking to reduce the number. Baloch said the agency’s efforts to help resettle Syrians in the US were continuing amid court battles over the issue.
Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, urged nations to honour existing promises of help and to do more to help. “To meet this challenge, we not only need additional places but also need to accelerate the implementation of existing pledges,” he said.
Last year, a pledge conference in Geneva agreed to resettle 10%, or 500,000, of all Syrian refugees by 2018. So far, only 250,000 places have been made available.