Syria’s accelerating humanitarian crisis hit a grim milestone Wednesday: The number of U.N.-registered refugees topped 1 million - half of them children - described by an aid worker as a “human river” of thousands spilling out of the war-ravaged country every day.
Nearly 4 million of Syria’s 22 million people have been driven from their homes by the civil war. Of the displaced, 2 million have sought cover in camps and makeshift shelters across Syria, 1 million have registered as refugees in neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, and several hundred thousand more fled the country but haven’t signed up with the U.N. refugee agency.
The West has refrained from military intervention in the two-year-old battle to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad, a conflict that has claimed more than 70,000 lives, and many Syrians hold the international community responsible for their misery.
“The refugee numbers swelled because the world community is sitting idly, watching the tyrant Assad killing innocent people,” said Mohammed Ammari, a 32-year-old refugee in the Zaatari camp straddling Jordan’s border with Syria.
“Shame, shame, shame. The world should be ashamed.”
Despite its economic problems, Greece is still the most popular entry point for refugees trying to get into the European Union and has been inundated by waves of them. This year, that has included some 8,000 Syrians fleeing the civil war in their country, and the Greek government is tentatively planning to accommodate as many as 20,000 of them on the island of Corfu.
According a report and video on Al-Jazeera, the Syrians are arriving on the island of Lesbos and helped by volunteers who provide food and shelter. The journey is very dangerous, boats are old and in bad conditions, and at this time of year seas can be very rough. Earlier in December, 20 Iraqis trying to reach Greece from Turkey, drowned when their boat capsized off the island.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said yesterday that more than half a million Syrian refugees were either registered or awaiting registration in the region.
The civil war has driven hundreds of thousands of Syrians into neighbouring countries. Lebanon is now host to 154,387 registered Syrian refugees, Jordan has 142,664, Turkey 136,319, Iraq 65,449 and North Africa 11,740, the UNHCR said in Geneva.
In addition, there are more than 1.5 million Syrians who fled violence for safer areas within the country.
Large numbers of Syrians have also crossed into neighbouring countries but have not yet registered for refugee status and assistance, it said. These include about 100,000 in Jordan, 70,000 each in both Turkey and Egypt and tens of thousands in Lebanon, it said, citing government estimates.
Some 9,000 refugees have fled to Turkey in the past 24 hours in one of the largest exoduses on a single day since the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad 19 months ago. Seven Turkish nationals have also been injured by stray shells from Syria.
Thousands of Syrians fled to Turkey on Thursday night as clashes intensified between opposition forces and the Syrian army along the border.
The UN said some 9,000 refugees had led to Turkey in the past 24 hours, while another 2,000 went to Jordan and Lebanon. Panos Moumtzis, the UN refugee agency’s coordinator for the region, said the estimated figures are “really the highest we have had in quite some time,” compared with an average 2,000 to 3,000 Syrians fleeing daily. This brings the number of Syrian refugees registered with the agency to more than 408,000.
A Turkish Foreign Ministry official had earlier put the latest influx at 8,000 — a single-day total that is sure to heighten Ankara’s concerns about the flood of refugees, given that the exodus is one of the largest on a single day since the start of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March last year. Ankara earlier set the figure of 100,000 as a “psychological threshold,” suggesting that it would be difficult to handle a refugee flow beyond that number.
The Zaatari camp in northern Jordan was meant to be a place of refuge for 30,000 Syrians. But every day, dozens are choosing to leave the safety of Jordan and make the perilous journey back into the war zone.
The sun is setting on Zaatari as a mother pleads with a soldier to be allowed on to a bus. Around her, dozens of Syrians say their farewells as the engine starts up. While an estimated 360,000 Syrians have fled their homeland, this busload is making the opposite journey.
“We face a slow death here, or a fast death over there,” says Hussain Ayish, pointing towards the border at the other end of the scrubland. As we talk, a low-flying Jordanian military jet and a fleet of helicopters circle overhead.
Truck after truck, most carrying drinking water, files past the Jordanian army tank and along the muddy road at the heart of the camp. Kids chase each vehicle and scrabble to ride up on the back of it.
“Hide your car well,” says Bilal, a police officer. “They have no respect, they will throw stones at you,” he warns. “And make sure you are back before dark.”
This place of refuge has become the setting for an increasingly ugly battle between Syrian refugees and their Jordanian hosts. Demonstrations inside the camp have, on at least one occasion, turned violent, prompting an exodus back into Syria.
On Wednesday night, for the second time in the last six months, Turkey invoked Article IV of the NATO charter, prompting a late-night consultation with its allies in Brussels over a perceived threat to its sovereignty and security. Last time, it was over the Syrian Air Force’s downing of an Turkish F4 reconnaissance plane, which Ankara maintains was hit by a surface-to-air missile in international airspace after apparently straying briefly into Syria’s. This time, it was because the Syrian Army fired three mortar rounds into the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five civilians and injuring eight others.
Turkey’s immediate response to what appeared to be an “errant” attack was to engage in reprisal shelling of undisclosed Syrian air bases and outposts, which, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killed several soldiers. However, following NATO’s perfunctory rhetorical support for its member state, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan then invoked Article 92 of the Turkish Constitution, which, according to the parliamentary motion that subsequently passed, grants him “one-year-long permission to make the necessary arrangements for sending the Turkish Armed Forces to foreign countries.” Erdogan’s deputy promptly explained that this measure was “not for war” but for deterring further cross-border violence. The prime minister’s assessment was somewhat less varnished. “We are not interested in war,” he said on Friday, “but we’re not far from it either.” As of this writing, more mortars have fallen on Turkish soil, in Akcakale and Hatay, and Turkey has responded with reprisal shelling for six consecutive days.
The interesting thing to note about the war powers bill was that it was dated September 20th and originally meant for deploying forces to Iraq’s Qandil Mountains to flush out militants of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, the US, and the EU all designate a terrorist group. The bill was only revised last week to include Syria after the Akcakale attack. There were certainly other factors that influenced Turkey’s responses last week, including the rising Sunni-Alawite sectarian tension in the southwestern city of Antakya, temporary home to the bulk of some 120,000 Syrian refugees and untold scores of rebel fighters. But, as so often in Turkey, the Kurdish question is the prism through which the country’s foreign policy must be filtered.
Turkish artillery fired on Syrian targets after deadly shelling from Syria hit a Turkish border town on Wednesday, sharply raising tensions on a volatile border that has been crossed by tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in their country.
In a terse statement, the office of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, condemned shelling that hit the Turkish town of Akcakale, killing five local residents and wounding a dozen others. The shelling appeared to come from Syrian government forces who were fighting Syrian rebels backed by Turkey, which has called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“Our armed forces at the border region responded to this atrocious attack with artillery fire on points in Syria that were detected with radar, in line with the rules of engagement,” the Turkish statement said.
“Turkey, acting within the rules of engagement and international laws, will never leave unreciprocated such provocations by the Syrian regime against our national security,” it said.
Turkey’s NTV television said Turkish radar pinpointed the positions from where the shells were fired on Akcakale, and that those positions were hit.
Turkish police are going house to house in this border province issuing an ultimatum, Syrian refugees say: Either move into a refugee camp or go back to Syria.
More than a half dozen Syrian refugees living in rented homes in Antakya and the nearby town of Yayladagi offered similar descriptions to CNN of the stark choice recently imposed by local Turkish authorities.
“I told one cop, ‘What if I don’t leave?’” said a male Syrian refugee who asked not to be named to protect him from Turkish and Syrian government reprisals. “He said, ‘We will take you to the police station and force you to evacuate’” your home.
“The first time the police came, they asked for my passport, took a look at it, and then one of them said, ‘You have three months, you can stay here for three months,’” said another Syrian man who asked to be named as Abu Ahmed to protect his family members still living in Syria.
“Then 20 days later they came back,” he said. “I wasn’t home but my wife was, and they made her sign a paper to evacuate ourselves from this house within four days.”
At least a half dozen other Syrian refugees have told similar stories of Turkish police ordering them to abandon homes that they have rented here in Turkey.
The United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday that the number of Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan last week had more than doubled from the previous week, raising further fears of a growing exodus from Syria that threatens to overwhelm international relief efforts.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Melissa Fleming, the chief spokeswoman for the refugee agency, said that 10,200 Syrians had crossed into northern Jordan between Aug. 21 and Aug. 27, compared with 4,500 the week before. The refugees, she said, included an increasing number of unaccompanied children, some orphans and others sent ahead by parents, sometimes without passports.
“Refugees say many thousands more are waiting to cross amid violence around Dara’a,” Ms. Fleming said, referring to the southern Syrian province that borders Jordan. “We believe this could be the start of a much larger influx. Some of those who have crossed in recent days — especially Friday — report being bombed by aircraft. There are also reports of shelling, mortars and other weapons fire.”
The waves of refugees fleeing Dara’a, the Damascus suburbs, Aleppo and the Idlib region near Turkey in recent days have provided a barometer of the escalating violence in the 18-month-old conflict, in which neither the government of President Bashar al-Assad or its opponents seem capable of striking a decisive blow.
Ms. Fleming said the number of refugees escaping to Turkey had multiplied to 5,000 a day from 400 or 500 daily several weeks ago. In the past 24 hours, she said, 3,000 people entered Turkey, with 10,000 more waiting to cross.
The United States and Turkey on Saturday took a half step toward intervention in Syria, announcing that the two governments jointly would begin “in depth analysis and operational planning” for a possible no-fly zone.
The countries also will begin drafting plans for how to respond if President Bashar Assad’s regime carries out wide-scale massacres or uses chemical weapons as it battles insurgents seeking its overthrow.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the steps early in a day of hurriedly called talks with top Turkish leaders.
Clinton asked to see top officials here while touring Africa last week, as Syrian rebels battled to seize parts of Aleppo, the country’s most populous city, against a fierce government counterattack that included jets, helicopter and artillery bombardments. Reports from Aleppo last week indicated that the rebels had withdrawn from many of their forward positions after they ran low on ammunition.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told reporters that the fighting in Aleppo had raised concerns about the possibility of what he called “a gigantic wave of migration” as the violence increases.
Jordan now has between 100,000 and 120,000 Syrian refugees, Turkish officials said. Some 53,000 Syrians have taken shelter in refugee camps in Turkey, with 2,000 more arriving each day. Some 3,500 Syrians are now waiting across the border until Turkey can establish new tent cities to accommodate them, Turkish officials said.