As violence in Syria rages on—and now is spreading into Iraq and potentially beyond—a refugee crisis on a scale unseen in modern history churns in the background of reports of bombings and elections. Syria's civilians have suffered enormously, with over 9 million Syrians forced to flee their homes; 6.5 million remain internally displaced, while another 2.5 million have fled the country, marking Syrians as the second-largest refugee population in the world, second only to Afghanistan (with Iraq third).

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly, has led the charge in Syria and Iraq to protect the rights and well-being of refugee populations and co-ordinate international relief efforts. Syria's civil war has created a challenge like no other in the organization's history, and to find out more about their work, Diplomatic Courier sat down with Mr. Amin Awad, UNHCR Director for Middle East and North Africa Operations.


[Diplomatic Courier:] What is the situation of Syrian refugees who are living outside of refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan?

[Amin Awad:] Of the some 2.5 million registered Syrian refugees under UNHCR’s care, more than 83 percent reside outside camps. This demonstrates the hospitality being offered by host countries in the region—a region already burdened by a significant population of Palestine refugees, Iraqi refugees, and others. People in the region have opened their homes to Syrian refugees, and governments have largely allowed them access to basic services, including health and education.

When you stop to think that there are more than 1.3 million children refugees under the age of 18—that is equivalent to the population of Munich, Germany—you get a sense of the size of the total refugee population and the scope of the challenge to ensure their protection.

The challenge of Syria’s huge exodus is most evident in Lebanon, which has more than 940,000 registered Syrian refugees who reside in over 1,600 localities, including in often isolated non-camp settings that alone host more than 120,000 people.

Likewise in Jordan, while Za’atri and three other official camps host some 100,000 refugees, most of the 577,000 registered Syrians live in urban areas.

The five main host countries also estimate a further 600,000 to 700,000 unregistered Syrian residents, as well.

Cities and towns across the Middle East that host this massive outflow of refugees need significant support to bear this burden. UNHCR and its partners have outreach personnel that work to support host communities, we provide aid to schools that in many areas are working on second shifts to provide education to refugee children, and we assist health care facilities, as well as support, water, sanitation and waste collection. We are also increasingly including vulnerable nationals in our assistance programs.

[DC:] How successful was the fuel assistance and kits distribution been to the Syrian refugees this past winter? What was the situation like for the refugees this past winter?

[AA:] Winter began with a ferocious storm that dumped unprecedented amounts of snow. But since December, fortunately, winter was relatively mild across much of the region. Nevertheless, for refugees residing in tents, caravans, or in substandard housing—particularly in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley—winter is always a cold and difficult period.

UNHCR and its regional refugee response partners implemented a far-reaching winterization program—one of the largest ever—to address the needs of the most vulnerable amongst those who have fled their homes due to the continuing conflict in Syria. More than 1.1 million refugees were helped via the winter support plan. Priority was given to those living in sub-standard shelters; in areas with severe climatic conditions; and the most vulnerable who may have the most difficulties to cover their accommodation, utility, and heating or fuel costs.

UNHCR earmarked $138 million to provide additional weatherproofing, initiatives to insulate tents from the ground, winterization of water and sanitation facilities, drainage works, the distribution of additional thermal blankets, mattresses, stoves, clothing and fuel, heating education facilities, and grant schemes. More than 78,000 families received stoves while tens of thousands of other families benefited from assistance to purchase heaters on the local market. Electrification efforts were extended in most camps and fuel was distributed to camps across the region, while in Lebanon a Fuel-for-Schools program reached more than 360 schools attended by more than 130,000 refugee and Lebanese students.

In Jordan, more than 110,000 Syrian refugees in all 12 governorates received supplementary winterization assistance. UNHCR, with support from generous Gulf-state donors, also distributed caravans to nearly all the residents of Za’atri refugee camp. Work in Iraq ensured that drainage systems were upgraded in camps, while insulated platforms were built under tents to ensure that they are above any low-lying areas along with a generous wintertime fuel allowance. In Lebanon, 344,000 Syrian refugees (69,000 households) received blankets, stoves, and the winter fuel allowance.

UNICEF distributed tens of thousands of winter outfits and footwear to refugees and other partners including the International Organization for Migration, Save the Children, ACTED, Action Contre la Faim, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam, Islamic Relief, the Norwegian Refugee Council, KURDS, the Qatar Red Crescent, ECHO; and the Disaster Management and Emergency Presidency of Turkey provided significant aid, like heaters, blankets, fuel, clothing, footwear and other necessities. So this has been a joint effort. Without the UN World Food Program’s delivery of food aid and vouchers to help families and support local retailers, surviving winter would have been impossible for many thousands of households. WFP’s food aid and voucher initiatives have been vital.

UNHCR also implemented a $78.8 million plan benefitting up to 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Syria itself by providing winterized relief items, improving collective shelters and private houses, and distributing cash assistance to the most vulnerable families.

[DC:] What is the status for the former members of Syrian rebel groups if they seek for asylum?

[AA:] It is vital that the civilian character of asylum is preserved. As long as people lay down their arms and are no longer an active combatant they can seek asylum. However, asylum cannot be granted to those who have committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, or serious crimes that are not politically-driven.

[DC:] There have been cases reported on unwanted/forced marriages among young Syrian female refugees. What has UNHCR observed on the ground?

[AA:] Child marriage is a protection concern that UNHCR has been paying close attention to. It is important for government officials, humanitarian workers, community service providers and refugee communities to come together to address this problem. With host governments and our partners like UNICEF we are working to improve the safety, welfare, and well-being of children who are at risk or in forced marriage. Children need to know that they can receive support in such situations.

In the camps and at other facilities we reach out to and engage refugees as protection starts with them. We provide counseling to women and girls who might be caught up in a situation in which they could face forced marriage.

At Za’atri camp, in an innovative project together with the International Rescue Committee, we prepared a video in which refugee girls speak about their hopes and dreams, about going to school, and being allowed to enjoy their childhood. These messages are being broadcast at various registration facilities where refugees come for documentation. These are only a few examples of how we can collectively respond.

[DC:] Is it necessary to persuade Lebanon to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention to increase their capacity to accept Syrian/Palestinians refugees and heighten their awareness of security and safety for current refugees inside Lebanon?

[AA:] UNHCR would like to see all members of the international community sign the 1951 Refugee Convention. When you have a state like Jordan with more than 2 million Palestine refugees or Lebanon with more than 440,000 Palestine refugees (assisted by UNRWA), not to mention thousands of other refugees from Iraq and other states, and you add hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, I think the international community must also demonstrate its gratitude. The protection Lebanon and Jordan are offering their Syrian neighbors is impressive, despite the huge burden it places on their social, economic, and political dynamics. The refugee situation we’re experiencing in the Middle East is of a magnitude that is truly astonishing, so Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt all deserve a great deal of credit.

But the current Syria situation shows that the refugee problems cannot be adequately addressed by a country acting alone. Cooperation at international level has become essential to protect the national interests.

Certainly the Regional Response Plan appeal for donors to meet the needs of the 4.1 million refugees we project will need support by the end of 2014 should be fully met to demonstrate international solidarity with the main host countries.

As we presently require 30,000 places to resettle refugees outside the region, and 100,000 resettlement/humanitarian admission places are needed over 2015-2016, UNHCR hopes donors will provide vulnerable refugees with the resettlement opportunities they require.

[DC:] Has the safety and security for the UNHCR staff in the field improved?

[AA:] Across Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt, we’ve had very good cooperation with the police and other services. As a matter of fact, during last December’s snowstorm, the Lebanese Army helped us deliver aid in mountainous zones. So we’ve not experienced any significant security incidents.

In relation to both our own staff safety, as well as the impact of security and political developments on our operations throughout the region, we continue to update our contingency plans and emergency preparedness.

To help protect and assist its staff in the region, UNHCR have staff welfare officers providing counseling and support to all colleagues as the conflict, the long working hours and the stories of the refugees create a great deal of stress.

Within Syria, with the conflict underway, the security situation is more difficult. UNHCR’s team has delivered truly unprecedented results—last year our relief aid reached more than 3.2 million people in all of Syria’s 14 governorates, while in refugee hosting countries, together with our partner agencies the team is doing tremendous work caring for millions.

Let me mention also UNHCR’s team in Iraq, where fighting in central Anbar Province has displaced over 400,000 Iraqis since the beginning of the year, and insecurity in other parts of the country continues to create hazardous working conditions and dangerous commutes. UNHCR’s experience in Iraq since 2003 has helped us learn many lessons about how to look after our personnel, and I am greatly impressed with what the team has achieved there.

I am very proud of all UNHCR’s staff in the region, particularly our Syrian personnel. They are on the ground, living and working amid a conflict, terribly worried for their families.

To learn more about UNHCR's work, watch this video interview with Brian Hansford, UNHCR-DC Spokesperson.

Photo: Sebastian Rich, Senior Contributing Photographer.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.