US Considers Airstrikes on Nation Facing 'Biggest Humanitarian Emergency in an Era'

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US Considers Airstrikes on Nation Facing 'Biggest Humanitarian Emergency in an Era'

Nearly half of Syria's population has been displaced by the war, UN agency says

Syrian refugee Mahmoud, in the underground shelter where he lives with his family in El Akbiya, Lebanon. (Photo: UNHCR/Photo Unit)

The number of official Syrian refugees has passed three million, tripling in a year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced on Friday, calling the crisis "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era."

The figures come only from registered refugees, so the total amount is likely to be significantly higher, the agency said. With an additional 6.5 million forced to flee their homes by the conflict that has ravaged the country since 2011, nearly half of Syria's population has now been displaced by the war.

"Almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives," the commissioner, António Guterres, said on Friday in Geneva. "One in every eight Syrians has fled across the border, fully a million more than a year ago. A further 6.5 million are displaced within Syria. Over half of those uprooted are children."

The announcement comes a day after President Barack Obama said that the U.S. did not yet "have a strategy" to fight ISIS militants in Syria and Iraq, who have been making ground gains and attacking civilians in those countries for several months. Despite Obama's statement on Thursday, U.S. drones have been reportedly circling the country this week to conduct reconnaissance missions, in what many see as a worrying preface to airstrikes. Unnamed administration officials told the New York Times on Tuesday that the government has started to mobilize allies to support a potential American military invasion of Syria — which many experts have strongly criticized.

UNHCR said the refugees have mostly transitioned to countries neighboring Syria, particularly Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. An increasing numbers of families are arriving exhausted and destitute, the agency said, with most having finally fled Syria as a last resort after running from village to village for over a year. Many find themselves paying exorbitant fees to smugglers in the desert or bribing guards at armed checkpoints that have grown throughout the border regions.

"These are people who are fleeing as an absolute last resort because they have nothing left; they are absolutely desperate," said Marisa Fleming, a spokesperson for the agency. "If they’re not affected by war, they’ve been affected by a collapsed health system or by months and months and months of being afraid."

Some areas of Syria are emptying out as the conflict passes through different regions. "Recent arrivals to Jordan, for example, are running from attacks in the areas of al-Raqqa and Aleppo," the UNHCR said. In addition to growing instability in the region, Syrians are also faced with trouble finding work in unfamiliar urban areas and soaring food and rent prices. A growing number of arrivals also come seeking medical treatment for long-term health problems like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. But Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey all lack the infrastructure to deal with the sudden mass influx, which has put the countries under social, political, and economic pressure.

"[This] has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them," Guterres said. In July, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. will contribute an additional $378 million in aid for Syrian refugees. But Guterres said Friday that although the international response has been generous, "the bitter truth is that it falls far short of what's needed."

Even at its likely underestimated amount, the Syrian refugee population is now the largest under UNHCR care, the agency said.

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