Four Years into the Syrian Conflict, We Must Never Lose Sight of the Civilians Behind the ‘Story’

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Oxfam International

Four Years into the Syrian Conflict, We Must Never Lose Sight of the Civilians Behind the ‘Story’

Omar (not his real name), 13, from Daraa in Syria, flies a kite in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. “Every time I fly my kite, I feel free,” he says. (Credit: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam)

If you type ‘Syria’ into Google News, the headlines that normally appear are about airstrikes, beheadings, and Jihadi John.  The less dramatic, everyday human cost of those caught up in the crisis gets much less play. Perhaps this is inevitable. As the conflict enters its fifth year, a sense of fatigue and helplessness has set in. My hardnosed media colleagues tell me that we need to find something ‘new’ to say.  Everyday human suffering, even of such magnitude, clearly doesn’t cut it.  But while international interest is waning, the suffering continues – on an epic scale.

As 21 humanitarian and human rights organisations, including Oxfam, document in a report launched today, Failing Syria, Syrians are experiencing ever-increasing levels of death and destruction.  Civilians continue to be indiscriminately attacked, despite the passage in February 2014 of what was thought to be a landmark UN Security Council Resolution demanding an end to such attacks. In fact, 2014 was the deadliest year of the conflict, with reports of at least 76,000 people killed.  So much for grand demands from the great powers that sit on the UN Security Council.

In what was a middle-income country, 11.6 million people are in need of clean water.  Some 3.7 million are refugees. What I try to hang on to, and I admit it’s not always easy, is that behind these colossal numbers are millions of individual lives that have been shattered.  These are farmers, teachers, students, musicians – ordinary people like you and me – fighting for survival and battling for normality. People like Ayham, a pianist who performs concerts broadcast by skype amid the ruined streets of Yarmouk, a district of Damascus, or Noor, a refugee, who teaches children Arabic in a tent in Lebanon (watch Noor here).

Like many of Syria’s refugees, Noor lives in an informal settlement.  The aid jargon does not do justice to what an ‘informal settlement’ is really like – a dirty area packed with people living under tarpaulins where people try their best to make a semblance of home in the midst of hardship. On a visit to one such settlement, where Oxfam is providing water, blankets and cash assistance, I sat with a refugee family in their tent, huddled around a central stove for warmth. It was home to eight people – the children, wearing flip flops in the bitter cold, charged in and out as we spoke.

The father of the family said he was increasingly anxious about their legal status in the country but quickly ruled out any hope of returning to Syria soon. ‘Maybe in five or ten years – who knows?’  This became a recurring theme of the trip: on the one hand, a return to Syria was considered out of the question, but on the other, increasing restrictions on refugees was leading to acute anxiety about what tomorrow would bring in the host country.

I was struck by the impossible choices refugees were facing.  With the majority living outside formal camps like Zaatari in Jordan, many refugees must pay rent to private landlords. Indeed one landowner in northern Lebanon referred to the informal settlement on his land as a ‘hotel’.  But in Jordan and Lebanon, refugees face huge barriers to gaining permission to work.  So where does the money come from?  Cash assistance provided by agencies like Oxfam helps – and is just one example of why it is so crucial that humanitarian funding is maintained – but it’s not enough to cover the needs.

Wealthier refugees can sell off their assets, but for how long? An elderly woman told me how she had taken off her earrings and sold them, and now there was nothing left. As always, though, it is those that were poorest to begin with, who are forced to take the gravest risks.  A group of women told me that ‘when it comes to the end of the month and it’s time to pay rent, some of us are very vulnerable’.  Behind that word ‘vulnerable’ lay many decisions too painful for them to speak about.

Refugees also told me that some people are crossing back into Syria to bring back relatives or retrieve belongings, but are not always allowed to re-enter, leading to yet more separated families.

It’s not surprising that Syria’s neighbours are imposing border restrictions or are reluctant for refugees to work.  These countries have shown incredible hospitality in hosting well over 3 million refugees, but that generosity is being tested to its limit and has huge domestic consequences.  Lebanon is the most striking example.  A tiny country, half the size of Wales, still recovering from a bitter 15-year civil war and where politics is carefully calibrated along confessional lines, now has the highest per capita refugee population in the world.

But as the conflict rages in Syria, it is vital that borders stay open so that people can seek sanctuary. It is equally vital that the obligation of hosting refugees is shared across the globe. Some of the refugees I spoke to said resettlement was their last remaining hope.  One man showed us a scrap of paper for which he’d paid $500 – a huge sum – purporting to be an official document from what was clearly a fictitious consulate.  Others told us that they were saving up to get on a boat to cross the Mediterranean or had relatives who had already tried to do so – and drowned.

The UK, which has so far resettled only about 143 refugees from the region as well as offering asylum to some 4000 refugees who were already in the country, has variously argued that resettlement is too expensive, not a sustainable solution for such a huge refugee population, and that it is best to support refugees in the region.  While this may be true and the UK should be commended for its leading aid effort, it should not shirk its responsibility on resettlement.  It should offer a lifeline to many more of the most vulnerable refugee men, women and children.

Oxfam together with the British Refugee Council, Amnesty International, Save the Children and others have called on rich countries to take five per cent of the total refugee population, which in the UK would equate to offering resettlement to around 10,000 refugees from Syria (see report here and a celebrity letter to Cameron here).

Ultimately, of course, a political solution is needed.  I spoke recently to a Syrian peace activist who said that Syria was still waiting for its ‘Rwanda moment’.  By that, he meant that there needed to be a groundswell of global moral outrage so great that it would be impossible for the world to ignore what was happening and do all it can to stop it.

To be honest, I’ve been struggling with this, as surely that moment has long gone. If the death of over 200,000 people including thousands of children isn’t enough, then what is? But giving up isn’t an option for Syrians and it’s not an option for us either.  We must continue to shine a spotlight on Syria and build the political resolve to end the bloodshed (you can take action here).

Maya Mailer

Maya Mailer is Oxfam International's head of humanitarian policy and campaigns.

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