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Middle East and Africa

Refugees: the triggered and forgotten bomb

“Do you know what the real bomb about to set off the powder keg of the Middle East is? The Syrian refugees”. Pascal Monin, professor at the University Saint-Joseph in Beirut, is convinced of this and very worried: the number of Syrian refugees – never reached previously – is undermining the already weak balance of the countries that welcome them: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

 

 

The articles on refugees usually begin with the face of a child, in the arms of a sister not much older, carrying her brother on her hip to ease the weight. A picture which disturbs even the hard-hearted, because it clearly shows that the innocent are the first victims of the war.

 

 

This is the paradox: to see those naive and needy faces as a menace, as a bomb ready to explode. Yet numbers speak clearly: more than 2 million Syrians have fled their country, of which one million left in the last six months. Half of them are children. And if the current trend continues, 3 million people will have left by the end of 2013.

 

 

According to the official data of the UNHCR about 700,000 are in Lebanon, over 500,000 in Jordan, 470,000 in Turkey and 200,000 in Iraq; but thousands of people should be added to these numbers, because they never registered due to lack of education, various difficulties or by choice.

 

 

If we were to compare these numbers we cannot imagine that they convey the real drama of the present situation: the Syrian refugees outside their country are a tenth of the whole Syrian population; they are one million of the 4 overall population in Lebanon. It’s as if Italy had 15 million refugees out of the 60 million total population. If you think of the effort and tension the few thousand refugees arriving in Lampedusa cause, you can see why Marco Perini, in charge of the Avsi in Lebanon, defines the present Lebanese capacity to shelter the refugees a miracle. All the more so because, up to a few years ago, Syrians were the occupying force in the Country of Cedars.

 

 

In Jordan, the Za’tari refugee camp in the North near Mafraq, 30 km from the Syrian border, with its 130,000 people, is the fourth most densely populated city in Jordan. The presence of refugees, furthermore, has increased the population in Jordan by 10%.

 

 

This has become a social, economic and political bomb. From the social and health point of view, they need every kind of help: from shelter, water, food, clothes, medical assistance, to school education… What country could deal with this over an indefinite period of time? The Syrian war has been going on for 2 years now. The World Food Program alone needs 30 million dollars a week to feed the Syrian refugees abroad and those deployed at home (it seems there could be about 4.25 million people displaced).

 

 

From the political point of view, the issue of refugees in Lebanon is at a dead end and stuck in opposing alliances and refusals which keep the country blocked. Therefore, even if the Lebanese government has never officially approved the setting up of refugee camps, these have sprouted up in at least 1400 different places, especially in the North, and in the region of Bekaa, and today they are supported by humanitarian organizations around the world.

 

 

Whether they are organized, official or not, in the camps life is hell, Perini said when he described the small camp of Marj el Khokh in the south of Lebanon, which was discovered by chance. It is hell for the hundred families who live there on stony soil, when there is always tension among individuals and groups and violence is an everyday fact. Opposing groups are formed, and even the children regularly fight. Repeating the violence that takes place in the families, father against mother, people in neighboring tents, with attempts at rape and encouraging prostitution.

 

 

In Za’tari hell is a militarized village. All day long in the heat of a desolate desert Jordan soldiers keep a check on those who enters or leaves, it is a sort of colonnade block put there to indicate the main entrance. Here you can find eight or ten year old children with little wheelbarrows ready to transport suitcases and bags full of bread or other goods. Every move is controlled: anyone who wants to enter has to produce a camp permit, which is just a squalid piece of paper used for identity.

 

 

The barbed wire at the entrances and the soldiers’ uniforms can be forgotten for a moment along one of the main streets that goes through the camp. It is the street of ‘shops’. There are three thousand of them in the camp, small stalls where food, tobacco, drinks and clothes can be bought. There is also the odd ambitious sign indicating a ‘restaurant’ which could almost make you think that you are in the market of a peaceful village. An attempt at normal life exists also in the three hospitals and in the four schools, which about 20,000 children attend.

 

 

The Za’tari camp costs the UNHCR 500,000 dollars a day. It is said to be the second biggest camp in the world. Every day two hundred full water tanks arrive there (4,000,000 liters are consumed each day), and 1300 cubic meters of rubbish are produced each day. In twenty four months the nearby town has undergone radical change. Before the refugees arrived there was a population of about 80,000 people. Today we had about 130,000 who live in the camps and 95,000 who have managed to find some sort of accommodation in the city itself either by renting houses (even dozens of families in the same apartment) or they find other means of hospitality. It is so close to Syria that even the noise of the war can be heard. The noise of the guns and the propaganda on the Syrian radio, which can easily be accessed, “even if a million people die, our hearts are still of steel – the radio tells us. It is not a problem if we become martyrs”. And the ‘martyrs’ keep increasing. The ‘rebels’ come here to enroll new recruits and they find fertile ground for their propaganda. And they ask, “why did America intervene in Lebanon and not in Syria”?

 

 

In recent days the ministers for foreign affairs in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey met to discuss the refugee problems and they express great alarm: if we do not stop the Syrian war the impact of neighbouring countries will become impassable to deal with. A radical mobilization of the international community is necessary. A subject much talked about but not easy to define. Because a quick look at Marj el Khokh and even more so at Za’tari, tells us that as soon as there is a ceasefire the camps will not miraculously close, and all will go back home.

 

 

Looking at the rows and rows of white tents in the North of Jordan you can see that it will take a long time and special efforts before the situation is normalized. It is difficult to imagine that this desert tract will be free of the settlements and return to its wind-blown normality.

 

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