Farrah Hassen in Foreign Policy in Focus (Photo: UNHCR Photo Unit / Flickr):
While filming a documentary in Syria in the summer of 2003, I visited the Jaramana refugee camp near Damascus. Run by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine, Jaramana at the time housed around 5,000 registered Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 and their descendants.
At Jaramana, rows of decaying homes slightly larger than office cubicles lined newly built roads. The flurry of young children playing tag, teenage boys riding rusty bicycles down the cramped streets, and the commanding shriek of babies injected some color into a landscape otherwise dominated by the grayish hues of stone edifices and smoke emanating from burnt trash. Like a Rembrandt painting, the Damascus sun’s unforgiving rays bounced across concrete walls, casting shadows of uncertainty over the elderly and young Palestinians alike.
Up until that point, I had not comprehended the mix of courage, desperation, and determination demanded by refugees. Neither could I conceptualize the scope of the challenges faced both by humanitarian aid groups struggling to deliver aid to the refugees and the countries struggling to host them.
Eleven years later, Syria—a host country to 540,000 Palestinian refugees and, at its peak in 2007, 1.5 million Iraqi refugees—now faces its own refugee crisis after over three years of bloody civil war.
The number of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) already rivals the scale of the displaced in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, which have endured much longer-running conflicts. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 2.8 million refugees have fled Syria for nearby countries, including Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Turkey. 6.5 million remain internally displaced.
With a total population of 22 million, that means that nearly half of the Syrian population has been displaced by war since March 2011. In fact, within a span of five years, Syria has moved from being the world’s second-largest host of refugees to the second-largest producer of them.
If they’re still alive, the Palestinian families I spoke with in Jaramana have had to endure a deluge of bombs, guns, and tanks unleashed by rebel groups and regime forces alike. Or they may have fled their homes, yet again, to a neighboring country. Like their Iraqi counterparts in Syria, they face the reality of becoming double refugees, adding to their heightened insecurity as already displaced people.
Meanwhile, the countries that have absorbed Syria’s refugees are straining at the seams.