Syria: ‘The only certainty is uncertainty’

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Syrian Refugee Camp
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As I sit here at my computer, I have just heard that the Syrian government has accepted a Russian proposal to put its chemical weapons under international control in an attempt to avoid a possible U.S. attack. While the details are unclear, it could prove to be a potentially positive step in the right direction. There is universal agreement that the chemical attacks perpetrated against innocent civilians on Aug. 21 were an egregious violation of international human rights and human decency. However, there is not universal agreement that the attacks were perpetrated by the Assad regime. The only certainty is uncertainty, and the resistance of people all over the world to military intervention on the part of the United States.

In its statement on the possibility of military strikes in Syria, Pax Christi USA wrote:

Before we add more fuel to the fire, and to “the endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides and ‘ethnic cleansings’ which have caused unspeakable suffering; millions and millions of victims, families and countries destroyed, an ocean of refugees, misery, hunger, disease, underdevelopment and the loss of immense resources,”—words of John Paul II—we ought to question the wisdom of a military strike in Syria and heed John Paul’s warning: “The 20th century bequeaths to us above all else a warning: wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice and trample upon people’s dignity and rights… War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.”

On a lighter note, I have recently welcomed another Dominican Volunteer to the DLC/NGO UN office: Abby McCrary. Abby completed her undergraduate studies in May 2013, with a degree in International Peace Studies and Anthropology from the University of Notre Dame. She is passionate about international development, and will focus much of her time this year on the issues of women, the girl child and food security.

What follows is brief report from Abby on the humanitarian consequences of the armed aggression in Syria, in particular the massive refugee crisis it has provoked.

Refugee Crisis in Syria
The protracted conflict in Syria has now produced a refugee exodus of over 2 million, with an additional 4.3 million people displaced within the nation’s borders. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has voiced serious concern regarding the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region, and the crippling impact this is having on countries hosting displaced Syrian populations, including Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. This massive flow of refugees into neighboring nations places significant stresses upon basic human services and infrastructure, thereby contributing to an escalation of societal tensions.

Across the region, the influx of Syrian refugees leads to increased competition for jobs. Within Jordan, for example, there is tension between Egyptian migrants and refugees for this reason, and water has stopped flowing to many parts of the country due to dramatically increased demand. The limited resources have sparked political and sectarian tensions, continue to mold economies and demographics, and have the potential to cause trans-border instability.

A statement on migrants made by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care for Migrants and Itinerant People articulates this concept:

The interest in helping refugees, even when felt as a moral obligation to alleviate the sufferings of others, often clashes with the fear of an excessive growth in their numbers, and of a confrontation with other cultures: elements that can disturb established patterns of life, adopted by the receiving countries. People who were viewed with sympathy yesterday because they were still ‘far off’ are turned away today because they are too ‘close’ and imposing.

As much of the media focuses its attention on the military and political dimensions of the war in Syria, the immense humanitarian crisis continues to escalate at an alarming rate. There are millions of innocent Syrian civilians living in refugee camps near the borders of the country they once called home. These displaced individuals are living in harsh conditions of food scarcity, inadequate medical care, sexual violence, and few prospects for economic livelihood or integration into the host state. The human cost of the conflict is great, yet it is unclear whose responsibility it is to address the desperate needs of the refugee populations.

Some countries have taken measures to help alleviate this crisis. For example, Sweden announced that it will offer permanent residency to refugees from Syria. Additionally, Germany unveiled a plan on Sept. 3 to give temporary stay to 5,000 Syrian refugees. This group of refugees, identified as particularly vulnerable by the UN Refugee Agency, includes many with special needs and disabilities. They will travel from Lebanon to Germany, and begin a program which includes an extended cultural orientation period and comprehensive support and access to medical and social services. Efforts such as these are major positive contributions to the ongoing humanitarian efforts aimed at reducing the weight of pressure from refugee populations on Syria’s neighbors.

There appear to be two possible and concurrent approaches that can be taken to address the problems created by the displaced refugee population: reducing the size of the refugee settlements to alleviate pressure on neighboring states, and/or addressing the shortages and humanitarian concerns existing within the settlements such as water, sanitation, food and shelter needs. Both Sweden and Germany are utilizing the first strategy, and non-national entities such as the UN Refugee Agency and NGOs are attempting to assist in the second approach through food and medical aid. Both approaches can work in conjunction to address the most critical needs.

Displaced individuals are no longer in control of their lives, and must rely fully on others if they are to survive. This is a dramatic example of the deep need for human interdependence in all its forms. Participating in measures to alleviate the pressure caused by the conflict in Syria is not simply a political tool, but a moral imperative. The human consequences of the violence are immense, but must be acknowledged and accepted as a shared global responsibility. Hospitality and compassion are fundamental values in Catholic teaching. Restriction of these values for social and political reasons is an unacceptable response, and ignores the inherent dignity of refugees and migrants. This is our call to solidarity, to manifest a community in which the dignity of each individual is valued.

For more information, please refer to the following:

Sr Margaret Mayce, OP (DLC/Amityville)

(12 September 2013)