Inside Syria: Trapped on the frontlines of war

By Neil Murthy

What is life like for the thousands of Syrians who have not left their country but are displaced at camps on the fringes of their own borders?

As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, the devastation in the country continues to escalate a humanitarian crisis with the largest displacement of people since World War II,  according to researchers.

Nearly five million people have fled Syria, and another six million have been displaced within Syria since the conflict began, show figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of the country’s entire population of 22 million has been uprooted by the war.

The millions of refugees fleeing to Europe and other areas of the Middle East continue to receive intense media coverage, but little is known about the day to day living conditions of the displaced people staying in makeshift camps along the Syria-Turkey border. The war zone makes access difficult.

But Elizabeth Dunn, professor of human geography at the University of Indiana, spent 16 months living with displaced people in a camp in Georgia after the South Ossetia war of 2008. She drew parallels from her experience to displaced people within their own borders in Syria.

She said that her experience showed that the “global humanitarian system has fallen into enormous crisis.”

Dunn said she found problems and unmet needs in the distribution of aid. Aid agencies often don’t cooperate with each other and focus on accomplishing their own goals. As a result, people uprooted by war feel “intensely frustrated” that their requests are not being met by aid agencies.

For example, Dunn described how a $2 million-dollar project was funded for breast feeding support in Georgia, modeled after a similar project that was implemented in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the Congolese lacked clean water for formula and needed assistance with breast feeding, Georgians had access to clean municipal water and breast feeding was already widely practiced. So the $2 million was allocated to an unnecessary need, said Dunn.

Another time, the Georgian camp received a large donation of stuffed animals from an aid agency, even though the average age of the displaced people living in the camp was 54, and there were not that many children living in the camp.

“A giant stuffed bird was donated to a 68 year old man,” said Dunn. “The real clients are the donors, not the displaced people,” she said Friday at the American Association for Advancement of Science conference in Washington D.C.

“The humanitarian system is an industry. There is a lot of competition. Different donors have different priorities and strategies.” Shannon Doocy, Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health

Other major problems in Georgia were widespread unemployment for adults and lack of schooling for children in the camp.

“We spent hours and hours doing nothing,” said Dunn. “Boredom was the central feature of the camp where I lived.”

Dunn argued that many such camps are located far from economic centers, meaning that very few individuals are able to find work and  struggle to make ends meet.

Finally, displaced persons living in camps often suffer from the phenomenon of “humanitarian abandonment.”

In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, “there’s a big tsunami of aid rushing to a country” and worldwide empathy is high, Dunn said. But emergency funding inevitably dissipates over time and displaced people find themselves struggling.

“The emergency is over but the crisis is not,” said Dunn. “As the projects end, the non-governmental organizations pull out and move on to the next crisis, leaving these people abandoned but still in need.”

Shannon Doocy, associate director for research at the Center for Refugee and Disaster Response at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the United Nations has tried to address many of the concerns that Dunn raised through the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Doocy said that OCHA categorizes the response efforts into broad sectors (such as Water and Sanitation, and Shelter) in order to encourage cooperation and information exchange among the different aid agencies.

“In theory, the cluster coordination system is where everyone who is working on education, nutrition, water and sanitation comes together on a regular basis to share information. That whole system came about to address the concerns that Dr. Dunn noted,” said Doocy.

However, Doocy acknowledged that much remains to be done to improve OCHA coordination.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but we are definitely not there yet,” said Doocy.

Dunn is now calling for reform to change the way humanitarian aid is delivered to maintain long-term sustainability.

Photo at top: Syrian girl at Atme Syrian Refugee Camp. March 2014 (Flickr/IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation)