US Humanitarian Officer Explains Syria Refugee Crisis

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In an interview with Al-Hayat, the US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, talks about efforts to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Cooperation with NGOs and governments helps, but violence and poor border contral hamper the work of monitors across the region. 

The US administration is using its diplomatic and humanitarian energy to contain the Syrian humanitarian and refugees crisis. The US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, Kelly Clements, said, “this crisis is the most pressing in the Middle East and Asia,” and commended the role that the Lebanese, Jordanian and Turkish governments have played in this regard. She emphasized the challenges associated with the establishment of humanitarian corridors or safe havens, despite “the greater gains that the opposition has made on the ground.”

The following is the dialogue that Al-Hayat had with Clements in her office at the Department of State:

Al-Hayat  How big is the Syrian refugees crisis today and how it is being contained on a regional level?

Kelly Clements  Today, the number of registered refugees is approximately 125,000. 44,000 fled to Turkey, 39,000 to Jordan, 33,500 to Lebanon and 10,000 to Iraq. Moreover, more than 1 million people are displaced inside Syria, and nearly 1.5 million are in need of humanitarian support. The pace of refugees into Turkey is stable. An increase was seen in recent weeks, where more than 3,000 refugees went to Jordan. Reports indicate that Lebanon has received 18,000 to 33,000 Syrians, some of whom returned to Syria in recent days, and 3,000 or 4,000 have stayed in Lebanon.

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Al-Hayat  Who determines where the asylum is located? Are most refugees women and children?

Kelly Clements  The decision is purely personal. Some people decide to stay, others choose to go to a bordering country. The demographic distribution has undergone significant changes since the crisis first started. In the beginning men were the largest segment of refugees, then families without men fled the country and today we see larger families with the head of the household. Usually, in such crises, 75% of refugees are women and children, and this is the case today.

Al-Hayat  Is that the biggest crisis that the US is facing when dealing with refugees at the international level?

Kelly Clements  It's one of the major crises, and certainly it is the most pressing in the Middle East and Asia. However, there are also other major crises in Africa [such as in] Mali, Sudan and Congo.

Al-Hayat  What is the size of assistance that you provide the organizations with, today?

Kelly Clements  The US government has so far allocated $64 million in humanitarian aid, and contributed $27.5 million to the World Food Program. An additional $15 million was allocated to NGOs and $8.5 million to the UNHCR, $8 million to the ICRC and $3 million to the UNRWA. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of dollars in assistance funds were allocated to other UN organizations.

Al-Hayat  How do you evaluate the work done by these organizations today?

Kelly Clements  The large network of NGOs and international organizations that operate in the region and dealing with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees, such as UNRWA, has been very helpful in this crisis. We have found many responders within Syria and the organizations have their humanitarian warehouses. We have also benefited from a great support from Jordan to back up these efforts. Other humanitarian warehouses for support have been also available in Dubai and other areas.

Al-Hayat  Did the Syrian regime allowed an access to displaced persons inside Syria?

Kelly Clements  Violence is the biggest challenge for access to the displaced in Syria. In June, the Syrian government developed a plan to deal with the humanitarian crisis, and pledged to support organizations in accessing to regions further than Damascus like Idlib, Aleppo, and Homs. They have also facilitated the granting of visas to these organizations’ employees. However, the facilitation has been far from ideal, and violence remains the major challenge. Five members of the task force were killed in recent months.

Al-Hayat  Are you examining the possibility of establishing buffer zones or humanitarian corridors for this purpose?

Kelly Clements  There are challenges inherent in the establishment of humanitarian corridors or safe havens. The situation on the ground is evolving and the opposition’s ability to gain more land seems to increase. However, it is hard at present to say how is that going to affect humanitarian assistance and the protection of civilians.

Al-Hayat  What procedure is the US is going to take to cope with the situation, since violence in Syria is increasing?

Kelly Clements  We are encouraging governments to support NGOs and international organizations. There is a need for additional funding. Our assistance is going to these organizations and other foreign assistance programs we have with some countries such as Jordan. We really appreciate the role that Jordan has been playing to contain the Syrian refugees.

Al-Hayat  How do you find your cooperation with the Lebanese government regarding this issue?

Kelly Clements  I just returned from a visit to Lebanon, where things are changing quickly. I was impressed by the Lebanese government’s decision to keep the border open. Although there are no camps in Lebanon, the refugees are being hosted by Lebanese families. Our cooperation with the Lebanese government is excellent.

Al-Hayat  How can you make sure weapons don’t get to where refugees are?

Kelly Clements  Our role is limited to the humanitarian issue; this is why our cooperation with the governments is important. Border security falls within the responsibilities of the governments. The organizations give a lot of importance to the protection of refugees and that civilians don’t mingle with gunmen. However, the biggest responsibility falls upon the governments and we expect them to offer their support for this effort.

Al-Hayat  Is there an international consensus on supporting the refugees?

Kelly Clements  Our meetings under the umbrella of the United Nations are periodic in Geneva. All UN member states convene there, including the Syrian government and other members such as Russia and China. In the humanitarian sphere, Russia and China have provided their assistance, and want to make sure that the civilians are protected and violence is reduced to the lowest possible level.

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Found in: world food program, turkey, lebanon, jordan, us assistance, us, unhcr, syrian refugees, syrian, kelly clement, iraq, icrc
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