"We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,"- U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres
Syria's refugee situation continues to go from bad to worse. In neighboring Iraq, the radical group ISIS continues its brutal oppression of the civilians under its control (despite recent successes against the group in Tikrit). Lebanon and Jordan (who have already had to contend with a very large Palestinian refugee population) are unable to keep up with the influx of people fleeing Syria's Civil War. Even Turkey, one of the most developed and stable countries in the region, has started to limit the entry of refugees, citing a lack of necessary resources to care for them all. Lastly, people looking for a safe haven in places like Europe often meet tragic ends.
First, let's make a few distinctions in the refugee discussion. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees classifies several different types of at-risk individuals. First, there are those with full refugee status. They are people who have fled to another country other than their home country due to violence or extreme economic hardship. Then we have internally displaced people (same as refugees, only within their home country). Finally, there are asylum seekers (those who have filled out applications to be classified as refugees, but whose status has not yet been determined). Worldwide, the UNHCR estimates that there were 51,200,000 refugees, displaced people, or asylum seekers in 2013 (16.7 million refugees, 33.3 million internally displaced, 1.2 million asylum seekers). This is the highest number since the end of the Second World War and equates to roughly 1/7th of the entire U.S. population!!
So where does the Syrian refugee situation stand after over four years of devastating war? By most estimates, there are over 9,000,000 refugees and internally displaced people from the Syrian Civil War (that's 9 million, but it looks more impressive when it's spelled out). To put this in perspective, think of everyone in Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota being forced out of their homes and having to find any place they can to survive. That's how bad things are. The Syrian Civil War itself remains just as bleak. The forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad continue to battle a patchwork of militia units who remain embedded in strongholds and some cities throughout the country (including rival factions like the Free Syrian Army and ISIS). Assad recently won re-election (which was conveniently only held in the places he controls) and is still firmly in power (though rebel groups have made some recent gains). For the most part however, his regime has time on its side. So long as the international community continues to allow him to use poison gas and indiscriminate weapons on his own people, the refugee count will continue to grow.
How are Syria's neighbors handling the refugee situation? In Jordan and Turkey, refugee camps have been set up to provide the basics of housing and food. Though food assistance is often provided by organizations such as the UNHCR, these camps take on a life of their own as individual micro-economies spring up around them. Lebanon, on the other hand, has refused to build camps while attempting to integrate the Syrians directly into the Lebanese population. However, most refugees are denied the ability to apply for a business license or work permit, preventing them from securing the means to escape the camps and refugee life.
So things are just plain terrible. What can anyone do to help? Recently, the Middle East Policy Council hosted a Capitol Hill Conference where top U.S. policymaking officials and think tank leaders met to discuss Syria's refugee crisis. One of the key points which came out of this discussion was the strong emphasis for donations of money to aid organizations. However, just throwing money at the problem isn't enough. These organizations need to send the money through the proper channels by investing in local communities and long-term institutional development.
Part of the reason this aid needs to be closely directed is to prevent "aid dependency." This isn't the same poor-shaming argument people use about those on welfare (that welfare programs just make people lazy and not want to work). This is where only food aid and shelter are offered, but no other useful services are provided such as education or job training. Unless aid programs can provide those services as well, people often become trapped in a cycle of aid dependency simply because no other alternatives are provided to them. One thing you learn pretty quickly about being on some form of assistance is that almost nobody likes taking it. If one provides meaningful opportunities for people to improve their situation in life, they will often take them.
We also cannot give up on a political solution. It is clear that the U.S. has backed away significantly from its demand that Assad must go, but this doesn't mean the peace process should be abandoned entirely. Anything which might help ease the fighting would go a long way towards slowing the long-term refugee problem. While President Bush has been strongly criticized for intervening too much in the region, many have been critical of President Obama for not doing enough. International refugee resettlement programs are the key to helping resolve this intractable (and likely decades long) problem. Still, there is some hope. Since 2013, around 87,000 Syrian refugees have been resettled through the UNHCR. This is a start, but only large increases in funding and international support can help the UNHCR come anywhere close to achieving its mission.
Ultimately, we need to look at this not as a regional problem, but an international crisis with global implications. Today's Syrian youth are at risk of becoming a Lost Generation, one plagued by instability and enticed by radical ideologies. Without considering the global implications of this, we risk marginalizing an entire generation through our inaction and apathy. After the genocide in Rwanda, the international community looked back and wondered why nothing of substance was done to stop this crisis and relieve the suffering. Let us not make the same mistake again. In the end, it isn't so much the guns, bombs, and poison gas which does the most damage (though they certainly inflict a horrible toll). The greatest danger is apathy.
TL;DR: Syria's nine million refugees are still in dire trouble. You can help by raising awareness and donating to organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees.