Cameron and Obama may want to ‘destroy’ Isis, but what will they do about the growing number of refugees fleeing Iraq and Syria?

So far the West's response to the region's humanitarian crisis has been woeful

With momentum building over military action against Isis in Iraq and Syria, almost nothing has been said about what this might mean in humanitarian terms, such as population flows and new refugees.

In just a few short weeks Isis managed uproot 600,000 people in and around the Mosul region. Inhabitants of villages like Kocho and Qiniyeh were either massacred or managed to flee to the inhospitable terrain of Mount Sinjar. In a terrible twist of fate, many of these traumatised people have exchanged certain death in Iraq for the deep uncertainties and mortal dangers of Syria.

A new wave of attacks on Isis’s roving bands of killers will surely displace thousands more local residents. It’s hard to see how aerial assaults on militants — or even the prospect of mass attacks — can have any other effect. What plans has John R Allen, the retired US general charged with overseeing the anti-Isis drive, made for those caught in this new pincer movement?

I raise these matters having recently returned from Lebanon where I witnessed the plight of some of the 1.4 million Syrian refugees now living in the country. Consider that number for a moment. Lebanon had a pre-Syrian conflict population of around 5m people. It’s seen a gargantuan influx of more than a quarter of its entire resident population, equivalent to something like 16m refugees pitching up in the UK in the space of three years. And it isn’t stopping; Lebanon is still receiving 9,000 refugees a week from Syria.

The numbers are off the scale, and Lebanon is beginning to feel the strain. Despite the incredible hospitality and kindness of thousands of Lebanese people — some hosting distant relatives from across the Syrian border, many simply helping struggling strangers in their midst — the country is under unbelievable pressure.

 

Ninette Kelly, head of the UN refugee agency in Lebanon, told me that hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living in informal settlements, and even in garages and shops. I visited a refugee settlement in the Bekaa Valley, a two-hour drive from Beirut. Here hundreds of people are huddled under plastic sheeting strung across wooden struts (these are not even tents), many living on the bare earth. They are all but exposed to the elements, contending with freezing winters and searingly hot summers. There are no kitchens, and the few toilets available are incredibly basic.

Healthcare is virtually non-existent. I met a mother who fears her five-month-old boy may be deaf and suffering from a serious eye condition, but she is unable to afford the treatment he needs. Another woman was caring for her mother, who has suffered three strokes, as well as her young, epileptic son. Again, the treatment they need is unavailable and unaffordable, but she also fears for the fate of two of her brothers who are languishing in Bashar al-Assad’s prisons. They will almost certainly have suffered tortured and she’s in anguish at the thought that they’ll be killed.

Existence itself is hard but so is co-existence. In Bekaa there have been disputes between refugees and the local Lebanese community over access to water. Is this surprising? Lebanon is small, not especially wealthy and is already hosting the largest population of Syrian refugees of any country in the world. No-one knows when the conflict in Syria is going to end, and in some quarters patience is running out.

Well over a year ago voices in the Lebanese government were saying the country had already “exceeded its ability to absorb” refugees, however desperate or deserving. Recently the atmosphere has become even more fraught after the beheading of two captured Lebanese soldiers, almost certainly by Isis. People say they’ve “woken up in a different world” after the beheadings, with anti-Syrian sentiments hardening and posters saying “No Syrian refugees here” appearing on the streets.

Syria is facing the world's biggest humanitarian crisis, and its neighbouring countries can’t manage on their own. Around the world, despite the politicians’ promises, the response has been woeful. EU countries have taken less than 1% of Syria’s refugees, the UK has resettled a grand total of 51 people.

As I left Lebanon a government adviser said to me “Don’t tell us to keep our borders open, while you close yours”. It’s a remark that ought to be reverberating around Downing Street as the generals explain to David Cameron how they’re going to “destroy” Syria’s Isis fighters.

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