I’ve just returned from Iraq and Jordan, two countries struggling with massive influxes of refugees from intertwined conflicts in Syria and Iraq.
Frustratingly, Medecins Sans Frontiers – which helps people worldwide where the need is greatest – is unable to work properly inside Syria. The country is extremely insecure: our staff have been kidnapped and the government won’t let us work in areas it controls. But we do have a solid presence on the country’s borders.
As in other refugee crises, masses of people are fleeing across borders in need of shelter, food and medicine. What is different is that the countries neighbouring Syria are controlling the movement of refugees.
Most camps I visited were fenced off and guarded by police. The refugees are being assisted but they are unable to leave the camps, find jobs and build themselves a future.
At one unofficial camp in Iraqi Kurdistan I visited, people said they couldn’t imagine ever returning home. Some 400 families were living in an inhospitable area surrounded by hills, with minimal water and sanitation infrastructure.
At Kifri checkpoint, we came across an Iraqi family of 10 children and 10 adults, including two elderly grandparents. Ten days earlier, as their town was engulfed in fighting, they had left their home and all their belongings and hitchhiked towards Kifri. Their baby had died the previous day, on the road, and that morning the grandmother, after running out of medication, had suffered a stroke.
We found them sitting at the edge of the road, cold, miserable and desperate. We got them through the checkpoint and persuaded the town’s mayor to send a car to fetch the sick grandmother. When it arrived, the entire family started crying – the grandfather and all the adult men. This emotional scene brought home to me the impact that war has at an ordinary level, embodying the extent to which war crushes people, even if they don’t bear physical injuries.
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
In pictures: Global refugee crisis
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Yemeni refugees carry water to their tent at the Mazraq internally displaced people's camp in the northwestern province of Hajja
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A displaced man from Yemen's Saada province amid UNHCR tents at a camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mazraq in Yemen's Hajja region, 360 kms northwest of Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees queue to get food aid at the Marzaq internally displaced people's camp in Harad in the northwestern province of Hajjah
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Displaced Yemenis from al-Jaachan Al-Ansin, a village in the province of Ibb, some 200km South-East of Sanaa, stand next to their tents in a makeshift refugee camp in Sanaa
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Yemeni refugees walk to a refugee camp in the southern Saudi province of Jizan after crossing the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia
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Syrian refugees arrive in Turkey at the Cilvegozu crossing gate of Reyhanli, in Hatay. The number of people driven from their homes by conflict and crisis has topped 50 million for the first time since World War II, with Syrians hardest hit, the UN refugee agency (UNCHR) said, in an annual report released on World Refugee Day
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Syrian refugees walking among tents at Karkamis' refugee camp near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey
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South Sudanese refugees waiting for food in the Kule refugee camp near the Pagak Border Entry point in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia
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African refugees live homelessly at a temporary shelter beside a road on World Refugee Day in Sana'a, Yemen. The number of African refugees who have come to Yemen during the past few years has reached 750,000, most of them are Somalis
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. The militants' capture of Iraq's cities of Mosul and Tikrit makes their dream of a new Islamic state look more realistic. It already controlled a swath of eastern Syria along the Euphrates River, with a spottier presence extending further west nearly to Aleppo, Syria's largest city. In Raqqa, the biggest city it holds in Syria, it imposes taxes, rebuilds bridges and enforces the law - its strict version of Shariah
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Refugees queue to register at a temporary camp in northern Iraq
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A young Syrian refugee stands near jerry cans used to collect water at Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. The United Nations hopes that political talks between the warring sides in Syria will clinch local ceasefires to allow vital food and medicines to reach millions of civilians
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A child refugee from the northern province of Raqqa in Syria, reacts from the cold weather in a Syrian refugee camp beside the Lebanese border town of Arsal, in eastern Bekaa Valley
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Boys help their father remove snow in front of their tent in the Azaz refugee camp
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A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo crosses the Bosphorus from Uskudar to the European side of Istanbul
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A child refugee stands next to a home constructed using a billboard in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugee baby Rim in the settlement of Qab Elias in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
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Refugees arriving at a camp near Bossangoa, 190 miles north of Bangui, the capital. Forty-one thousand people fled their homes following mass executions in the area
Juan Carlos Tomasi/Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders
19/41 Syrian refugees
Representatives of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a deeply divided opposition, world powers and regional bodies started a long-delayed peace conference aimed at bringing an end to a nearly three-year civil war
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A women and a girl wash at a tap at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint in Kalak. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region
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Families arrive at a Kurdish checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp in Kalak
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An Iraqi refugee girl from Mosul stands outside her family's tent at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Days after Iraq's second-largest city fell to Isis fighters, some Iraqis are already returning to Mosul, lured back by insurgents offering cheap gas and food, restoring power and water and removing traffic barricades
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A girl, who fled from the violence in Mosul, carries a case of water at a camp on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region
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A displaced Iraqi woman washes her family's laundry as the children shower outside their tent at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province in Aski kalak, 40 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil
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Iraqi refugees from Mosul arrive at Khazir refugee camp outside Irbil, 217 miles (350 kilometers) north of Baghdad
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The international Red Cross said that the road from Bor to the nearby Awerial area 'is lined with thousands of people' waiting for boats so they could cross the Nile River and that the gathering of displaced 'is the largest single identified concentration of displaced people in the country so far'
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People unload the few belongings at Minkammen, that they were able to bring with them to the camps
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Thousands of exhausted civilians are crowding into the fishing village of Minkammen, a once-tiny riverbank settlement of a few thatch huts 25 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Bor
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Many people had spent days hiding out in the bush outside Bor as gunmen battled for control of the town, which has exchanged hands three times in the conflict, and remains in rebel control
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A young boy pulls his suitcase of belongings as he walks to find a place to rest after getting off a river barge from Bor
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A displaced family camp under a tree providing partial shade from the midday sun
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A boy carries a fish, caught from the nearby Nile river, in a cardboard box on his head back to his relatives to eat
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A mother and her baby, one of the few to have a mosquito net, wake up in the morning after sleeping in the open
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Four-month old Haida Majzub was born in the Ajuong Thok refugee camp inside South Sudan. The camp, in northern Unity State, hosts thousands of refugees from the Nuba Mountains, located across the nearby border with Sudan
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A girl fills a container with muddy water in the Ajuong Thok Refugee Camp
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The clashes in South Sudan began when uniformed personnel opened fire at a meeting of the governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement
37/41 Myanmar refugees
45 year old Dilbhar looks towards the camera as she stands in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. She escaped to Bangladesh from the Bodchara village in the Mondu district of Myanmar
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32 year old Mahada Khatum, 5 year old Hasan Sharif, and 9 year old Umma Kulsum sit outside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. The family escaped violence and discrimination from the Zomgara Baharchara village in the Meherulla district of Myanmar
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Hamid and his daughter Rajama sit inside their home in the Shamalapur Rohingya refugee settlement in Chittagong district. They fled to Bangladesh from the Dhuachopara village in the Rachidhong district of Myanmar
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Afghan children wait for relief supplies from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
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Afghan people carry relief supplies received from the Muslim Hands United For The Needy during an aid distribution at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Kabul
In Jordan, MSF runs a surgical unit for war-wounded patients at a hospital close to the border at Ramtha. Many of our patients have been injured in the fighting in Deraa, but there are also civilian women and children who have been injured by barrel bombs and other explosive devices.
It was there that I met seven-year-old Basil, who has been a patient of ours for some months. Basil has complicated injuries that have required several operations. His mother had to return to Syria to care for her other children, leaving Basil alone in the hospital.
While he symbolises the horrors of war, he also symbolises human resilience. He’s a real rascal, and despite having had both legs amputated above the knees and having only one hand, he races through the hospital corridors in his wheelchair, taking very fast corners. And despite his young age, he offers comfort to other patients who have recently undergone amputations. He talks to them in such a warm, empathetic way that he has become an informal part of our health education programme.
Once Basil is fitted with prosthetic limbs, we hope he’ll be able to remain in Jordan. But I don’t know how he’ll be looked after. He’s a really special boy whose presence lights up the hospital wards, yet his future is so uncertain.
Basil also embodies the big questions of the Syrian conflict: Where are all these people going to go? What are they going to do? When will it be safe enough for them to return? These are questions that all Syrian refugees are asking themselves. Having your homeland destroyed by civil war is terrible, but having no control over your future is possibly worse.
Syria’s refugees are wracked with uncertainty about how they will be supported by neighbouring countries and the international community. Fifteen percent of Jordan’s population and 25 percent of Lebanon’s population is now comprised of Syrian refugees. Those numbers are overwhelming their ability to provide social services. In November, the Jordanian government revoked access to free healthcare for refugees, citing economic pressure. At the same time, the international community appears unwilling to support those neighbouring countries or share the burden by accommodating refugees.
While there are no easy solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, we should at least be as generous as we can to those who have fled. We should be providing them with healthcare, shelter, food, protection and some degree of certainty about their futures until they can return home.
Many refugees see no future in Syria or in the camps. In their desperation they are undertaking incredibly dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, where many end up perishing. Several people I met recounted stories of friends or family who had died trying to reach Europe.
As the people of Syria and Iraq sink further into the abyss, the world stands by and fails to support them. It’s very difficult to accept that, both as a humanitarian organisation and as a human being.
It’s clear that this war will not end soon. A sustainable future must be provided for innocent children like Basil and those families who cannot go home. We at MSF refuse to turn our backs on the people of Syria and Iraq, despite the difficulties in reaching those who need help the most.
Arjan Hehenkamp is general director of MSF HollandReuse content