WASHINGTON – The civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel fighters has sparked a refugee crisis that the United Nations (UN) says is the worst in nearly two decades.
“We have not seen a refugee outflow escalate at such a frightening rate since the Rwandan genocide almost 20 years ago,” Antonio Guterres, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said at a UN Security Council briefing, according to ABC News.
The UN reported that more than 1.7 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries, while another 4.5 million are internally displaced.
“As the Syrian civil war enters its third year, the human cost of the conflict is growing exponentially,” according to a factsheet prepared by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a government advisory body that monitors freedom of conscience, thought and religious belief.
The factsheet, “Syria’s Refugee Crisis and its Implications,” was produced after USCIRF conducted a fact-finding mission as part of a UN-led delegation that visited Egypt and Jordan. USCIRF interviewed refugees, government and UN officials and representatives from aid organizations.
Among the factsheet’s major findings:
More than 90 percent of refugees registered with UNHCR identify themselves as Sunni Muslims.
The percentage of religious minorities (such as Christians, Alawites and Yezidis) who have registered with UNHCR are disproportionately small compared to the Syrian population. Most religious minorities are reported to be taking shelter within Syria among co-religionists and in government-held areas. Most of those who do leave go to Lebanon or Turkey.
Christians and Alawites are not registering with UNHCR because they fear reprisals from Sunni refugees who might suspect them of being government allies. Minorities also fear that if the current Syrian regime stays in power and they have to return, the government will view them as disloyal for having fled.
Refugees must register with UNHCR to receive material assistance such as food, cash, education and health care. Since many religious minorities in rural areas cannot or do not register, they are left out.
The massive flow of refugees is straining the already limited resources of neighboring countries. Iraq, Turkey and Jordan either have closed their borders or limited the daily intake of refugees.
Refugees living in host countries outside of camps must contend with scarce housing and high rents, combined with social tensions from sharing resources and government services with native citizens.
“By the end of 2013, more than half of Syria’s population, over 10 million people, likely will need urgent humanitarian assistance,” the factsheet said.
Many of the country’s Christians who have not left face dangers at home. Youmna*, a 13-year-old Christian girl living in Damascus, remembered how shooting erupted near her school bus one day.
“[W]e all dived down, hiding under our seats, waiting until the shooting was over,” she told Open Doors, an organization that focuses on helping persecuted Christians.
Youmna’s sister Nashita*, 10, told Open Doors how the children at her school were herded into the basement as they waited to see if a nearby plane would bomb the building.
“My classmates and I were all very scared,” Nashita said. “Kids around me were crying and shouting at the teachers because they were so afraid. Some called their fathers, crying to them that they wanted to go home.”
As the violence rages on, Youmna and Nashita ask for prayers for their country. Youmna specifically mentioned children who have lost parents.
“A lot of our friends have no fathers anymore because they have been killed in war,” she said.
Jerry Dykstra, an Open Doors USA spokesman, said, “Please heed the requests of Youmna and Nashita to pray for Syria, especially for the innocent victims such as the young children.
“Not only do the children face the daily violence of civil war, but they are also the targets of persecution, including kidnapping, because they are Christians,” Dykstra said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Compiled by John Evans, a writer in Houston. To read the full USCIRF factsheet, visit http://www.uscirf.gov/reports-and-briefs/factsheets.html and download the PDF entitled “July 2013 Factsheet: Syria’s Refugee Crisis and its Implications.”)