THE BLOG

A Hand in the Water Is Not Like a Hand in the Fire

10/11/2015 08:57 GMT | Updated 09/11/2016 10:12 GMT

An estimated 11million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighbouring countries or within Syria itself.

Europe sees an unceasing stream of refugees in its borders, but what about those who fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey;

Let's crush some numbers

Since 2011, when the Syrian crisis begun, gradually developing into a civil war (nurtured by internal as well as external forces) the number of dead is estimated around 220,000. It is important to clarify that there is no way to ascertain that number. The UN ceased publishing their own estimates by 2014 as there was no way to verify the actual numbers.

The actual number of casualties is a guesstimate based on the data provided by the Syrian government, and observers- who are close to the opposition-and are based outside the country but they have collaborators and activists within the country. These are: the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) , the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) and the Syrian Centre for Statistics and Research (SCSR).

Most Syrians have already been displaced two or three times since, in the beginning they sought protection in houses of relatives and friends in neighboring cities which were considered safe. The number of internally displaced people in Syria is estimated at 7.6million while the number of those who fled to neighboring countries; Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq is more that four million.

Before the war, Syria had a population of 23million, it was a middle income country and had one of the best education systems in the Arab world with 90% literacy rate. Today, more than half, 12.5million people cannot survive without humanitarian aid. 50% of the children no longer attends school, half of the population has no access to running water and electricity-not simply because they have no money to pay for it but, mostly, because the war has destroyed 50% of the water and electricity infrastructure.

It is not widely known but Syria used to house 12 refugee camps which accommodated 560.000 Palestinians. Today, after the war, 450.000 Palestinians are still in the country, scattered everywhere. Jordan closed its borders to Palestinians from Syria at the beginning of the war while Lebanon did the same on May, 2015. In all, 80,000 Palestinians from Syria have found refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt hoping to be able to cross over to Europe. Almost all of them fear extradition back to Syria due to their particular circumstances.

As expected, the first Syrian refugees fled to the neighboring countries; Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and, in smaller numbers, Iraq and Egypt. The Syrians who chose to move to those countries usually did it because they could not pay the trafficker's fees for a passage to Europe- during the first years the prices were three times higher than today. Another reason was that some of them believed that the war would not last long and they would be able to return to their country relatively soon.

A regional crisis

In Jordan, 629,000 Syrian refugees have sought shelter. Jordan is one of the countries with the lowest reserve of water in the world. It has faced water shortages for many years while it loses 76billion litres of water annually due to an antiquated water supply system. Zaatari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan houses more than 80,000 people and has developed into the fourth largest city of the country. Having started as a "model" camp, the situation has deteriorated with groups who control parts of the camp, often fighting between them for the control of their areas.

The country has four major camps but only 20% of the refugees stay there. The remaining 80% stays in cities, mainly in north Jordan. When the crisis begun, Jordanians kept an open door policy-the two countries have had close commercial relations for many years and there were several intra-marriages. But the situation worsened with time. Unable to deal with the size of the influx, Jordan took a series of measures. Since April 2012 Palestinians from Syria were denied entrance and were even send back to Syria.

In October 2014, Jordan was receiving thousands of Syrians daily. In the last year the refugee influx was considerably reduced; this could indicate that unofficially, Jordan has closed its borders with Syria. This suspicion is intensified by the fact that at the borders with Jordan, on the Syrian side, makeshift camps have been set up, occupied by people who remain there hoping to cross to the other side.

On July 2014, the Jordan government asked the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to stop providing with an Asylum Seekers Registration Card those Syrian refugees who don't stay at the camps or have no permission from the government to leave the camp. This has been particularly hurtful to the 500.000 of refugees who live outside the camps. Without that document they cannot receive protection, food or money from the government or the NGO's. At the same time the law prevents any Syrian refugee from working legally.

In a few words, the Syrians in Jordan can either "chose" to stay in government camps; from which they are not allowed to leave, or to stay unprotected in the cities where they try to survive in complete poverty, paying exorbitant rents and living under fear.

Since the war in their country began four years ago, Syrians have been pouring across the border into Lebanon, and those registered with the UNHCR, number around 1.2million. Initially, Lebanon sought to remain neutral thus avoiding to establish official refugee camps while it only started registering refugees in 2014. Most of the Syrian refugees who stay in Lebanon either occupy semi-official camps, without any infrastructure, or they are scattered in the cities.

They have no right to work whereas these who leave Lebanon in order to visit relatives in Syria are not allowed back in the country. Lebanon allows Syrians to register with the UNHCR as asylum seekers only once they sign that they will not work in the country. Even those who are already there, working, must sign that they will leave their jobs in order to have their permits renewed.

All Syrians have to renew their permits annually. The application costs $200 fee, plus the notarised "no work" pledge and letters from landlords and a mukhtar - a local government official which costs between $250 and $400. Aid agencies report that 35% of Syrians in Lebanon don't register because they cannot afford the fees. As a result, many refugees have gone underground, they work illegally, and have no access to health and education services. Those who do sing the 'no work" pledge they find themselves in a dire economic situation.

Turkey shares 900km of land borders with Syria and has already received 2ml refugees. The country has established 22 government run camps where 30% of the refugees stay. The rest are scattered in the cities where they live in poverty and they are barred from the formal employment sector. At the beginning of 2015, the Turkish government has announced plans to grant to Syrian refugees the right to work but in May it backtracked on the proposed legislation.

In Istanbul alone there were more than 330,000 Syrian refugees in 2014. Among them there are 80,000 children from which only 20,000 are attending school.

Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, however because of a geographic exception written into the original document it is only obligated to accept refugees from European nations. Thus, Syrians technically are not considered refugees although Turkey has accorded temporary protection to Syrians on their territory, which precludes forced repatriation.

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It goes without saying that not all of the people who are now trying to enter Europe are Syrian refugees. Among them, one can find Palestinians from Syria, Iraqis (let's not forget the 2ml refugees after the US led invasion in Iraq), Kurds, Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, or people from Bangladesh and the sub-Saharan Africa. These are about 30% of the people who are trying to pass over to Europe. Whether they are entitled to international protection is a conflicting subject since there are those who see them as simple immigrants while others view them as victims of extreme poverty which might be as fatal as any war.

The point is not to try to weigh how much human pain and desolation cost. The point is to find out what exactly happened in their countries of origin and where they come from.

An Arab proverb says that the hand in the water is not like the hand in the fire.

And most of them are fleeing fire.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Greek media site The Press Project