UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people—unless we act now

As the conflict drags on, the number of Syrian refugees climbs to 3 million

By Oxfam
Emad Abdullah was seriously injured during a bombing in Qusair three years ago and now relies on a wheelchair to get around. Photo: Serena Tramonti / Oxfam

‘My old life feels like a dream that never happened’—Syrian refugee Abu Suheib

Following the deadliest month for civilians since the conflict began in March 2011, the UN has announced that 3 million Syrians—or almost 14 percent of the total population--have now fled the relentless fighting in their country. More than 191,000 people have lost their lives in the three-and-a- half-year-old conflict.

While about 6.4 million Syrians remain internally displaced, refugees seeking safety have streamed into neighboring countries, putting enormous strains on their host communities. Nearly 1.2 million Syrians are now living in Lebanon, more than 832,000 are in Turkey, and another 612,737 are in Jordan, where tens of thousands of them have crowded into the Zataari refugee camp, now the fifth largest community in the country.

“The fact that 3 million Syrians are now refugees is just part of the picture of human suffering,” says Andy Baker, head of Oxfam’s Syria crisis response. “With 10.8 million more people needing help inside Syria and indiscriminate attacks on civilians claiming more lives each week, more and more families will be forced to seek sanctuary.”

Worried for the future

Among those who have fled is Abu Suheib, a physics teacher who once had a comfortable life in the Syrian town of Inkhil. Now, like many of the 85,000 refugees jammed into Zataari, he is living in a tent with his wife and four of his seven children.

“My old life feels like a dream that never happened,” he says, recalling the respect he once enjoyed as a teacher and the sense of fulfillment he had knowing that he was making a difference in the lives of his students. “Today I live in this small space with my children and our lives have been turned upside down.”

Suheib is worried about the future of the next generation—the one that is missing out on the chance to go to school.

“My daughter was in her last year of college and now cannot complete her studies. My fear is greater for my younger children and all the youngsters in the refugee camp,” Suheib says. “Most aren’t going to school and I’m afraid this is going to result in an entire generation that is illiterate.”

For Emad Abdullah, now confined to a wheelchair after he was injured in a bombing in Qusair three years ago, the future also weighs heavily—as does the past. In the brutal fighting at home, Abdullah lost both his mother and brother. When he and his wife fled to Lebanon with their two small children, Abdullah was initially able to receive medical care, but the treatments have since stopped.

“I can walk again, but I need more medical help, which is expensive, and we can’t afford it,” he says. “We don’t have any money. We fled with everything we have.”

In a family photo, with his two children pressed to his side, Abdullah sits in a wheel chair, his face worn with worry.

“I cannot keep waiting on this wheelchair. I need to work, to provide for my family,” says Abdullah, as his voice begins to trail into a whisper. Back in Syria, he had a grocery shop and also worked a second job as a taxi driver. “What kind of future can I provide for them in this condition, for my children?”

Oxfam’s response

Oxfam is strongly urging Western governments to step up their efforts to resettle Syrian refugees. Only about 5,000 of them—a tiny fraction of the total-- have been resettled through the UN in countries beyond Syria’s neighbors. Oxfam is calling on the international community to play its part in offering refugees protection, and in supporting neighboring countries so they can keep their borders open to people fleeing the conflict.

Since the beginning of the year, Oxfam has reached nearly half a million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water or cash and relief supplies, such as blankets and stoves in winter and vouchers for hygiene supplies in summer. We are helping families get the information they need about their legal and human rights, and connecting them to medical, legal, and support services. 

In both countries, we have been building blocks of toilets and bathing stalls for people living in refugee camps and in informal settlements. And we are now developing plans to pipe water into Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and in host communities in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

Oxfam is also providing clean water to Syrians inside their country through rehabilitation of infrastructure, water trucking, and repairing of wells. We estimate that the water is reaching about one million people.

But as humanitarian agencies face funding shortfalls, there is a great deal more that needs to be done.

The UN humanitarian appeal for the refugee response is still significantly underfunded – with less than half of the money needed for responding to the humanitarian crisis. Oxfam is urging governments to fund the appeal so that humanitarian needs can be addressed.

“As the number of refugees grows, aid is proving insufficient and neighboring countries are stretched to the breaking point,” says Oxfam’s, Andy Baker, head of Syria crisis response. ”Without sustainable support for an improved humanitarian response and increased resettlement for the most vulnerable refugees, the road ahead looks incredibly bleak.”

Read Oxfam's press release