GENEVA — The United Nations refugee agency is appealing to nations to keep borders open to refugees fleeing worsening violence in Syria.
With Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq already hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warns the number is expected to grow as the conflict intensifies.
Responding to reports that Syrians attempting to flee may be backed up at the international border crossings, agency officials say they are disturbed by accounts showing that many refugees are being prevented from leaving the war-torn nation.
The constant flow of refugees from Syria into Jordan's Zaatari camp has slowed to a near halt in recent days, and UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says she does not know whether restrictions are being imposed on those wishing to leave Syria.
Explaining that Jordan is keeping borders open to refugees, she speculates that other factors are hindering people from crossing over.
“One, of course, is [that] it is just too dangerous to take to the road because fighting is going on," she said. "Second, people escape using smugglers and it often is very difficult either for people to access the funds that are available for these smugglers, or the smugglers are connected to different groups and they want to determine, perhaps, who can flee and who cannot.”
Fleming says both government officials and rebels who control checkpoints in towns and cities also may be restricting people from leaving.
While Lebanon is also keeping its borders open, ongoing fighting in the besieged, neighboring Syrian town of Qusair is making it too dangerous for people to flee.
“Refugees are telling us that the city is virtually cordoned off, that it is very difficult and dangerous to flee," said Fleming. "Some people tell us that it is emptied of civilians, but other sources say that most of the civilian population has now moved to one section of the town in the central and northern neighborhoods and are pretty much trapped.”
Fleming says the UNHCR expects a significant influx of Syrian refugees into neighboring countries as soon as the situation changes and security allows people to cross the borders.