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Syria’s Near-Neighbors Paying Price for European Inaction

A Syrian refugee family walks towards the new Syrian camp of Azraq, which stretches for 15 kilometers, and lies about 100 kilometers from the Syrian border in Jordan, Wednesday, April 30, 2014.

Europeans are struggling to cope with refugees and migrants landing on their shores or having to be rescued from overcrowded unseaworthy craft amid the swells and troughs of the Mediterranean. But ground zero of the humanitarian crisis is in Libya and the neighboring countries of war-torn Syria.

And there is little sympathy for European complaints of being overrun.

For the past four years as warfare in Syria raged, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have been buffeted by huge influxes of refugees. With their resources strained, all three countries have been urging Western nations to relieve the pressure on them and admit fleeing Syrians.

In July, weeks before photographs of a dead Syrian toddler who drowned at sea prompted a political and media firestorm in the West, Turkish officials warned they were unable to cope with any new major influx of refugees. And they warned Europe would be faced with growing numbers of Syrians trying to reach its shores aboard people smugglers’ boats.

“Turkey has reached its total capacity for refugees. Now, there is talk that a new wave of refugees may emerge … and it would put the EU face to face with more migrants," warned Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister, Volkan Bozkir.

Costly to hosts

Turkey is hosting an estimated 2 million Syrians, and officials in Ankara believe the Syria refugee crisis has so far cost the country $6 billion. The EU has provided $63 million in refugee aid to Turkey, but most of that has not actually been delivered. Since March when Turkish restrictions were imposed on Syrians crossing into Turkey, many have resorted to going through tunnels guided by smugglers. And there have been several reports of Turkish soldiers firing in the direction of refugees trying to deter them.

Likewise, more broadly, international aid for the refugee crisis — the worst since World War II, according to experts — has fallen far short of what the United Nations says is needed. The most recent appeal by the U.N.’s refugee agency for $4.5 billion has been met by donations of less than 25 percent. The World Food Program has had to continually cut the value of monthly food coupons, and now in Lebanon registered refugees receive only $13.50 each per month.

The consequences — governments not being able to cope, massive financial shortfalls — can be seen daily in the Turkish border provinces of Gaziantep, Kilis, Şanlıurfa and Hatay, and even farther north in Istanbul. Increasing numbers of Syrians can be seen begging or hustling for casual jobs, and the socio-economic impact of the refugee crisis is clear - from a jump in crime to overcrowded housing.

Resentment, too, has been building. Locals complain that Syrians are driving down wages because they are willing to work for a pittance.

And there is an increasing coarseness in how refugees are treated. “Turkish businesses don’t treat us well,” said 42-year-old Mohammed, a refugee from Aleppo and father of four, who rents a ramshackle apartment in a run-down district of Gaziantep. “At the end of a day they often won’t even pay the wages they agreed,” he said. Rents also have skyrocketed - 100 percent in the border town of Kilis. Turkey’s 28 camps are full, housing 278,000 refugees.

Situation in Lebanon

It is no different in Lebanon and arguably worse when it comes to housing. Under pressure mainly from the powerful Shia Muslim movement Hezbollah, Lebanon has refused to allow the building of refugee camps for the 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have flooded the highly unstable country. Demography defines politics in Lebanon, and fearing that camps would mean the long-term presence of mainly Sunni Muslim refugees, Shia have chafed at the prospect of the country’s demographics being altered permanently and not in their favor.

In a makeshift encampment near the dusty small town of Bar Elias, Abed Razzak Khali, a 35-year-old father of two young children who fled from the suburbs of Damascus, said he cannot understand why his family is not getting more assistance. He gestured toward his 1-year-old daughter playing on her mother’s knee. “When it comes to me I can be patient," he said. "I can wait. But this girl cannot wait for food. Okay, they bring us something, but what we need is much more. It is very hard.”

It is the despair felt by the Syrians that is driving them not only to flee Syria but pushing them to escape Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

In Libya, it is a slightly different tale — one involving Syrians less and more people fleeing sub-Saharan countries. Many are from Somalia, drawn to Libya to attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing. But on a recent tour of detention centers in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, VOA found that most of the migrants flooding into Libya bound for Europe are just that - migrants looking for a better life and escaping poverty, and not refugees fleeing formal war.

From the rate Libya’s subsidized food is being consumed, officials estimate there are a million unregistered immigrants now in Libya. Some are working while many others are hoping to cross the Mediterranean sooner or later. And this in a country that is all but bankrupt, strife-worn and torn into two warring camps.

In a squalid migrant detention center in Tripoli’s Ben Ashour district, Lt. Abdul Naser Hazam says he and his guards are frustrated. But it's not so much with the migrants as it is the lack of international assistance to help improve the inadequate, insanitary facilities Libya has for detained migrants. “Western officials don’t visit here, but they should see what we have to cope with,” he says.

Altaher Mohammed Makni, a Libyan politician, says, “The European countries have money and should be helping the migrants’ source countries to develop and invest in projects in sub-Saharan Africa. That would help to deter migrants from leaving their own countries in the first place.”

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu picked up that line of argument Sunday, saying in a speech in Ankara that European nations should focus their efforts not on blocking refugees or migrants, but on resolving the shocks that send them fleeing and helping them so they can stay in their homelands.

As for Western countries and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, he said, “They don’t pay the price for incidents happening in Syria and Iraq. We, as the neighbors of Syria, are paying this price.”