The international community must do more to help civilians fleeing the Syrian civil war as neighbouring countries reduce the numbers of refugees they allow entry to, international NGOs say.
Around 3.2 million people have left Syria since the conflict began in 2011, according to the UNHCR. The vast majority sought sanctuary in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, which have maintained an effectively open border policy to the displaced. However, the financial and social strain this has created is overwhelming these host countries and some have begun to restrict access to refugees, according to a new report by Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and International Rescue Committee released on Thursday.
An average of 150,000 Syrians crossed into Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan each month throughout 2013. However, in October 2014 the number registered by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) dropped by 88 percent to only 18,453. This is partly a result of tightening borders, the report said.
Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and the report's co-author, told VICE News that civilians are increasingly unable to escape Syria. "It's really our worst nightmare coming true now… so many donor nations have said that they can deal with the crisis just by helping refugees in the region, but that has led to the neighbouring countries being completely overwhelmed. They cannot take more, for economic, societal and security reasons."
Only 50,000 of those who fled Syria have been accepted by states outside of its immediate neighbors — less than 2 percent of the total refugee population. The US has only resettled 166, France has said it will take 500 and the UK has said it will accept several hundred.
This has sparked protest, including a demonstration in Calais on Wedneday staged by Syrians pleading for asylum in the UK.
"Who's to blame for women and children being unable to escape the worst war of our watch? I think it's the international community beyond the region," Egeland said. "No country is really helping with the burden sharing in a way that is commensurate with the challenge… What has to be done now is that European countries, North America, The Gulf states, Russia and the Asian economies have to come to the region, speak to Syria's neighbours and ask what it will take for them to have open borders again like they did in 2013. How many people they will have to take and what do they need in order to stand the burden."
Non-neighbor nations should aim to take 150,000 refugees in the near future, he said, adding that priority should be given to the those hardest to help locally, like the disabled and sick, widowed with children and vulnerable minorities.
Increased financial assistance should also be provided to host countries, Egeland argues, which are currently "spending billions of their own money with no end in sight."
The UNHCR said on Tuesday that it still hadn't received the $58.5 million it would need to care for Syrian refugees through winter. If further aid is not provided, Egeland warned, everyone will lose. "There will be more insecurity, more extremists and more desperate people trying to flee if we don't help," he said. "If we want an insecure world, we should carry on just as we are."
But it is not too late, he added. NRC has around 1000 aid workers, and through them has helped provide more than a million refugees with shelter, water and education. "It's not rocket science, we [international governments and NGOs] can help, we have the resources, we know how to do it… we can can help people in the region, inside Syria and in those host countries."
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck