A young girl was "gang-raped and forced to stagger home naked-heightening her shame in a society where modesty is so valued." This is a statement from an International Rescue Committee (IRC) report recently released on the crisis in Syria, almost two years after the uprising in the country first started. The international community must step up its response to one of the world's humanitarian crises and devote more funding and support to neighboring countries and agencies operating in the region.
Unimaginable brutality is occurring in Syria as the world stands by, desperately trying to figure out how to manage a peaceful transition in the country. The death toll in Syria has reached an estimated 60,000 and more than 620,000 refugees have already fled the country. Fear of escalating tragedies mounts as Foreign Policy reports that according to a secret State Department cable, Syria used Agent 15, a chemical weapon that causes paralysis, on its people on December 23, 2012. If it is indeed true that Syria used chemical weapons on its citizens, then the crisis has escalated even further.
Now, more than ever before, the cooperation of humanitarian agencies and increased aid is necessary. At a Brookings Institute event on Monday, January 14th entitled "What's Next for Syria: Humanitarian and Political Perspectives," Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR's regional refugee coordinator for the Syrian emergency response, outlined UNHCR's Humanitarian Plan for the first six months of 2013. He emphasized that non-governmental agencies in the region are focused on ensuring that the borders remain open so that people can escape. Thus far, the neighboring countries of Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have been very generous about allowing refugees to enter and about providing support to them. In Lebanon, families who have very little themselves are opening up their homes to receive refugees, sharing already scarce resources.
One of the reasons that UNHCR is intent upon ensuring the borders remain open is that many of the victims of the crisis are victims of rape and other sexual violence. IRC's report, published in January 2013, argues that women and girls in Syria are under attack. "Rape is a significant and disturbing feature of the Syrian civil war." IRC assessments in Lebanon and Jordan found that "sexual violence was consistently identified by Syrian women, men and community leaders as a primary reason their families fled the country." UNHCR and other organizations are now focused on ensuring that they have in place appropriate programs to address the needs of women.
According to IRC, these accounts of sexual violence take place both in public and in private, primarily by armed men and sometimes by multiples of them. The exact number of rapes that have occurred is unknown because sexual violence goes far underreported due to the reported dishonor and shame that it brings to the families of the victims.
Thus, it is incredibly important that the West shows support for Syria's neighboring countries, which are providing victims of sexual violence a manner in which to escape. In order to do so, Moumtzis urges that it is extremely important for UNHCR "to have early and flexible funding at the beginning of the year." Currently, pledges are only at 6% of where they need to be. Because Moumtzis believes that "the speed with which the humanitarian crisis is deteriorating is greater than the ability of the traditional donor to respond to the financial needs," UNHCR is reaching out to non-traditional actors, such as the Gulf States.
The international community must work together because, unfortunately, there is not a clearly foreseeable end to the crisis. In the mean time, Frederic Hof says that Syria, "on the trajectory it is on right now, will easily produce 1.8 million refugees before long and perhaps even go beyond that." Hof is a Senior Fellow at Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and until September he served as Special Advisor for Transition in Syria at the US Department of State.
The United States government and American citizens need to do their part to ensure that the 22.5 million Syrians and countless millions of people in neighboring countries are adequately supported during this crisis. We must continue to encourage the tremendous generosity of neighboring nations while also ensuring that the flow of refugees does not contribute to political instability in their own countries. We also must ensure that women and children who are victims of sexual violence are able to escape Syria. Promoting security in the region and protecting women from sexual violence requires an increase in funding to humanitarian agencies operating in the region. However, this burden cannot be carried alone. It will require the international community to work together to ensure a quicker, more effective response.