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Syrian refugee numbers pass 39.000, UN rushes to ease burden

Source : Reuters | 23 Mar 2012 U.N.

Syrians fleeing the violence in their country have been greeted with tremendous hospitality but the burden on neighbouring nations is growing as refugees keep coming, the U.N. coordinator for Syrian refugees said on Friday.

Just 11 days into the job, Panos Moumtzis is desperate to make up for lost time in efforts to support the swelling number of refugees.

"We decided for the last 12 months to help the Syrians quietly. But it became a vacuum," he told Reuters in an interview. "There is a sense of urgency in terms of the funding to be able to move fast with humanitarian aid."

Since protests against President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago, government forces have mounted a crackdown on the opposition that has killed at least 8,000 Syrians, prompting many Syrians to flee abroad. With no end to the violence in sight, the refugee crisis is expected to continue.

Since his appointment, Moumtzis, previously U.N. coordinator for Libyan refugees, has spent five days in Lebanon and four days in Jordan and plans to travel to Turkey next week.

Those three main destinations together account for about 40,000 refugees, according to the latest rough headcount by the U.N. refugee agency. But the United Nations itself now says the real figure is probably more than twice as high.

Moumtzis helped launch an $84 million U.N. appeal for Syrian refugees on Friday that anticipates about 100,000 needing support in the next six months.

"This is not a worst case scenario appeal. This is just responding to the current needs for about 100,000 people in the region," Moumtzis said. "As we register more and more people every day, and while there are people crossing the border so we're going to see the numbers actually increase."

The U.N. appeal document says that humanitarian agencies should also be prepared for as many as 205,000 refugees in a "potential mass influx".

"WAVE OF PEOPLE"

"The state of security and violence and Syria has immediate reflection on the neighbouring countries. When there were tensions in Homs and in Idlib we saw a wave of people crossing into Turkey or crossing into Jordan," Moumtzis said.

"In Jordan, where I was at the border 48 hours ago, there were about 150 people crossing the border every day. In Lebanon, the numbers were smaller, about 10-15 families every day. In Turkey, while I was on this mission during a period of 72 hours we had 1,500 who crossed.

"Some people crossed through official border points, others crossed through fields. Everybody is trying to get into safety whichever way they can manage."

Turkey's government has organised eight tent cities and one temporary housing city but most Syrians who crossed into Jordan and Lebanon are being hosted by local communities, billeted with families in their own homes.

While the locals and their governments have so far shown extraordinary generosity, there was bound to be friction with the new arrivals eventually, Moumtzis said.

"After a while, the hospitality wears out even with the best will in the world," he said.

He cited a Syrian family who had to wait for their Lebanese hosts to finish with the pans before they could cook their own meal and a Lebanese family he visited who were hosting 15 refugees in their living room.

"They told me: 'Those people have to flush the toilet, they have to take a shower. Our water bill has gone up two and a half times since they arrived.' At the bare minimum you would say there should be some financial support for the water bill, for the utilities, the electricity."

Part of the U.N. appeal aims to help keep relations cordial so that the refugees don't outstay their welcome or stir up resentment with by receiving special privileges. In Jordan, the king granted free health treatment to support the refugees, while locals still have to pay, Moumtzis said.

But the refugees don't want to stay a minute longer than they have to.

"All the Syrians that I've talked to, they all talk about going back as soon as the situation allows. They don't think this will happen immediately but there is a very strong attachment to the country, to the homeland, and the first thing they said was: 'We don't know how long we'll be here but as soon as possible we'd like to be able to return back home.'"

NUMBERS GROWİNG

A U.N. estimate of Syrian refugees has risen by 5,000 in the past week and now stands at about 39,000, while hundreds of thousands more are thought to be displaced within Syria, according to the refugee agency UNHCR.

The United Nations, which expects the number of refugees to keep growing, launched an $84 million appeal on Friday to support 100,000 refugees over the next six months but has a contingency plan for 205,000 refugees.

TURKEY

About 17,000 Syrians are in eight camps set up in Turkey's southern provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep. Of the total, 47 percent are children and 19 percent are women.

UNHCR says 23,000 people have received protection there since April 2011, but many have returned to Syria. The Turkish government plans to move most of the refugees to a purpose-built container city in Kilis province.

Turkey is considering setting up a "security" or "buffer" zone along its border with Syria, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on March 16. Ankara has urged all Turkish citizens inside Syria to return to Turkey as soon as possible.

Syrian forces have laid mines near the borders of Lebanon and Turkey along routes used to escape the conflict, advocacy group Human Rights Watch has said.

The U.N. humanitarian appeal is based on a plan for 50,000 refugees in Turkey in the next six months, with a contingency plan for 100,000.

LEBANON

There are more than 16,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, including about 5,000 in the Bekaa Valley and 8,000 in northern Lebanon and Tripoli. There are also Syrian refugees in south Beirut.

The U.N. appeal is based on a plan for 25,000 refugees in Lebanon in the next six months, with a contingency plan for 50,000.

JORDAN

In Jordan 6,000 Syrians have been registered over the last year, and about 2,500 are awaiting registration. "This figure is expected to increase significantly as UNHCR and partners expand their outreach efforts," UNHCR said.

The Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization estimates there may be 15,000-20,000 Syrians who have fled into Jordan but have not yet asked for assistance or protection.

The U.N. appeal is based on a plan for 20,000 refugees in Jordan in the next six months, with a contingency plan for 50,000.

IRAQ

About 500 Syrian refugees, mainly of Kurdish origin, have crossed into Dohuk in the Kurdish administered part of Iraq.

The U.N. humanitarian appeal is based on a plan for 1,500 refugees in Iraq in the next six months, with a contingency plan for 5,000.

INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE IN SYRIA

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society estimates the number of internally displaced people in Syria at 200,000, which was the figure being used by U.N. agencies, UNHCR regional coordinator Panos Moumtzis said on March 13.

"There are some indications it is much larger than that," he said.

FOREIGN REFUGEES WITHIN SYRIA

There are 110,000 refugees within Syria, not including refugees from the Palestinian territories. Of the 110,000, all but 8,000 are from Iraq. Some 67,000 Iraqis have returned to Iraq in the past year.