CREDIT: UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin
Providing funding for Syria’s two million refugees has fallen largely on the United States and its European allies, with some of the top international opponents to possible U.S. military action against Syria also double as the ones ignoring the growing refugee crisis.
While the debate on the Russian and Chinese roles in Syria has been largely focused on the two countries blocking any action against President Bashar al-Assad, not much attention has been paid to the fact that the they have also provided little assistance to Syria’s refugees.
As the drama in Congress over whether to authorize force in Syria is playing out, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on Tuesday announced that more than two million Syrians have fled their country in the face of the ongoing civil war there. The rapid increase in outflow from Syria in recent months is “nothing less than alarming, representing a jump of almost 1.8 million people in 12 months,” the U.N.’s refugee agency said in its press release. Last month, UNICEF likewise announced that the one millionth Syrian child has crossed the border seeking safety from the violence between the government and rebel forces.
Scattered across the neighboring countries of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, the Syrians who have fled now have the distinction of being the most displaced nationality on Earth. However, the U.N.’s count of refugees actually underreports the crisis — the official number does not include those refugees who have not registered with the agency nor does it include internally displaced peoples who have had to flee their homes but remain within Syria (there are around 4.5 million internally displaced inside Syria).
The chronically underfunded relief efforts surrounding Syria is now placing enormous pressure on the governments playing host to the refugees. For example, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan now doubles as the fourth largest city in the country with 120,000 people living within its borders and its own economy developing. Likewise in Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up one quarter of the total population, threatening to throw the country’s delicate demographics balance out of whack.
The prospect of American strikes has earned outright condemnation from Russia, which is sending members of its Parliament to help lobby Congress against voting in favor of the use of force. The Russian government maintains that the evidence the U.S. has presented is not convincing that chemical weapons were used and as such, the Russians have been vocal advocates against force being used against Assad.
China has joined Russia in its opposition, using its state-run media to chide as “irresponsible as well as hotheaded for some countries to use the allegation [of chemical weapons use] as an excuse for military intervention.”
“China is highly concerned about the relevant country’s plan on taking unilateral military action,” Hong Lei, a spokesman for the country’s Foreign Ministry, recently told reporters. Both Russia and China have used their veto power in the United Nations Security Council in the past to veto any action in Syria and would likely do so again should an authorization to strike at Syria reach a vote at the U.N.
When it comes to helping the people on the ground in Syria and the neighboring areas, however, the two countries have a ways to go before they reach the level of the United States. According to the U.N. Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, so far in 2013, nearly $3 billion in assistance has been contributed towards providing food and shelter for the Syrian crisis. Of that, the United States is far and away the top contributor, having donated $818 million this year alone. In fact, the U.S. has provided 27.9 percent of the total contributions for the year.
In comparison, the Russian Federation has committed only $17.8 million toward the crisis, an amount that makes up only 0.6 percent of the total funding. Likewise, China has only kicked in $1.2 million to the Syrian appeal, an amount that the U.N. registers as “0.0%” of the total funding pool. This actually marks an improvement over last year: Moscow contributed $2.5 million to the UNHCR in 2012, while Beijing provided only $474,000 to relief efforts.
It is also worth noting that Moscow remains the main arms supplier to the Assad government — including more than $1.5 billion in equipment that the Syrian government has started paying down — which have in turn been used to create the conditions where the refugee population has grown to its current heights.
When ThinkProgress asked about possible increases in funding to Syria’s refugees in light of today’s landmark figure, a representative from the Russian Embassy to the U.S. said, “We are definitely following the situation and the Syrian refugee situation, and we act according to the situation.” The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a similar request for comment.