The United Nations has classed the Syrian refugee crisis as the worst since the Rwandan genocide ten years ago. They have compared it to the aftermath of the war and sectarian violence in Iraq and the conflicts that came out of the breakup of Yugoslavia.
There are now over 2.3 million registered Syrian refugees outside the country, with just over half of them children. Most are in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Iraq or Lebanon but 6,000 have reached Bulgaria. In September Sweden became the first country to offer Syrian refugees permanent residence.
Whilst 16 other European countries have joined Sweden and pledged to allow Syrians to seek refuge within their borders, Britain has recently declared they will not be following suit. Their decision goes against a United Nations appeal which urged western countries to take in up to 30,000 Syrians by the end of 2014.
As an alternative, the British government has offered millions in aid to the surrounding countries. A government spokesperson told MEMO:
"The UK has no plans to resettle or provide temporary protection to Syrians. Instead, we are giving as much help as possible to people in the region. We are one of the highest international donors to the Syrian relief effort – the £500m pledged so far is more than any other EU member state."
Conditions for refugees in the surrounding countries have long been appalling. Al Zaatari refugee camp in the north of Jordan is now the fourth largest city in the country. Lebanon is currently home to nearly 1 million Syrian refugees, who aren't allowed to work. There are no sanctioned refugee camps as Lebanon has chosen not to create any.
In Iraq refugees do have a legal right to work, though some struggle getting residency permits and decent paid jobs. Turkey only admits a limited number of Syrians; many of those that do get to the other side live on one meal a day and many have no washing facilities or toilets. Some live in container camps, some in parks and others in shanty towns.
Meanwhile, refugees in Egypt escaping the rise in anti-Syria sentiment – that has seen verbal and physical assaults, arrests, detentions and deportation by the security forces – are making perilous six-day journeys across the Mediterranean to Europe at over $3,000 a head, squashed into a tiny fishing boat. In 2013 over 9,000 Syrians arrived in Italy this way.
Though the British government's humanitarian aid will be much welcomed by these countries in terms of the food, medical care and relief items it will provide, human rights groups have said that simply providing aid is not enough to combat the scale of the problem. Pressure needs to be relieved from the neighbouring countries, who are clearly struggling to cope with and support the influx of refugees.
According to Maurice Wren, chief executive of the Refugee Council, "The scale of the tragedy unfolding in Syria is unprecedented and is sending huge shockwaves across the region. The UK Government and wider European Union must help ease the strain on neighbouring countries and share responsibility for protecting the most vulnerable people fleeing the conflict. The consequences of inaction are unimaginable."
In a statement this week, even UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage shocked his own party when he disagreed with the government's decision to simply provide aid and has called on Britain to admit Syrian refugees into Britain. Though he opposes migrants from Romania and Bulgaria gaining unrestricted access to the UK, he has stressed that there is a difference between refugees and economic migrants.
Farage told the BBC: "I think refugees are a very different thing to economic migration and I think that this country should honour the spirit of the 1951 declaration on refugee status that was agreed… I think, actually, there is a responsibility on all of us in the free West to try and help some of those people in Syria fleeing literally in fear of their lives."
Labour have said between 400 and 500 refugees should be given a home in Britain including females at high risk, torture victims and Syrians with family connections in Britain. This would be the very least Britain could do for an escalating crisis which has claimed thousands upon thousands of lives.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.