Russia needs to pull its weight in solving Syria's refugee crisis

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, has relied on support from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Story highlights

  • Russia has been extensively involved in the Syrian conflict, Bill Frelick says
  • Russia must use its resources to help people whose lives have been horribly disrupted

Bill Frelick is the refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)I started working to help refugees in 1975 after watching TV images of Vietnamese refugees hanging from the landing skids of helicopters that took off from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon.

As an American, I was acutely aware these refugees were fleeing an abusive conflict in which my country was heavily engaged.
    Over the years, I have called on various US administrations to assist refugees in all corners of the globe -- not just those displaced as a consequence of American actions, such as Iraqi and Afghan refugees, but Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and the lost boys of Sudan.
    With the UN Refugee and Migration Summit approaching Monday, I am once again engaged in pushing my government to make more robust commitments to global responsibility sharing for refugees.
    Now that advocacy extends to Russia.
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    Russia has had extensive involvement in the Syrian conflict in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and 11 million displaced, losing their homes and livelihoods.
    Together, Russian and Syrian government forces have, to put it mildly, put civilians at risk time and time again.
    Their joint military operation in Syria has attacked hospitals and schools, used internationally banned cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, and otherwise carried out indiscriminate attacks.
    Russia announced in late July that it and Syria would open three humanitarian corridors out of the northern city of Aleppo to allow civilians to flee the besieged area, but it has shown minimal commitment to assisting civilians once they have been displaced.
    Perhaps Russia is beginning to play a more responsible role in cooperating with others on a ceasefire as a first step to bringing this conflict to an end, but so far it has shown almost no inclination to contribute to UN aid efforts for Syrian refugees, even while countries around the world discuss the need for more "responsibility sharing" amid a global refugee crisis.
    According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Russia has contributed or pledged to contribute only $6.8 million to UN funding appeals for the Syria crisis this year -- which amounts to 0.1% of the total of contributions so far, and .09% of the total the United Nations requested for the year. And this low contribution is consistent with earlier years -- Russia's donations to UN Syria appeals since 2012 have averaged around 0.4% of the total received.
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    The charity Oxfam International has issued a "fair share analysis" for the last several years on Syria-related assistance. Its calculations, based on gross national income, among other factors, have assigned Russia approximately $717 million of the humanitarian funding burden. Oxfam calculated Russia's actual contributions to be 1% of its fair share.
    Since 2011, Russia has not extended any resettlement pledges for Syrian refugees, and Russian officials have claimed the question of receiving Syrian refugees in Russia is "irrelevant." Oxfam International has also calculated that a Russian fair share of resettlement based on the size of the country's economy would be 33,536 places by the end of 2016. Russia's only pledge to offer lawful residency for Syrians was a paltry commitment to provide university scholarships for 300 Syrian students.
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    Russian officials have rejected any responsibility to do more to help refugees, claiming that Russia is doing its part simply by "assisting the (Syrian) government in combating terrorist groups."
    I've heard that excuse before from my own country. It doesn't wash. Russia is certainly not alone in being directly or indirectly responsible for the displacement of Syrian refugees, but it cannot refuse to pull its weight and use its available resources to assist the people whose lives have been horribly disrupted by the conflict in which it is deeply involved.
    Monday would be an appropriate occasion for Russia to step up and make commitments to global responsibility sharing for refugees.