Syria’s ‘urban refugees’ struggle for survival

Sanj Srikanthan, International Rescue Committee UK’s Emergency Field Director, is involved in the IRC’s efforts to support Syrian refugees.

Story highlights

International media focuses on Syria's fighting, says Srikanthan

The International Rescue Committee cites role of rape in conflict

Syrian women told IRC they send their relatives contraceptives and medicine

The women fear their family will get raped and contract sexual diseases

The scale of the suffering caused by Syria’s civil war is staggering. The persecution, torture and killings of civilians during the Syria crisis rival that seen during the darkest years of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I equate the appalling destruction in cities such as Aleppo to the damage caused to Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince by the 2010 earthquake.

More: Complete coverage on the Syria refugee crisis

Sanj Srikanthan

However, while the international news agenda is dominated by stories about the fighting and conjecture on when President Bashar al-Assad will fall, what has often been overlooked is the condition of those Syrian civilians struggling to survive, and now, during this harsh winter, in even more desperate need of support.

Read more: U.N.’s Syria death toll jumps dramatically to 60,000-plus

The International Rescue Committee’s new report details the extent of the humanitarian crisis faced by Syrian refugees, especially those most vulnerable, such as women and children.

The report reveals the role rape has played in the conflict. The IRC has spoken with hundreds of refugees, many of whom say rape carried out by groups of armed men is pervasive across Syria.

Read more: Scavenging for food, Syrian children witness war

While the overall number of sexual attacks cannot yet be quantified, we cannot delay helping those who have been victimized. Syrian women have told my IRC colleagues that they are so fearful relatives in Syria will be attacked that they are sending home contraceptives and medicine to prevent sexual disease.

The extreme cold of this winter has taken a terrible toll on families. Even those with access to a heater rarely have enough fuel to keep warm. Not since the war in the former Yugoslavia have we seen this many people exposed to cold like this in a displacement crisis.

Read more: Uprooted by Syria’s war: ‘Is there a worse way to live than this?’

While refugees in camps may dominate the news, the majority of Syrian refugees actually live in cities, towns and villages. We call them urban refugees. They don’t live in the windblown camps you see on the evening news bulletins; they more often live packed into small flats without money to pay for rent, heat, food, medical care and the endless list of what any parent would deem essential.

Read more: Syrian refugees face brutal winter with inadequate shelter and food

These urban refugees are less visible, and as a result, it’s extremely easy for them not to be counted among those in most need.

Untold numbers of Syrian women have fled while their men remain behind to fight or protect their property, and now these women find themselves thrust into position of being the sole breadwinner for an extended family. Despite carrying the emotional scars of the trauma they’ve experienced, they show tremendous resilience in finding a way to support themselves and their families.

Read more: U.N. agencies: Stop the suffering in Syria

Inside Syria many have organized themselves into civil society groups, to try and retain some semblance of normalcy. Doctors and nurses who have fled bombed hospitals have set up temporary field hospitals and mobile clinics. Syrians know that being caught smuggling medical supplies is as damning as being caught smuggling weapons. I know of several medical staff who have disappeared, their tortured and scarred bodies returned to their families weeks after their arrest.

Read more: What’s next for Syria in 2013?

But there are also others doing everyday tasks in anything but everyday conditions. A group of civil engineers in Aleppo have organized themselves to keep the water, sanitation systems and power running for at least a few hours a day in the historic but now gutted city. Media reports say many residents have been killed by snipers while trying to collect garbage from the streets to prevent the spread of disease. It is these acts of heroism that underscore the need for support of Syrians intent on improving humanitarian conditions amid a civil war.

We are all in a position to do much more than we have. The humanitarian response is struggling with chronic underfunding.

Read more: Refugee figures fail to give true picture of Syria crisis

Donor countries must push for greater humanitarian access within Syria, as well as recognizing the capacity of Syrians to help themselves.

It is vital, too, that the international community acknowledges that the immense humanitarian need will continue long after the guns fall silent. The damage is too extensive and severe both to the Syrian people and Syria’s infrastructure.

Even if this conflict were to miraculously end in just months, without urgent funding we are likely to see millions facing the same horrific conditions well into next winter, and that is a frightening scenario that cannot be allowed to become reality.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sanj Srikanthan.