Meanwhile, in the Refugee Crisis

Whether or not the United States uses arms in Syria, it needs to use money and visas to relieve suffering

Gershom Gorenberg

My new piece is up at The American Prospect:

UNHCR map of Syrian refugees

Two million refugees from Syria. The figure was announced last week and easily missed amid headlines about the Tomahawks that would or would not be fired at targets dear to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Refugees are less dramatic than cruise missiles, less dramatic even than wrangling about a Security Council resolution on Syria’s poison-gas arsenal.

Yet the exodus from the civil war-torn country represents a humanitarian crisis no less stark, a moral demand no less pressing, than the use of chemical weapons. It is a crisis which has policy responses that do not involve bombs, that do not require a debate about America and Europe re-entering the Middle East’s wars. They do, however, demand spending money and a willingness to take in refugees on a new and much larger scale. In the end, these costs pale in comparison to the costs of war.

Two million refugees, in truth, is a careful understatement. It’s the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), or whom the UNHCR has counted as “awaiting registration.” The agency only uses the term refugee for people who left their country. It acknowledges its tally may be low. For instance, UNHCR lists 730,00 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The Lebanese government’s estimate is 1 million. And then, to the refugee figures, add 4.25 million Syrians described by the United Nations as “displaced”—people who have fled their homes but are still inside Syria. Let’s make this simpler: Think of a country, your own country perhaps, and then think about more than a quarter of its people uprooted by civil war to another town or another country.

Uprooted, or expelled? News reports from Syria regularly refer to sectarian cleansing: the regime forcing Sunnis from the land that it still holds or rebels expelling Alawites and Christians from territory they have taken. Those reports need to be read with care. “Most of the fighting is sectarian,” says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. But if rebels control a neighborhood and the regime “bombs the hell out of it, and a lot of [people] leave,” that’s an attempt to crush the rebellion, not necessarily deliberate ethnic cleansing. The same is true when rebels conquer Alawite enclaves in majority-Sunni areas: The goal is military, the effect may be flight. The large picture, in Salem’s evaluation, is that “neither the rebels nor the regime” is trying to create ethnically pure areas.”

Read the rest here.