About 13.6 million Syrians and Iraqis have been displaced by war, violence, and persecution. Nearly four million of those have escaped to neighboring countries. Two million have left their homes in the last two months alone, many fleeing from ISIS. Humanitarian aid is not keeping pace with the escalating crisis.

With winter on the horizon, these refugees will face another challenge to survive: the cold. Temperatures can drop close to zero degrees Fahrenheit. Many left their homes in the heat of summer and took nothing with them. Some are living in tents, which provide little protection from the cold. Last winter, 11 children froze to death in Syria. The same or worse could happen this year, according to Amin Awad, head of the UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa bureau.

This year, the UNHCR has to cut aid due to funding shortfalls. It’s expected to reach only 620,000 people in Syria and 240,000 in Iraq this winter.

Neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have taken on huge numbers of refugees, but their resources are stretched thin. Lebanon’s one million refugees now make up over a quarter of its population. Countries are now turning refugees away despite the international law requirements to allow refugees to cross borders.

Those outside the Middle East, in contrast, have taken in less than 50,000 refugees. Only 166 are were resettled in the United States as of September. This represents a massive failure in sharing the responsibility of hosting Syria’s refugees and sends the wrong signal to the entire region.

The UNHCR estimates it needs another $58.5 million in donations to prepare 990,000 people for winter. This aid will meet direct and dire needs: blankets, warm clothes, and kerosene. In the meantime the U.N. is prioritizing more vulnerable people at higher altitudes. The front-line states—Lebanon in particular—are also in desperate need of more assistance to address many of the challenges, including an overstrained infrastructure, they are navigating due to the huge number of refugees that have sought safe haven there.

The United States needs to step up its efforts to protect Syrian and Iraqi refugees. While it is a leading provider of aid, more is needed. The U.S. should champion the importance of providing access to protection at borders, and lead a more robust international resettlement initiative.

The United States and the international community should not leave these refugees out in the cold. As Human Rights First’s report shows, it’s in the moral and strategic interest of the U.S. government to lead an international effort to alleviate refugees’ suffering and help stabilize overburdened neighboring countries. What’s needed is political will.


Published on November 19, 2014


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