GENEVA — As the United States and its allies struggled for a
course of action to punish the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the United
Nations said the number of civilians who had fled to neighboring countries had
surpassed two million — a new milestone in what it called “the great tragedy of
this century, a disgraceful humanitarian calamity.”
Fear of Western airstrikes in the past week was a factor in an exodus that
continued to gather momentum, inflicting acute social strain and political
tension on receiving countries, António Guterres, the United Nations high
commissioner for refugees, said in an interview in Geneva on Monday.
It took two years of conflict in Syria for the refugee figure to reach one
million, but only six more months to reach two million, Mr. Guterres noted. In
addition, at least 4.5 million people have been driven from their homes inside
Syria by the destruction and violence, meaning that close to one-third of the
country’s population has been displaced by the civil war, and about half the
population has needed humanitarian aid, Mr. Guterres said, putting Syria’s
crisis at a level unseen in recent decades.
About 40,000 Syrians fled to Iraq in the last two weeks of August, and 13,000
arrived in Lebanon in the past week. Over all, close to 5,000 Syrians are
leaving every day.
“It clearly demonstrates that we are witnessing a conflict in constant
escalation,” Mr. Guterres said. “We have to be prepared for things to get much
worse before, eventually, they start to get better.”
By the end of August, Lebanon had more than 716,000 Syrians who were registered
as refugees with the United Nations and many more who were unregistered, he
said, meaning that perhaps one of every four people in the country is a Syrian.
About 515,000 Syrians were on the United Nations register in Jordan, 460,000 in
Turkey, 168,000 in Iraq and 110,000 in Egypt, with many more likely to be
“These countries need massive support from the international community to be
able to cope with the challenge,” Mr. Guterres said, emphasizing the acute
strain the refugee influx has placed on their economies and social resources.
“If that support does not materialize, the risks of instability in the Middle
East will dramatically increase.”
Ministers of the four most affected countries will meet in Geneva on Wednesday
to work out a common approach on the assistance they need, which will be laid
out to donor countries meeting in Geneva at the end of the month.
The international response so far has fallen far short of what is needed, Mr.
Guterres warned. Turkey has received financial assistance equivalent to less
than 10 percent of what it has spent to support the refugees, he said. Financial
backing for Jordan and Lebanon was “totally inadequate,” he added.
The United Nations refugee agency says it has received $548 million, or less
than half the $1.1 billion it had sought, to pay for relief for Syrian refugees
in 2013. Most came from traditional Western donors, led by the United States,
which contributed $228 million, or 40 percent of what the agency has received.
European countries, Japan, Canada and Australia have together accounted for
about 33 percent. Kuwait has contributed $112 million, or about 20 percent.
By contrast, Russia, the Syrian government’s main ally, has given $10 million.
China, which has helped Russia block any authorization of military action
against Syria in the United Nations Security Council, has given $1 million.
The scale of need created by the Syrian crisis outstrips any humanitarian relief
budget, Mr. Guterres said. “This requires a mobilization of more
development-related forms of assistance,” he said, or Syria’s crisis could drain
the resources for humanitarian disasters in other parts of the world.
Because the devastation is so far-reaching, he said, it defies “a humanitarian
“The solution will have to be political,” Mr. Guterres said. “If no political
solution is found, this will assume really catastrophic proportions.”