The refugee crisis is destabilising nations

The greatest fear among all the countries involved, however, is about the kind of Syria that will finally emerge from the conflict.

The human cost of the increasingly savage civil war in Syria can be seen in the faces of its displaced children. Some outlined their deeply disturbing stories to me earlier this month at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where about 60 per cent of the current population of 180,000 is of school age. Boys and girls described experiences that hardened soldiers would find it difficult to cope with, all the while displaying physical and psychological wounds that in many cases will never heal.

That the youngest victims of Syria’s violence are among the best placed to tell us about its wider effects is beyond doubt, but there is a great deal more to be learned from the refugee communities growing on the country’s perimeter. Spend just a few days in camps such as Zaatari – which opened less than a year ago but is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan – and you soon begin to realise that these new settlements threaten to provoke an economic, social and security crisis that could have repercussions as grave as the fighting that created them.

The scale of the refugee problem was made clear by the United Nations recently when it called for a $5.2bn fund to help cope with the flight of men, women and children from Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny. This amounts to the largest appeal of its kind in history. Even that enormous figure might not be enough, as the UN estimates that the number of Syrian refugees across the region – now 1.6 million – could reach 3.5 million by 2014.

Aid workers I spoke to pointed to growing resentment among host populations. Despite the lavish wealth often displayed by Jordan’s monarchy, many of the 6.5 million people living in the country are relatively poor – yet their government is currently accommodating roughly half a million Syrian refugees. Up to 2,000 more arrive every day, putting an immense strain on resources.

While in Jordan, I often saw local people being turned away as they demanded a share of the aid being distributed by charity groups to Syrian newcomers. Water is becoming particularly scarce among Jordanians, who are unhappy about the 35 litres per person each day that the Syrians are using. This is six times more water than the average Jordanian gets through.

Water deliveries are few and far between in towns and villages where crowds took to the streets as recently as December to complain about the high cost of gas and electricity. As summer droughts begin and the lack of water drives up food prices, many believe it could be the catalyst for severe civil unrest.

“It is always economic shortages which trigger the street demonstrations,” said Hind, a teacher who lives close to Zaatari. “Jordan is considered one of the most secure countries in the region but, with more and more Syrians arriving every day, there will be a breaking point. It will be the same in other countries nearby.” Syrian rebels are openly using refugee camps for rest and recuperation. Zaatari is just five miles from the border and an obvious place for combatants to travel to. Armed groups can establish a firm and relatively safe base in a neighbouring country before heading back to the front line. This raises the prospect of conflict proliferating across the region.

Lebanon, which has experienced a 20 per cent increase in its population since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, is the home of Hezbollah militants who are fighting for and alongside President Assad’s troops. Turkey, which is pro-rebel, is sheltering more than 200,000 Syrians. Turkey, like all of Syria’s immediate neighbours, is becoming increasingly fearful of terrorist attacks directly linked to the civil war.

The greatest fear among all the countries involved, however, is about the kind of Syria that will finally emerge from the conflict. It was King Abdullah II of Jordan who, in April, presented President Barack Obama with a map of Jordan’s neighbour divided into rival fiefdoms and – most sinisterly of all – showing its surrounding deserts dotted with terrorist training camps.

The prospect of sectarian hatred and murderous extremism being formalised by new borders is terrifying, especially when one considers the role that ordinary Syrian people played at the start of the Arab spring in 2011. It is easy to forget that it was their street protests demanding change that grew into a nationwide movement – one that was crushed by Assad as he set about massacring his own people.

As many of the surviving protesters find themselves forced abroad, their problems not only remain unresolved but are being exported to countries that are increasingly unable to cope with them.

This is the latest of our weekly reports exploring aspects of the war in Syria

Syrian refugees at the Oncupinar refugee camp in Kilis near Syria border. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496