In all the frantic debate swirling around the current refugee crisis, we’ve lost track of how the horrors actually began--and how the crisis might be greatly alleviated.
It’s a tale of the world’s insanity, in two tragic acts.
First, came the slew of incredibly destructive political and military interventions of America—and some of its allies--in the Greater Middle East over the past few decades.
Other actors were also responsible, but the result was an eruption of violence and chaos, the unleashing of bloody tribal and sectarian strife throughout the region, infecting much of Africa as well.
It was as if a bunch of wealthy crazed arsonists decided to set a continent-sized forest ablaze. They’ve succeeded.
Fleeing those conflagrations, millions gathered their families and ran for their lives, seeking refuge in safer parts of their own countries—as in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan--or in neighboring states, like Jordan and Lebanon and Turkey and Pakistan.
We’re told that the great majority would like to remain in their regions, hoping to return home when conditions permit. Encouraging them to remain, hundreds of NGO’s and several agencies of the United Nations, established to cope with just such emergencies.
The UN organizations lead in providing the basics —food, shelter, health care, schools—for refugees settled in sprawling camps, of, more often, in the surrounding communities where they’ve sought sanctuary.
If you want to be totally cynical about it, view those UN agencies as maintaining a vast network of dams protecting the wealthy nations of the globe from the massive human inundation that would hit their shores if the refugees ever decided to flee their own regions.
In a rational world, the affluent states would cheer on the UN agencies and NGO’s, provide them with whatever funding they needed. After all, we’re talking about relatively paltry sums compared to the enormous amounts the wealthy of this planet spend on other more important matters—like weapons and war.
But our’s is not a rational world.
Which brings us to the second act of the tragedy.
At the very moment of greatest need, the waters rising higher than ever before, the U.N. agencies are being gutted, forced to lay off personnel, slash and cut fundamental programs, turn away millions of refugees who had been receiving vital aid; the heads of respected UN agencies literally begging the world for funds to carry on their crippled programs.
So the dikes are collapsing, as the world had been warned for years they would. Understanding that they can no longer count on even temporary sanctuary in their own regions, hundreds of thousands of refugees are flooding towards Europe, advising and guiding one another through the new social media, and thus magnifying the surge.
The major source of refugees currently is Syria.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees appealed this year for $1.342 billion dollars to deal with Syrian refugees registered with them—now more than 4 million.
Yet, despite all the talk, the shocking pictures and lofty statements, the UNHCR is still short $795 million dollars, 59% of its goal. “We are financially broke,” says High Commissoner António Guterres. “The damage being done by those cuts will be impossible to reverse. We know that we are not doing enough, we are failing the basic needs of people”
Another crippled UN agency is UNICEF, whose emphasis is on children. A spokesperson, Juliette Tourma, told me the organization is currently short $492 million to fund its programs for refugees inside Syria and around the region.
One of UNICEF’s key aims is to provide education for refugee children up to 15 years of age, but because of the massive budgetary shortfalls they’ve had to make enormous cuts. “There is a huge funding gap,” Tourma says. “We can’t build new schools. Train new teachers. Which means 50% of the children under fifteen can’t go to school.”
The World Food Program also confronts a massive deficit, according to their spokesperson Abeer Etefa. “The problem is it’s always been a hand-to-mouth operation. There’s no fixed annual budgets. No guaranteed money that planners can count on. In December last year, we actually had to suspend our operations. We ran completely out of money. We’ve had to totally cut aid to one third of the people we were assisting—760,000 were removed from the roles.
“Just in the past couple of months we’ve had to cut the value of the food vouchers we give people by 50%. It’s down now to $15.50 per month per person. That’s 50 cents per person per day!”
“So what do they do?” says Etefa, “They eat less, and cheaper food so that their children can eat more. The pull their children out of school to put them in the labor market, high-risk employment for low wages. They have less to spend on health and education and rent. Many are being evicted from their houses, forced to live in shacks or in the fields.”
“Some refugees living outside Syria, have decided to risk their lives and go back. Others tell us—‘listen if we cant feed our families or send our kids to school, if we’ve got no future in Syria and none here—then we will try to get to Europe, no matter what the risk.”
One Syrian refugee, Fatmeh, said of her two children in Lebanon: “When we can’t afford both medicine and food, I tie scarves around my boys’ bellies at night so they don’t wake up crying from stomach aches because they are hungry.”
There is also the very real fear that embittered refugees will decide to join the ranks of ISIS.
Another sign of the insanity of the whole situation is that the amount that the countries of Europe are going to have to spend to integrate the new refugees into their new homelands is enormous compared to what it costs the UN to maintain them in their own regions.
Germany, for instance is going to be spending 6 billion Euros to deal with 800,000 new refugees. That’s more than four times greater than the $1.3 billion that the UNHCR needs to fund its program for 4 million Syrian refugees in and around Syria.
Germany, by the way, has given the UNHCR a total of $11 million so far this year.
The U.S. is by far the most the largest backer of the UNHCR, giving $113 million so far this year.. Very generous compared to most of the rest of the world. Yet trifling compared to the vast amounts Americacontinues to lavish on waging war in the Middle East.
Take, for instance, the $492 million that UNICEF desperately needs. Sound like a lot? In fact, the U.S. has thrown even more--$500 million—into a different kind of educational program—to train “moderate” soldiers to combat ISIS in Syria
The U.S. effort has been a colossal failure, producing some 60 soldiers, at a cost of $2.7 million dollars per man. Within a few days of their being deployed to Syria, almost all those “moderate” recruits had been killed or captured by more radical Syrian forces.
Meanwhile the World Health Organization is frantically trying to raise $50 million to fund health care in Iraq. So far, they’ve only been able to find $5.1 million.
Said Dr. Michelle Gayer of WHO, “it breaks your heart when you end services for 3 million people. There will be no access for trauma like shrapnel wounds, no access for children’s health or reproductive health. There will be no surveillance of things like cholera. A generation of children will be unvaccinated.”
$50 million to solve that problem? That’s what the U.S. spends every five days in the on-going, so far futile, air-war it’s waging against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
But what about the fabulously wealthy states of the Gulf? It’s well known that their doors are closed to desperate fellow Arabs from places like Syria and Iraq. But what kind of financial support are they offering to the U.N. agencies concerned?
As a donor, Kuwait is something of an exception. It has given $101 million to the UNHCR this year. On the other hand, the Kuwaitis have also funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to some of the most extreme fighting groups in Syria, to the point that furious U.S. officials went public last year in an attempt to oblige them to turn off the spigot.
And just .2% of Kuwait’s vast sovereign wealth fund of almost $600 billion, would cover the entire UNHCR budget for the year.
Still, to its modest credit, Kuwait’s backing for the UNHCR’s Syrian relief program is greater than all the other Gulf states combined.
Start with the Saudis. With the support of the U.S. The Saudis have launched a devastating bombing campaign against Yemen, the poorest country in the region. The Saudis have also spent enormous sums arming radical Islamic fighters in Syria, financing schools across the Muslim world that preach the radical Wahabi faith preaching hatred of Shiites, very much akin to the views of ISIS.
This year the Saudis, who also spent $80 billion dollars on weaponry last year, have given $2.7 million to the UNHCR. Nothing so far to UNICEF.
The UAE, whose sovereign wealth fund is $773 billion, have given $2,247 million to the UNHCR.
Qatar, which has also been a major backer of radical Islamic fighters in Syria, which has by far the highest per capita income in the world ($143,000) Qatar this year has given the UNHCR $300,000.—a little more than the combined per capita income of two of its citizens.
But where, in all the raging debates about how to handle the refugee catastrophe, is there any mention at such absurdities---and of the perilous—we could say terrifying—predicament of the UN Agencies.
If the world came to its senses, the situation could be vastly improved. ISIS may not be destroyed, but the UN Agencies could be set back on their feet.
That in itself would be a huge victory.