Washington D.C., Nov 2, 2012 / 01:30 pm (CNA).- A delegation from the U.S. bishops’ conference that recently visited the Middle East believes that the Syrian refugee crisis is getting worse and that without increased aid to surrounding countries it could become a disaster.
“It was clear to all of us on the delegation that the Syrian refugee crisis is worsening and that more international support will be needed if the conflict in Syria continues,” said Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock.
He noted that this is the second major refugee crisis in area in the past 10 years, following the Iraqi refugee crisis, so “the resources of neighboring countries are already stretched.”
“Without more support, neighboring countries may be unable to support and protect the refugees going forward, leaving the most vulnerable at high risk,” he said.
At a Nov. 1 press conference call, members of a delegation from the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services warned that the Syrian refugee crisis is growing worse and could become a major humanitarian crisis if it’s not quickly addressed.
Bishop Taylor, a member of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, headed the delegation, which visited Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Egypt from October 7-20 to observe the situation of refugees in those countries.
The bishop explained that as many as 700,000 refugees are predicted to leave Syria by the end of the year, driven by escalating violence in the nation, and that number will likely increase drastically over the next year.
As the number of refugees grows, the most vulnerable are at risk and unable to get protection, he said.
Iraqis who fled the war in Iraq and are now residing in Syria are in a particularly precarious situation, Bishop Taylor reported. They are being denied entry into neighboring countries as they seek to flee again Syria and are told that they must return to Iraq before they can enter Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey.
The bishop also said that Syrian Christians, both those who are fleeing and those remaining in Syria, are at great risk. Christian communities are already subject to threats, and they could face “targeted and sustained persecution” if the conflict dissolves into an ethnic and sectarian war, he warned.
Bishop Taylor also revealed that the delegation discovered “refugees from Eritrea and other African countries are being trafficked” by tribes in the Sinai desert, where they are tortured, held for ransom and sometimes killed.
Despite the grave situation in the Middle East, Bishop Taylor said that he was “heartened by and proud of the work that Church agencies are performing to help those in need” in the region.
These groups need more aid to continue their valuable and life-saving work, he emphasized.
Anastasia Brown, director of resettlement services for the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, also spoke on the conference call. She stressed the high number of vulnerable women and children and the severe medical needs of many of the refugees.
“In many instances, people we saw had been shot coming across the borders,” she said.
Efforts to offer support must focus not only on refugees in camps, but also on those in urban areas and the surrounding rural areas, she explained, and those giving aid must realize that “this is not a short term situation.”
Kevin Appleby, director of the bishops’ office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, outlined policy recommendations to respond to the refugee crisis.
More international support for refugees will be needed as the conflict in Syria continues and intensifies, he said, citing local concerns that the conflict could be long-lasting.
The United States needs to “show leadership” in offering aid and also “encourage our allies to provide support,” he added.
Appleby recommended that the U.S. urge nearby countries to protect religious minorities and Iraqi refugees fleeing Syria, aware of the special concerns that these groups have.
“Vulnerable African refugees in Cairo who are unable to integrate and remain at risk of harassment and attack should be considered for resettlement,” he stated. The U.S. government, Appleby advised, should also work with the Egyptian government to stop the kidnapping and trafficking of Eritrean refugees in the Sinai peninsula.
“As a proclaimed leader in anti-trafficking efforts around the world, the U.S. needs to step up to the plate and halt this horrific practice,” he said.