The Syrian conflict is three years old, and things are bleak


I’ve arrived in Lebanon for my first ever visit to the country. My immediate impressions are that it’s wet, warm and thunderous. I’ve spent the day in the Bekaa Valley meeting Syrian refugees desperate to go back home. The families I was introduced to by my hosts from World Vision are dignified and determined. They might be living in tents surrounded by the mud from last night’s storm but they are safe at least.

This Saturday will mark the beginning of the fourth year of the Syrian conflict. On March 15th 2011, 3 months after the start of the Arab Spring, Syria was plunged into civil war. Today the region shows no signs of emerging from that crisis. The truth is things are bleak.

Ten million Syrians have been affected by this terrible war, more than 130,000 lie dead – including 10,000 children – and quarter of a million now live under siege (many of you will have seen this heartbreaking picture from Yarmouk). Not just a humanitarian crisis but a crisis for humanity.

The crisis within Syria has forced a refugee crisis beyond her borders. As Syria falls apart her neighbours are picking up the pieces. Jordan, Iraq and Turkey have all seen hundreds of thousands of Syrians seek refuge as they flee death and destruction at home, but it’s tiny Lebanon that has perhaps borne the heaviest load.

civil war in Syria under President Assad

I’m writing from Beirut, a city with an undoubtedly troubled recent past – so much so that in my youth its very name became a byword for chaos. The tentative renaissance of a few years ago has been dashed and today the city reels from a recent car bombing atrocity so appalling – it was outside an orphanage – that even the terrorists who perpetrated the crime felt the need to apologise.

Such is Lebanon’s relationship with Syria that an unstable Syria means an unstable Lebanon, but today the country is on the edge. And a big part of the reason for that is the sheer number of refugees the small state has taken in.

One is three people in Lebanon today is a refugee. An incredible statistic – not just a number but a tremendous strain on the country’s public services. The Lebanese have been incredibly generous in their support to their Syrian neighbours. Rather than housing those who crossed the border in camps, the Lebanese have taken refugees into their own communities, sometimes into their own homes.

Writing in the Telegraph at the start of this year, the Lebanese President was clear – and worth quoting extensively:

“Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the region, yet it has shouldered the biggest burden of the humanitarian crisis caused by the bloodiest uprising of the so-called Arab Spring.

“Until now Lebanon has adopted a policy of never closing its borders to Syrian families seeking refuge. But as the uprising enters its fourth year, Lebanon can no longer cope on its own.

“Lebanon cannot take any more displaced people. The huge influx of refugees is threatening the country’s economic and social stability, placing huge strains on an already overloaded health system. According to the World Bank overcrowding and lack of water and sanitation systems is bringing risks of epidemics of waterborne diseases, measles and tuberculosis.

“The impact of the Syrian conflict is challenging an already delicate inter-communal balance in Lebanon, with overcrowding, saturation of basic services and competition for jobs increasing social tensions.

“Thousands more young unskilled Lebanese are expected to become unemployed, doubling the jobless rate to over 20 per cent while by the end of this year another 170,000 Lebanese will be pushed into poverty, adding to the one million already below the poverty line.”

These are the words of the desperate leader of a desperate country.

These are desperate times for the region. The British people have been tremendously generous; the DEC appeal has now raised over £25million, and I am glad the UK has given £600 million in public money to the UN ‘s relief effort. And what’s more it was the right thing to do for this government to bow to pressure from the Labour Party and others to take in a small number of Syrian refugees our selves.

The UK does not look the other way when a people are in crisis, but there is much more to do. Three years on, this crisis shows no sign of coming to an end. We must not allow that longevity to dull our senses. The Syrian people need of our support.

Jim Murphy is the Shadow International Development Secretary

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