-By Selin Thomas
For more than two years, the Syrian conflict has been intensely growing in historic scale and scope, with the United Nations estimating more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced. In the last two weeks, the U.N. Security Council has been urged to act on humanitarian aid to Syria because the only achievement to come out of peace talks has been a cease fire in Homs, leaving many aid workers still risking their lives daily. Today, more than two million have fled the country, an estimated 4.25 million have been displaced within the country.
Neighboring Iraq holds 197,000 refugees just inside its border, while Lebanon has 790,000, Turkey has 504,000, and Jordan has 543,000. Many of these displaced refugees live in wretchedly dirty, inhumane, unhealthy conditions where rotting garbage and raw sewage breed disease, infection and death. Today, the New York Times Magazine published a fascinating story about the “perfect refugee camp,” set up a mere hop, skip and jump from the Syrian border in Kilis, Turkey. The Turkish government has played a vital role in aiding displaced Syrians fleeing civil war, and has been operating 22 camps for three years in provinces along the 500-mile-long border, serving 210,000 refugees. Even if for power-hungry political reasons, Turkey is taking a measure of control over the situation by assuming all financial and administrative responsibility of the camps rather than depending on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some of these camps offer better standards of shelter than others, the article details, and there are projected to be 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey by years end.
So, what does this mean for public health? Worldwide, refugee camps are at their highest since the Rwandan genocide. There are hundreds of camps in dozens of countries, and the NGO network that services them is large and complex. In some, the conditions are primitive, and aid agencies struggle to provide basic services. Others operate like ad hoc cities but without the advantage of a government. To avoid chaos, the NGOs have formed a committee to coordinate services, which is then broken down into subcommittees. This system can be highly cyclical and bureaucratic, and has failed nearly as often as it has “succeeded.”
In the Turkish system, however, government ministries appoint staff members who report to appointed administrators who report to regional governors. With this model, Turkey has cut down on some of the major hazards associated with refugee camps: theft, sexual assault, diverted supplies, infection. The model is expensive though and can breed resentment as countries spend money on non-citizens. Additionally, comfortable existence within camps can make it difficult to find solutions to eventually closing them down.
Let’s say, though, that we dispose of the political implications of all of this (a far cry from reality, to be sure) and merely examine the institutional progress of something as primitive as a refugee camp and what that means to millions of people. Turkey has implemented an effective, humane and responsible means of sheltering hundreds of thousands of people in close proximity, who are fleeing the destruction of their own country in order to survive. These camps save countless lives from preventable illness or death and, as war seems to be a characteristic of humanity, will continue to do so as countries continue to fight each other or themselves risking millions of innocent lives.
One of the most interesting parts of the article was the author’s examination of the short-term and long-term effects of this “perfect” refugee camp. There are countless social, political, economic and health implications to both the wretched conditions and not so wretched conditions of these camps. With a broad breadth of knowledge on camps around the world, McClelland paints a picture for the reader of the shifting dynamics at play in such a complex circumstance, and does so with admirable accessibility.
The piece is more than a study of one refugee camp, or several. It is a study of human nature in crisis, and a revealing one at that. Not enough people stay up to date with the extenuating effects of a war; much of what we read and see in the news has to do with bombs going off, death tolls, and government negotiations – all critical news. It is rare, however, to come across a piece that reminds a reader of the millions of people who are being effected by such a cataclysmic historical event every single day in no particularly dramatic way. The piece is one of human interest within the news, and reveals a profundity unfound on the battlefield or in the midst of a revolution. The article will change your mind about the seemingly endless hostilities occurring in most of the world because it focuses on the much more significant humanity of those hostilities: the relationships between peoples, the dualities of citizenship, the dedication of aid workers and organizations. The administrator of one of the Turkish camps says it best: “We just put ourselves in the Syrians’ shoes. We need Internet. We need barbershops. We need workshops. We need art. What we need as Turks, we give them.” He shrugged as though this were totally obvious. “We’re humans.”