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Senate committee, witnesses; US should provide more aid to refugees

Humanitarian group leaders (right) Dr. Michel Gabaudan of Refugees International, Nancy Lindborg of United States Institute of Peace, and David Milliband of the International Rescue Commitee describe their experience working with refugees from the Middle East over the last few weeks. (Sara Shouhayib/MEDILL NSJI)

Humanitarian group leaders (right) Dr. Michel Gabaudan of Refugees International, Nancy Lindborg of United States Institute of Peace, and David Milliband of the International Rescue Commitee describe their experience working with refugees from the Middle East over the last few weeks. (Sara Shouhayib/MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – The United States should increase humanitarian aid to people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas of the Middle East and share more responsibility with Europe in admitting refugees, senators and witnesses said at a Foreign Relations hearing Tuesday.

The committee focused on a humanitarian crisis that many are calling, “the worst since WWII.” The emphasis was on Syria and more broadly on how to help refugees return to their battered lands when the fighting ends.

Testifying before the Senate committee, International Rescue CommitteePresident David Milligan said people are fleeing Syria because of barrel bombings attributed to the Assad regime as well as threats from the terrorist group, ISIS.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said he feared circumstances on the ground inSyria are “getting worse, not better. We’re doing nothing to stop the barrel bombing, including that of chlorine gas.”

Witness Nancy Lindborg, the president of the United States Institute of Peace,who has done extensive work in Iraq, said the focus should be on giving refugees a chance to return home. Education, employment and trauma counseling could help refugees rebuild their society, Lindborg said.

“Even if Europe and the U.S. take the most generous amount of refugees possible that will only scratch the surface,” she said. The average displacement for a refugee inside a strife-torn country is 17 years, Lindborg said.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, nearly 4 million Syrians have fled the country and 7.6 have been displaced since the conflict began five years ago.

Secretary of State John Kerry announced earlier this month that the Obama Administration would increase the acceptance of refugees to 100,000 by 2017. But that number could change with mounting pressure from the international community as European nations admit more people. The current annual cap of refugee admittance in the U.S. is at 70,000.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said that it all comes down to politics.

“I think the breakthrough honestly has to be Obama and Putin sitting down and reaching an agreement on this,” he said. “I think not any other intervention is going to be effective on this in the long run. We need a political resolution on this.”

Alar Olljum, visiting Fellow in the center for U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution, also favors a political solution.

Humanitarian assistance, Olljum said, is only a temporary solution. “The only permanent solution is to have a political settlement to the conflict in that country.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn, said refugees are just like everyone else.

“The images of thousands of men women and children fleeing for safety should challenge every moral fiber within,” he said. “[They] want only to be able to raise their families in dignity and cherish the same values and things that we all care about, and yet we watch them on television in these desperate circumstances.”


Conflict drives the emergence of disease in refugee camps

DFID Burma (Courtesy of the UK Department for International Development)

DFID Burma (Courtesy of the UK Department for International Development)

WASHINGTON – Conflict and poverty are key factors in the emergence of disease worldwide according to Dr. Peter Hotez, who is President Barack Obama’s appointed science envoy focused on global health and vaccine development.

Hotez is one of four presidentially appointed scientists tasked with taking on a major scientific challenge on behalf of the United States.

“The forces of poverty and conflict are driving the emergence of disease,” said Hotez in a recent interview. He is finishing a book on the topic and has focused much of his work on the issue in his role as dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College in Houston and as the President of the Sabine Vaccine Institute in Washington.

He looks back and various instances of pandemics and disease outbreaks and points to either poverty or conflict – or often both – as the root cause for the impact on human life.

“One of the reasons Ebola came out of West Africa…was that those countries had emerged out of 10 years of devastating conflict with a complete breakdown in public health infrastructure, human migrations, deforestation,” said Hotez. All those forces combine to create the perfect storm that allowed Ebola to flourish. This is not new. This has been a recurring theme that we have seen since the 1970s.”

He believes the next Ebola will be the diseases coming out of areas occupied by ISIS. The Middle East and North Africa will be the next big wave of catastrophic epidemics “and it would be nice if we could be proactive about it for once,” said Hotez.

He went on to describe that there is a critical failure in the pathway toward vaccine development. The institutions that are responsible for strategic preparations are lacking the ability to make products. For instance, the Ebola vaccine was sitting with completed science for more than 10 years but with no manufacturer until it was too late said Hotez.

“That really was a terrible failure.”

Though the community still has a long, said Hotez, they are now working with the Saudis and the Malaysians to build vaccine infrastructure through public-private partnerships.

The refugee camps for those fleeing ISIS have become a hot bed of Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease that causes scarring skin ulcers and can be fatal, said Hotez. The disease is transmitted through a bite from a sand fly and with the hastily set up refugee camps, piles of trash have made a home for the insects.

“There has been an explosion in cases coming out of the conflict zones,” he said.

The WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office, based out of Cairo, is responsible for surveillance in the camps receiving refugees from the ISIS areas. The problem is they only get a glimpse of what is spilling out of the conflict zones and coming across the borders, said Hotez.

There have been more than 100,000 new cases of Leishmaniasis in the last 18 months and the locals call it “lepo evil,” said Hotez.

He said that the major driving force in disease is human behavior.

“Everyone is focusing on climate change right now but I think it’s actually social forces that are far more important,” said Hotez.

Is Syria beyond the point of no return?

WASHINGTON – Nearly four million Syrians have weathered the storms of political instability and violence by fleeing their country and pleading for sanctuary and official recognition as refugees in neighboring states – and far beyond.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is responsible for leading and coordinating international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. It “for the end of violence, for accountability, [an] end to impunity. Because failing this, those responsible for human rights violations and crimes are emboldened,” said Karen AbuZayd, former United Nations Under Secretary-General and UN commissioner of the Inquiry on Syria.

“The war will go on leaving more destruction. It will destroy lives, destroy society, destroy institutions including education, and it will destroy culture and heritage in its wake,” Abuzayd said in a Middle East Policy Council panel on April 21, 2015.

As the civil conflict treads into its fifth year, half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced, according to data compiled by the United Nations. In addition to those who have fled the country, more than 220,000 civilians have been killed, 6.5 million are internally displaced and more than 12.2 million civilians in the Syrian Arab Republic are in need of humanitarian assistance. Syria is in a state of crisis, and it is spreading throughout the region.

Twenty-five percent of Lebanon’s total population is Syrian refugees. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has only accepted 143 Syrian refugees, according to a May 2015 UNHCR report. Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are sheltering millions of refugees. Turkey alone is harboring 1.7 million refugees.

The UNHCR has so far submitted 12,140 Syrian refugees to the U.S. for resettlement consideration as of May 2015. After resettling only 105 refugees in 2014, the United States has accepted 651 refugees as of April 2015, according to a State Department refugee admissions report.

State Department officials released a statement that the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, “violently suppressed expressions of popular dissent” and his sustained reign only incited extremism and instability, according to a State Department September 2014 press release. Ever since he assumed office in July 2000, his country entered the Syrian Civil War and he has been accused of crimes against humanity by the United Nations.

The United Nations has identified and is investigating the Assad government for violations of human rights under international law. The UNHCR has submitted numerous reports that multiple agents have explicitly targeted civilians – including the Assad regime, terrorist groups, anti-government armed groups and extremists. Since last year, Syria has been criticized for silencing journalists and activists, and committing other violations of international law.

Since Syria first established relations with the United States in 1944, the relationship has been precarious at best. Syria has been identified as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1979 because of its support for various terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.

In order to counter that kind of activity, the Obama administration has slapped economic sanctions against Syria, and taken steps to eliminate its chemical weapons stockpile.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the international community established a legal framework to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons, which were used by the Assad regime to attack Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013.

The unrest from the Syrian uprising, in early 2011, spawned a full-fledged civil war, which increasing armed conflict between the Assad government and insurgents trying to displace it. According to the latest U.N. report, those fighting Assad now include proliferating terrorist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS, which have gained traction through tactics such as public executions, torture, disappearances and mutilation.

The infighting between so many groups that are unfriendly to the United States, including terrorist groups and the Assad regime, have made it more complicated for Washington to intervene. But some Syria watchers say any kind of intervention is better than the current U.S. position, which is to mostly watch from the sidelines.

“We need to plant the American flag among other flags around the world and say this issue is important, and we need to mobilize all of these resources and move on it now,” said Denis Sullivan, director of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies. “That means dealing with a bizarre cast of characters,” he said, including the EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He urged global leaders to come to the table for diplomatic negotiations.

However, the United States has not furthered negotiations or drawn up a comprehensive legal framework to persevere in addressing the Syrian crisis, albeit providing $2.9 billion in monetary assistance as of September 2014.

“It’s the political overlay- it’s the political solution- it’s the parties who have a political interest in the region who are the ones who in the end come together to affect some sort of result,” said Ford Fraker, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council, in a Q & A session at the panel.

The lack of U.S. progress toward pursuing a functional political solution in Syria is due to other issues on the White House’s agenda, principally the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, Fraker said. He said that the Iran nuclear talks have “prevented any useful dialogue happening between the United States and Iran on any kind of Syrian solution.”

But, is it our job to intervene, and deploy U.S. troops to fight for people they’ve never met? Is the United States supposed to be the world’s police force, flashing its badge to save the day?   Does the deterioration of the lives of 17 million people affect the United States and international affairs?

AbuZayd appealed at a Capitol Hill conference demanding enforcement of international law, referral of the Syrian plight to the International Criminal Court, reformation of the national justice system, the halt of child recruitment for terrorism, increased foreign assistance and establishment of regional tribunals.

Humanitarian aid may only function as a tattered band-aid to Syria’s perpetual conflict, instead of an enduring political solution. “Will Syria’s displaced be condemned to relief instead of progress?” asked Sara Roy, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

“The issues to track are the political ones,” Fraker said. “Until you see certain events having occurred that will allow the principal actors then to turn their attention to Syria, you won’t see any progress there.”