'We'll Probably Get Through This Year'

The U.N. is begging for money to help Syrians who've fled their homes, as tensions over refugees in Jordan and Lebanon heat up. But there's no solution in sight.

In late March, a Syrian refugee dramatically set herself on fire in front of the office of the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in the embattled Lebanese city of Tripoli. Only a few days later, Lebanon hit the grim milestone of its millionth Syrian refugee. Soon after, in Jordan, as the U.N. was preparing to open a massive new refugee camp, a riot swept through the country's existing camp, leaving one Syrian dead and dozens of refugees and police officers injured.

These violent events have grabbed headlines, but refugee experts say they are most likely isolated incidents. The real danger signs about the future of the Syrian refugee crisis are more widespread and entrenched: Both Lebanon and Jordan are struggling to deal with huge populations of Syrians, and international funding isn't keeping up with their needs. At the same time, the ongoing devastation of Syria is generating a seemingly endless supply of new people seeking refuge. The crisis, as it is being handled now, is unsustainable -- and unless something drastically changes, it's only going to get worse.

"We'll probably get through this year," says Andrew Harper, the head of UNHCR in Jordan. "But then how are we going to go through 2015? And if we struggle through 2015, how are we going to go in 2016 and beyond?"

Jordan currently hosts about 600,000 refugees, in a country whose pre-crisis population was estimated at barely over six million. About 100,000 of the refugees live in the massive Zaatari camp, which is run by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies, with international funding. The other half a million are dispersed among cities, towns, and rural areas. The U.N. also provides some assistance to these "urban refugees," but much of the cost falls on the government, through public services and subsidized goods. These refugees also put strains on local communities, which are facing rising prices, falling wages, and increasingly overcrowded public services.

The most worrying sign about the impact of refugees, in Harper's view, is Jordan's public debt. It recently climbed to $26.5 billion, more than 79 percent of the country's GDP -- up from 67 percent in 2011, when the Syrian crisis began. The number suggests that Jordan cannot continue to essentially subsidize half a million refugees without facing severe economic repercussions.

In Lebanon, the situation is even more desperate. The country's pre-crisis population was only four million, so the presence of one million refugees there is staggering. And since Lebanon has so far not allowed camps to be built, all of those refugees are living in local communities, having a profound impact on the local economy and on social and political tensions. Lebanese officials have repeatedly described the influx as an "existential threat" to their country. Last October, UNHCR's Lebanon representative Ninette Kelley told Foreign Policy that the situation was unsustainable over the long term. (In addition to the economic effects of refugees, Lebanon faces security threats due to spillover from the Syrian war, which could re-ignite the country's long-simmering sectarian tensions.)

In both countries, the international community's attempts to help are persistently underfunded. In 2014, the U.N. asked for $1.2 billion for its operations in Jordan, and $1.7 billion for Lebanon. Little of that money has materialized: UNHCR says it has only 14 percent of the funds it requested for Lebanon, and 16-20 percent for Jordan. "We're already seeing an increasing disinterest from some [donor] states," Harper says. "I'm already having to look at what are the priorities that we have to continue, and what are the areas that we need to start cutting. And we're only in April."

But even as funding diminishes, the size of the problem continues to grow, as more and more people flee Syria. Every day, for months, UNHCR Lebanon has been registering some 2,500 new Syrians who are looking for assistance, says Lynne Miller, the agency's deputy representative for operations. "We see no reason to suppose that it will slow dramatically,"

"The expectation very much is that the number of refugees will continue to rise... as long as the conflict continues in Syria," agrees Lama Fakih, the Syria and Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch.


Growing populations of refugees may have been a contributing factor in recent violent incidents.

The riot in Zaatari started on the camp's eastern border, where many of the newest arrivals from Syria have pitched their tents. At about 4 p.m. on April 5, according to both U.N. and Jordanian officials, police caught and detained a number of refugees trying to smuggle themselves out of the camp. Exaggerated rumors about what had happened quickly began to spread, and a crowd gathered around the police station, swelling into the thousands.

At some point, the expression of anger turned into outright confrontation: The police say they used tear gas to try and defuse the protests, but at some point, shots were fired. Some refugees say the shots came from the police, while the police say the gunfire came from the crowd. At the end of the day, three refugees were taken to a nearby hospital with gunshot wounds; one died. Twenty-eight police officers were injured, along with an unknown number of refugees, and more than a dozen tents and caravans were burned.

U.N. officials say that while the violence was both tragic and unacceptable, they believe it was an anomaly -- stemming from a particular set of circumstances, rather than from widespread discontent with life in the camp. In fact, the situation in Zaatari has gotten better over time: When the camp first opened in mid-2012, violent incidents were a regular occurrence, but by the second half of 2013, they had almost ceased. "The last big riot that we had was in July or August of last year, and all the indicators on the security have been improving," Harper says.

That said, the number of new arrivals has crowded the camp, pushing it to its limits -- a recipe for tension.

In part to deal with this crowding, at the end of April, UNHCR and the government of Jordan plan to open a second massive refugee camp on a wind-swept patch of desert near the town of Azraq. This camp has been in the planning stages since March 2013, when the population of Zaatari was close to 120,000, and more than 1,500 Syrians were fleeing into Jordan every day. But in May of that year, Jordan started limiting the number of Syrians who could cross the border. By June, average entries had fallen 75 percent, to fewer than 500 a day. Over successive months, it would fall lower still. (Jordan has consistently denied that it limits entries, though the phenomenon has been documented by watchdog organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as by journalists.)

With many refugees denied entry, and others returning to Syria, the population of Zaatari fell to as low as 85,000 at the end of 2013. For months, there was no need to open a new camp, and Azraq, though much of it was built, sat empty. The uninhabited camp came to be seen as an expensive white elephant -- to date, it has cost roughly $63 million. Harper says it was a necessary preparedness measure, in case the number of refugees surged again. But since the government controls the border, refugee entries are unlikely to rise unless Jordan decides they should. In this context, many aid workers saw the ongoing work on Azraq as an attempt by the U.N. to convince the Jordanian government to allow more Syrians in.

Recently, border crossings have indeed increased -- not to 2013 levels, but to 700 or 800 people a day. Azraq was planned to accommodate up to 130,000 refugees, but Harper says it, too, will quickly be filled.

Once that happens, it is unclear what comes next: Most likely, Jordan will tighten its border control policies again -- at least until yet another camp is built.

The cost of Azraq will also be enormous: At its height, running Zaatari cost as much as half a million U.S. dollars a day, and the price of the new camp is expected to be similar. "It's expensive to run these refugee camps," Harper says. "[But] this is literally lifesaving."

With the agency's appeal for international support going mostly unfunded, UNHCR is practically begging for money to run Azraq. "We cannot continue to deliver humanitarian assistance and protection to refugees," Harper said at a recent press conference, "unless money comes forward."

Crowding has also been an issue in Lebanon, which unlike Jordan, has not limited refugee entries. "The Lebanese government has been the last government in the region to maintain an open border," says HRW's Fakih. She adds that because of its long, porous border with Syria, Lebanon likely would not be able to limit entries, even if it tried. "You're not going to have fewer Syrians, you're going to have fewer Syrians here legally," she said.

With funding low and the number of refugees increasing, UNHCR Lebanon has recently had to start "targeting" assistance -- limiting it to only the most vulnerable families. So it was that Mariam al-Khawli, who had been receiving a variety of different kinds of assistance from the agency, found that her food aid was going to be cut. On March 25, it was al-Khawli who set herself on fire outside a UNHCR building in protest, suffering burns over 70 percent of her body.

UNHCR's deputy representative in Beirut, Lynne Miller, says the agency works hard to keep people from falling through the cracks. "We've got in place quite a lot of systems to make sure this doesn't happen, but with over 200,000 families in the country at the moment, there will always be individual families who needed a different response," she explains. And while al-Khawli's self immolation was extreme, the future may hold more demonstrations of frustration. "A continuation of not having the funding we need, and the growing pressures in the country, may well mean that we see more desperation among the refugee population," Miller says.


In Jordan, the U.N. risks not having enough funding to maintain basic services in camps and cities, which could trigger more violent outbursts. The country's rising public debt also threatens an economic meltdown. In the medium term, however, the gravest risk might be that Jordan will tighten its border controls further -- leaving more Syrians trapped and vulnerable to violence at home.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, social tensions around refugees are rising to perilous levels, in tandem with political and sectarian tensions in the border areas. Violence has already broken out there, and failing to come up with solutions for refugee issues increases the risk that violence could spread.

Fakih calls the international response to these matters "grossly inadequate." Short of an end to the conflict in Syria, she says two things are necessary to stave off the most profound problems associated with the refugee crisis. The first would be for the international community to shift from providing emergency humanitarian aid to making a commitment to long-term development aid, in an attempt to improve services "across the board" in host countries. The second would be for Western nations to step up and resettle more refugees themselves.

Both these solutions face hurdles: Dealing with the problem from a development perspective would require host country governments to admit that they may be accommodating refugees for years, even decades to come, something that is generally politically toxic. (Though there have been hopeful signs in Jordan, and Miller says some development aid should soon be coming to Lebanon as well.) And recent history suggests that, with more than four million Syrian refugees distributed across the Middle East, Western nations are unlikely to resettle enough people to make any substantial difference.

In short, there is a finite set of answers to the refugee crisis: settlements or cease-fires in Syria; a massive program of resettlement in the West; long-term, enormous humanitarian funding through the U.N.; or a serious international commitment to development of refugee host countries. All seem almost equally unlikely -- yet some solution, or combination of solutions, must be found, because the end result of the status quo will only be more violence and economic turmoil across the region.



Dirty South, Clean It Up

Developing nations are now the world's biggest polluters. Are they finally ready to help fight climate change?

The latest report from the United Nations climate change body, released Tuesday, makes clear the good, the bad, and the ugly about one of the world's most intractable problems.

As things stand today, the world will be hard pressed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of global warming during the rest of the century. That's the ugly.

In the twenty-odd years since global warming leapt on the international stage at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janiero global greenhouse-gas emissions have not only kept growing, they're growing at an ever-faster clip. That's the bad.

Now, the world's hopes for limiting temperature increases and minimizing catastrophes such as rising sea levels and devastating droughts depend to a large extent on what steps developing economies take to fundamentally change the way they use energy. And that, curiously enough, could be the good.

On Tuesday, the final, full draft report from Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out. (U.N. officials had released tidied up, trimmed down summaries of that latest consensus among climate scientists over the weekend.) The report's purpose is not to dive into all the contentious and sometimes controversial science behind climate change, but rather to lay out what the world can do about it. And in dense, committee-edited prose, the sprawling report makes clear that the world is still headed very much in the wrong direction.

"The current trajectory of global annual and cumulative emissions of [greenhouse gases] is inconsistent with widely discussed goals of limiting global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level," the report found.

"We need to decrease the [carbon dioxide] in the atmosphere, and to do that, we need to bring emissions down dramatically, but right now global emissions are increasing," explained Gernot Wagner, an environmental economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, which advocates market-based solutions for climate change. "This is a freakishly big problem."

While computer models show that the world could conceivably slash carbon emissions and stabilize temperatures, that would require prompt, unanimous, radical action by nearly all nations. That, to say the least, is unlikely: "The assumptions needed to have a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees are very difficult to satisfy in real world conditions," the report found.

That is due, in large part, to the fact that global greenhouse gas emissions just keep rising, despite growing awareness in most countries that pumping more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leads to rising temperatures. Global emissions rose an average of 2.2 percent per year from 2000 to 2010, up sharply from an annual average growth rate of 1.3 percent from 1970 to 2000.

Global emissions keep rising because over the last decade, the center of gravity of the world economy has shifted away from developed, relatively efficient economies such as Europe and the United States toward fast-growing, relatively inefficient economies such as China and India. The problem is compounded, in part, because factories in countries such as China now produce a host of goods for export that rich countries use to make themselves; that means that, in essence, the rich world has outsourced a portion of its own greenhouse-gas emissions to developing countries.

Since the last big UN climate report came out in 2007, developing countries have passed developed countries to become the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. The global emissions total in 2010 hit 49.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (which translates other greenhouse gases such as methane into carbon dioxide), the highest level to date, the report found. That makes it more difficult, and more expensive, to meet climate goals.

"If you're trying to stabilize 2 degrees Celsius in this century, then every five years it's going to get more difficult, because the rate of decrease has to be greater and there's already a larger accumulated stock in the atmosphere," said Robert Stavins, a climate-policy expert at Harvard University's Belfer Center and a contributor to the latest IPCC report.

Going forward, that means that the developing world will have to bear the brunt of responsibility for curbing emissions, if the world is to come anywhere close to its target of limiting carbon concentrations in the atmosphere to around 450 parts per million (compared with just over 400 parts per million today).

On the surface, that could be worrisome. Developing countries have spent years arguing that since rich countries are responsible for centuries' worth of greenhouse-gas emissions, they shouldn't have to do the heavy lifting of curbing pollution now when they are prioritizing economic development and trying to combat poverty. That blame game is responsible, in large part, for the lack of progress that has plagued international climate negotiations over the last decade. Meanwhile, China's breakneck growth has fueled a massive increase in consumption of coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels.

And to date, rich countries have been more active in trying to tackle emissions. Europe has a cap-and-trade scheme meant to rein in emissions from the power sector, as well as a host of other rules such as hefty taxes on motor fuels and mandates to use renewable energy, all meant to make economies less dirty.

While the United States has not been able to pass comprehensive, European-style climate legislation, it has taken a spate of actions, such as emissions limits on power plants and tough state rules to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. The natural-gas boom (as well as the recession) has also helped the United States cut energy-sector emissions levels to the lowest levels in two decades.

But there are tantalizing hints in the latest IPCC report that developing countries could make emissions reductions dovetail with things they actually want to do or need to do. That includes improving air quality and reducing deadly pollution, enhancing energy security, and unwinding fiscally disastrous energy subsidies that encourage profligate use of dirty energy.

Air quality, for instance, is the principal driver of China's efforts to clean up its energy sector, which will have as a byproduct fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The notorious smog that blankets Beijing and other northern Chinese cities doesn't just cost billions of dollars in health care and shorten lives; by sparking popular unrest, air pollution also represents a potentially direct threat to the Chinese Communist Party's hold on power.

All that explains official Chinese efforts to cap national coal consumption, heavily underwrite the expansion of renewable energy such as wind and solar power, and increase the use of nuclear power and natural gas in the electricity system. China has also launched a handful of regional cap-and-trade programs, putting a price on pollution. (Of course, there are fears that China's anti-smog push could lead to the use of even worse alternatives, from a climate-change standpoint, such as synthetic gas from coal.) India, for its part, has slapped a small tax on each ton of coal.

Energy security is another way that tackling climate change could bring additional benefits, the report concludes. By reducing the role that imported, dirty fuels play in an economy, policymakers can kill two birds with one stone. Chinese leaders, for example, are obsessed with the security of their energy supplies. China is now the world's biggest oil importer; much of that oil goes through sea-lanes controlled by other navies. Volatile prices for imported fuels can also wreak havoc with consumers and upend growth plans.

As the IPCC report puts it, "the majority of mitigation scenarios show improvements in terms of the diversity of energy sources and reduction of energy imports, resulting in energy systems that are less vulnerable to price volatility and supply disruptions."

One of the best ways to spur reductions in carbon emissions, economists agree, is a carbon tax. That would penalize carbon emissions, and give businesses and consumers an incentive to use less energy, or to use cleaner energy. Politically, though, a carbon tax has proven contentious in many countries.

Ironically, instead of penalizing the use of dirty energy, the world heavily subsidizes it to the tune of more than half a trillion dollars a year. That leads to wasteful use of fuel for transportation and power generation, undercuts energy efficiency, and costs governments huge sums of cash.

Part of Egypt's fiscal woes, for instance, are due to heavy energy subsidies given to the population, which eat up about one-quarter of the budget. Governments across the Middle East and North Africa face a similar dilemma: Energy subsidies are eating up government cash and gobbling up precious energy reserves, but rolling them back could spark popular unrest.

Last week in Washington, the heads of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the U.N. all called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and the use of a carbon tax to tackle both fiscal challenges and rising emissions. That double-whammy could end up going a long way toward meeting global climate goals and restoring some fiscal sanity to cash-strapped governments.

"Right now, the average price per ton of CO2 globally is minus $15" due to the subsidies. "It's the wrong sign; forget all the quibbles about just how high the price of carbon should be, let's get the sign right first," said Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Ed Jones - AFP - Getty