BERLIN (AP) — The exodus of Syrians from their country threatens economic development throughout the Middle East because neighboring nations cannot cope with the influx of refugees, a top U.N. official said Monday. A U.S. diplomat, meanwhile, called for an action plan to deal with the extraordinary refugee crisis.
The conflict in the Arab state, which began as an uprising in March 2011 and has evolved into a civil war, has claimed more than 100,000 lives and driven another 7 million — around a third of Syria's pre-war population — from their homes. At least 2.1 million Syrians have fled the country entirely, and many are now in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey, which are straining to aid the newcomers.
Helen Clark, the head of the U.N. development agency, told a gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, that aside from being a humanitarian crisis, the refugee influx also threatens the economies of the various states in the region — affecting trade, agriculture, tourism, employment and water use.
By the end of the year, she said, nearly 25 percent of Lebanon's population will consist of refugees. The figure has already reached 10 percent in Jordan.
"Clearly the costs on host communities and countries cannot be borne by them alone," Clark said.
Also speaking at the U.N. in Geneva was U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who described the crisis as "the world's largest mass displacement in over three decades."
"More people have been displaced from Syria than from genocide in Rwanda or ethnic cleansing in the Balkans," he said, noting that half of those identified as refugees, meaning they've left Syrian soil, are children.
Burns called for an action plan to address the challenges posed by the refugee crisis, and pushed for an increase in support to governments and communities hosting the displaced Syrians. He also called for an increase in humanitarian aid to ease the suffering inside the country, where rebels are trying to oust President Bashar Assad.