EU Commissioner: Refugee Crisis ‘Horrifying’ as Public Health Deteriorates

EU Commissioner: Refugee Crisis ‘Horrifying’ as Public Health Deteriorates

Update: Commissioner Georgieva’s comments about cases of polio reappearing in Syria have been refuted by the World Health Organization, which has no confirmed cases of polio in Syria or the Syrian refugee diaspora. FP has learned that the European Commission has followed up with its source for the information in the Lebanese government and now believes detected symptoms of acute flaccid paralysis are being caused by diseases other than polio. The post’s headline has been revised to reflect this.

Original Post: The lawless conflict in Syria is rekindling dangers — from disease to forms of political violence — that have been dormant for decades, Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response, told FP on Monday. "We have spent, as humanity, decades to eradicate polio," she said in a conversation at FP‘s office, "only to see it again now because of this negligence to simple, basic rules of war — even in a war there are rules to be followed."

According to the World Health Organization, polio was eradicated in Syria in 1995. But the disease has returned during the country’s civil war. "To get polio, that was eradicated, to return," Georgieva said, "this is not only a danger for the Syrians, and it is criminal for the children of this country, but it is a danger for Lebanon and Jordan and Turkey and Egypt and the rest of the world because the refugees will bring it out. We have already gotten reports that cases of polio are being registered among the refugee population." Other diseases — including measles, typhoid, cholera, tuberculosis, and leishmaniasis, informally called the "Aleppo boil" — have also proliferated in the absence of professional medical care.

"In the city of Aleppo, before this war started, there were 5,000 doctors," Georgieva told FP. "Now there are six, if that. Some of them are killed, many of them just run for their lives." UNICEF has had to curtail its vaccination efforts and medical aid workers have been targeted by both sides in contested areas. "Over the last years, we have seen more humanitarians being killed, kidnapped, shot at, wounded than U.N. peacekeepers. It’s more dangerous than being a blue helmet," she said. "We have 6.8 million people who need help, and of those 2.7 rarely, and some of them never, get it because the world has turned a blind eye to the blatant violation of international humanitarian law…. What we need is a recognition that protection for the medical profession in the conflict is crucial."

Georgieva is pressing for protected humanitarian corridors to funnel aid and assistance to the countries taking in refugees. "We have no illusion that this will be easy or straightforward," she said, acknowledging the fact that even internationally recognized aid routes would be subject to attack, "but at least we need international pressure recognizing that life-saving supplies must get to people…. We know where the people caught without help are." Georgieva added that neighboring nations are being inundated with refugees. "In some areas, the refugees are bigger numbers than the local population," she noted. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is now the country’s fourth-largest city; Georgieva cited Lebanon, where the number of refugees is approaching 20 percent of Lebanon’s pre-Syrian war population and exacerbating the country’s delicate political balance. "Which country do we know in the world that can take 15-20 percent vis-à-vis its own population," she asked, "without this creating a huge impact in terms of housing people, jobs, medical care, schooling, policing, water supply?" The hospitality of neighboring countries early in the war is starting to wear thin, Georgieva warned. In Egypt, the military has rounded up refugees and the media has stoked political tensions, and in Jordan, 70 percent of the country supports shutting the border. "From the beginning of this year, what is happening is quite horrifying," she told FP.

To support neighboring countries and facilitate the flow of refugees, the level of aid will have to be "extraordinary" and sustained "year-in and year-out, year after year," Georgieva said — a feat "that is excruciatingly difficult to do." The European Union is "prepared to do our part," she noted. "And we will do it because it is morally right, but it is also in our own self-interest. Destabilization in this region, which is in the backyard of Europe, further destabilization of course is not in the interest of Europe. It’s not in the interest of the world."