U.N.: 2 Million Refugees Have Fled Syria

While the United States mulls over the decision to attack Syria, nearly 5,000 people flee that country daily. The United Nations Refugee Agency announced Tuesday that the number of refugees from Syria has reached the 2 million mark. Melissa Block talks to Andrew Harper, who heads the U.N.'s refugee agency in Jordan, about the exodus.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

As the U.S. weighs whether to launch strikes against Syria, nearly 5,000 people flee that country daily. And today, the United Nation's high commissioner for refugees announced that the total number of refugees from Syria has passed the two million mark. Speaking on U.N. TV, Antonio Gutierrez called this a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.

ANTONIO GUTIERREZ: What is appalling is that the first million fled Syria during two years. The second million fled Syria in six months.

BLOCK: Andrew Harper works on the front lines of that refugee crisis. He heads the U.N.'s refugee agency in Jordan. He's in New York this week for consultations and joins me now. Andrew Harper, welcome back to the program.

ANDREW HARPER: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: You know, I was thinking back to when you and I spoke seven months ago in January. You told me then that the huge camp in Jordan, the Zaatari camp was sheltering about 70,000 people. What are the numbers now?

HARPER: Well, if we recall, back then, I think there was a total of about 300,000 people who had entered Jordan. Now the figure is getting up to close to 600,000, and that camp of Zaatari is now grown to about 120,000. So you can sort of see how quickly the refugee influx has occurred, particularly in those winter months.

BLOCK: Help us understand what the means for folks who do what you do to have a camp that's housing now 120,000 people. I think that's double what the camp was designed to hold. What does that mean?

HARPER: Well, it means that we've got a lot of work to do. But that being said, we're not only continuing to put people into Zaatari so it may even grow to larger than 120,000, but we're also building an additional camp, which may also grow up to about 100,000 people. So when you deal with what is largely the equivalent of a medium-sized city, you have to ensure that all the basic services are being provided, but also, more importantly, that people are protected.

BLOCK: One problem that the U.N. has highlighted is the problem of teenage boys in the refugee camps being recruited by armed groups, sent back to Syria to fight with the opposition. Can you talk about that? Is that something that's a real concern?

HARPER: Well, any recruitment, any activities inside the camp which are not neutral or humanitarian in nature are of concern. We've been talking to the Jordanian government to make sure that this does not happen because we also don't want to have the camp as a target. We are aware that people do return back to Syria, families do return back to Syria. We counsel everyone who returns back in relation to the dangers, the hardships that they may expect when they do return.

But once people cross the border, we've got no influence whatsoever over them.

BLOCK: We know that of these two million refugees who've now registered with the U.N., more than half of them are children, more than a million. What challenges does that pose in particular?

HARPER: You just imagine the hardship and trauma that they've gone through inside Syria. They're innocent, they've often been not been able to go to school for the last year or two. Many of them are now missing their fathers, their brothers, their uncles. Many of them have been injured, extreme trauma, both sort of physical and psychological.

What they've gone through, what they've seen and the unknown future for them is something which is obviously a challenge for everyone because we can't tell them when they're likely to be going back. We can't tell them when they're going to be reunited with their families in Syria or when they can go back to their homes, which they've lost.

There's some children who, because of the shelling, because of the violence, they left with nothing. They left just with their pajamas or with their teddies, which was the most valuable thing that they could actually grab with them as they left their homes. They arrived with very little and we just try and do what we can to resurrect their childhood, resurrect their lives, resurrect their future.

BLOCK: How possible is that, do you think?

HARPER: Oh, at the same time, they've suffered so much, they've also got an amazing resilience, too. And one of the most pleasing things which I saw at the new refugee camp that we're creating, again - it's in the desert of Jordan but at least it's safe - is the schools have already been built. And that's a wonderful achievement because that does provide an aspect of normality, which I think parents, as much as the children, will be looking for.

BLOCK: Andrew Harper heads the U.N.'s refugee agency in Jordan. Mr. Harper, thank you so much.

HARPER: Thank you very much.

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