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Syria On Track To Become World's Largest Source Of Refugees

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A photo from Syria is grabbing the world's attention: a sea of people lining up for food amid the rubble of a Palestinian refugee camp inside Syria.

Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia was so moved by the image, he took to the Senate floor, saying "a country of 23 million people, a proud country, is being transformed before our eyes to a land of rubble, skeletons, refugees and ghosts."

Syria was once a destination country for refugees. Now, it is fast becoming the world's biggest source of them. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres offered a stark reminder at a recent U.N. gathering.

"Five years ago, Syria was the world's second-largest refugee-hosting country," Guterres said. "Syrians are now about to replace Afghans as the biggest refugee population worldwide."

That's saying something, since Afghanistan has been in conflict for more than four decades. Guterres says if current trends continue, there could be 4 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year.

"Neighboring countries have provided them safety since the beginning, at an enormous cost to themselves," he said. "Few refugee influxes have ever generated this profound an impact on their host countries, with such dramatic demographic, economic and social consequences."

Aid groups need to start looking at the long-term needs of host countries, like Jordan and Lebanon, says Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps.

"This is a refugee crisis that isn't going away," Pont says. "The bordering countries are being destabilized both by the conflict and by the refugee presence itself, and there's a real need to invest in the communities."

Pont says this could mean building up schools and hospitals. In Jordan, where water is scarce, he says Mercy Corps has been trying to manage tensions between local communities and refugees.

"Before this crisis started, Jordan was the fourth most water scarce country in the world," Pont says. "It is now the third most water scarce country in the world, which is a pretty appalling statistic."

This is one reason that Jordan, a new U.N. Security Council member, played a key role last week in getting the first binding U.N. resolution that deals with the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Jordan's ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, says he hopes the resolution will create enough pressure on the parties to improve the humanitarian situation and thus ease the pressure on Jordan.

He expects that Jordan anticipates spending $2.8 billion in the next year to help Syrian refugees, while also keeping an eye on Jordanian families, who have opened up their homes to Syrians.

"We are absolutely straining every effort and every nerve to be as welcoming and accommodating as possible, but we do still need a great deal of help and there has to be greater burden-sharing across the international community," the prince says.

Zeid fears donor fatigue, but still he points out that rich countries have bailed out big banks. So he's hoping they will look at tiny Jordan in a similar way.

"Compared to them, the struggling economy of a country that's opened up borders to host refugees fleeing a terrible conflict, there doesn't seem to be a commensurate response," he says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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