The millions escaping war-torn Syria are among 60 million people worldwide who have fled their homes in recent months due to crises in their nations, an "unprecedented" figure that has not been seen since World War II, a RAND Corporation scholar told about 50 students and faculty at Adelphi University Monday.
UN officials have long called the nearly five-year-long war in Syria the world's most pressing humanitarian crisis, but Shelly Culbertson, a RAND Middle East analyst, said the flow of refugees has strained the budgets and infrastructure of Syria and Iraq's neighbors -- Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon -- which are housing, feeding and educating up to 4.5 million Syrians.
"These numbers are huge and they're changing the countries' demographics," Culbertson said during a presentation about Syria's refugees, adding that most of them -- 85 percent -- are not living in camps, but instead are in urban areas.
Adelphi University associate professor Nicole Rudolph said Culbertson, author of an upcoming book about the Middle East -- "The Fires of Spring" -- spoke at an event hosted by Adelphi's International Studies Program.
Turkey is hosting an estimated 1.8 million refugees, while Lebanon and Jordan have absorbed 1.2 million and 600,000 to 1.5 million, respectively, Culbertson said. As a result, wages are dropping, rents are rising and public services are significantly strained in those three countries, she said.
To respond to the refugees' needs, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called for a budget of $362.5 million for 2015. Culbertson spoke as world leaders from the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the UN on Monday announced a Syria Crisis Conference in February to bring humanitarian relief to Syrians inside and outside of the country. Their statement appealed to the international community to fund the $8.4 billion appeal issued by the UN.
Syrians have fanned out to other safe havens. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spokesman Farhan Haq said last week that Lesvos, Greece, alone receives about 3,300 refugees a day.
While hundreds of thousands of Syrians are headed for Europe, more than 7 million more remain internally displaced inside Syria, some trapped in areas under siege as government and rebel troops wage war in a conflict that has drawn in thousands of foreign fighters and dozens of countries. Diplomats have failed to halt the war that began during the Arab Spring in March 2011, when the Syrian government responded to pro-reform move.
The presence of so many people over a short period of time has taxed the middle-income countries whose populations have surged by a significant percentage. In Lebanon, for example, Syrians have increased the population of the country by nearly one-third, Culbertson said.
"Hospitals are becoming crowded, there aren't enough school spaces," Culbertson said, adding that water and sanitation services are also struggling to cater to increased demand with no end in sight. "All of these things have strained the host countries' ability to cope."
One focus of Culbertson's talk was how the three countries have met the challenge of educating their new inhabitants. The results are one of three studies of refugees being conducted by RAND, she said.
Education is uneven, at best, with the countries opting for integrating Syrians into existing systems, educating them separately, on an ad hoc or alternative basis, and in UN Children's Fund-run programs and camps.
Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, she said, have searched for ways to accommodate children in grades from kindergarten through high school by packing them into existing classrooms and schools, overcoming language barriers and resorting to hosting double shifts and holding class in camps.
Between 50 and 60 percent of the school-age refugees are not in school, she said, about 700,000 in all, for various reasons beyond the lack of space.
"Having 700,000 children out of school for several years poses long-term risk to the region," she said. "It's bad for the children, but this is also very bad for Syria society."
Other factors include the fact that children -- mostly boys -- are forced to work instead of attend school to help generate income, and girls are more often married off to lessen a family's burden, Culbertson said.
"The most important recommendation to help Syrian refugees is to stabilize Syria," she said, adding that the education and refugee crisis is the direct result of the prolonged political and military crisis that extends the war in Syria. "If there weren't this level of violence and instability this wouldn't be, this shouldn't be. There's something fundamentally wrong with this."