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."

JM LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images


Meet the Palestinian Prisoners Israel Could Soon Release

In deciding to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first had to make a tough concession: releasing 104 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody.

That decision has many Netanyahu critics at home and abroad seeing red, since the reported list of prisoners, who will be released in phases over the course of negotiations, includes individuals accused of carrying out devastating attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. It's also an emotional issue for Palestinians, many of whom regard the men and women detained over the long course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as political prisoners.

In an open letter to his citizens, Netanyahu described the anguish he felt in freeing the prisoners. "This is an incomparably difficult decision; it is painful for the bereaved families and it is painful for the entire nation and it is also very painful for me," he wrote. To get a sense of just how emotionally charged this tradeoff is, consider the following individuals, who appear on a list published by the Palestinian Prisoner Society on Sunday of prisoners expected to be released. (Israel's Ynet reports that Israeli authorities will eventually make the names public to allow for appeals to the country's Supreme Court, and the final list may look different; this week's New York Times and Washington Post reports on the prisoner release mention men not identified by the Palestinain Prisoner Society.) According to Haaretz, the prisoners identified by the Palestinian Prisoner Society have been involved in the death of some 55 Israeli civilians, 15 Israeli soldiers, one French tourist, and dozens of Palestinians thought to have collaborated with Israel.

Jum'a Ibrahim Juma Adam, imprisoned since 1988

In 1988, Rachel Weiss and her three children were traveling by bus to Jerusalem after attending a bar mitzvah in Tiberias. Weiss had moved with her children to the back of the bus to allow her husband, a rabbi, to study undisturbed at the front of the vehicle. When three Palestinian youths threw Molotov cocktails at the bus, one smashed a window and landed where her children were sitting. In vain, Weiss threw herself at her children to protect them. Everyone escaped from the bus except for Weiss and her children, who perished in the assault. David Delorosa, an Israeli soldier who entered the burning bus and tried to save those still trapped inside, also died in the attack.

Adam was one of the youths who threw the firebombs. The men behind the attack were not affiliated with a terrorist organization, and the attack was planned somewhat spontaneously over a game of cards. Some reports suggest that Mahmoud Kharbish, another perpetrator, will also be released.

Karim and Maher Younis, imprisoned since 1983

The Younis cousins, who landed in jail after kidnapping and killing a young Israeli soldier named Avraham Bromberg, are some of the longest-serving Arab prisoners in Israel. The Younis cousins picked up Bromberg, who was hitchhiking, on the side of the road in 1981 and later shot him in the head. They left him to die on the side of the road, and Bromberg succumbed to his wounds two days after being shot.

Ibrahim, Hassan, and Mustafa Ighbariya and Tawfiz Suliman, imprisoned since 1992

The brothers Ibrahim and Hassan Ighbariya, their cousin Mustafa Ighbariya, and Tawfiz Suliman infiltrated an Israeli army camp under the cover of darkness and brutally killed three Israeli soldiers using knives, axes, and a pitchfork. The four men, members of Islamic Jihad , killed the soldiers -- Yaakov Dubinsky, Yori Farda and Guy Friedman -- in their sleep, a crime that shocked Israel at the time both because of the brutality of the attack and the fact that the assailants were Israeli citizens. The four men were originally sentenced to three consecutive life terms, with an additional 15 years tacked on for other offenses. The murder of the three Israeli soldiers is now more commonly known as "the night of the pitchforks." 

Riziq Ali Khader Salah, imprisoned since 1993

While walking through Jerusalem's Valley of the Cross on his way to work in 1993, Menahem Stern, who at the time was an internationally renowned historian of the Second Temple period, was stabbed five times in the chest by Salah, who was alleged to have carried out the act as part of an admission test to Fatah, a Palestianian terror organization. Salah was handed a life sentence, and given another life sentence for the slaying a month later of the television technician Eli Amsalem . Israeli police alleged that Salah had to provide an identification card of the person he had killed; since Stern had not been carrying one, he proceeded to kill Amsalem as well.