As a result of the uprisings occurring in the Middle East, large populations of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) have been created inside of those countries, as well as great numbers of refugees fleeing to bordering countries. This has consequences for a region with already existing refugee populations, notably the more than one million Iraqi refugees that have settled in Syria since 2006. The possibility of increased large-scale refugee movement from Libya and Syria will cause a devastating humanitarian crisis and may further destabilize the region. The United Nations is already warning of an aid crisis with significant food and medicine shortages reporting in the region.

UNHCR camp for Libyan refugees (AP)According to the reports from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 70 percent of the population of Adjabiya was displaced during the initial phases of that nation’s crisis. According to the Libyan Red Crescent (LRC), a majority of those displaced in March and April have returned to Ajdabiya since the opposition forces gained control of the town. However, significant numbers remained displaced within Libya: 94,000 in east Libya, 49,000 in Tripoli and Zitan and 100,000 in Nafusa. It is thought about 163,000 Libyans have fled into Egypt and 288,000 to Tunisia.

In total, it is estimated that over one million people have fled to border countries, including Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger, and Chad. The majority of Libyan refugees, however, have escaped to either Egypt or Tunisia, both countries which are struggling to cope with their own recent uprisings and have few resources for real assistance or protection.

Two refugee camps sit on the Tunisian border, housing 2,500 people. Like refugees the world over, most of them arrived at the border with little more than the clothes on their backs and fears for the sons they left behind to fight the Qaddafi militias. Al Jazeera reports that since the crisis in Libya began, 1,400 Libyan asylum seekers have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea seeking refuge in Europe.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) many asylum seekers, both Libyan and guest workers from countries like Chad, are seeking refuge mainly in Italy, France and Britain. António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, has spoken of a “grudging” response from Europe, described as largely interested in “how to keep out” people trying to seek shelter in Europe.

The refugee situation in Syria is not yet on the same scale as the crisis as in Libya, but there is an increasing flow of Syrian refugees into southern Turkey. The Turkish Red Cross estimated about 10,000 have already crossed the border and 11,500 are waiting at the Syrian-Turkish border. There is no estimate on the numbers that have entered unofficially. It is significant to note that more than 50 percent of the Syrian refugees in the camps in Turkey are women and children.

The UN Security Council authorized ”all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack” in Libya, regardless of whichever side threatened civilians and authorized a no-fly zone to that end. The resolution was approved with the backing of the U.S., France, and Britain. Australia strongly supported the move, however did not commit aircraft or troops to enforce the no-fly zone.

In President Barack Obama’s March 28 speech on America’s role in the Libyan military intervention, he stated that he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” suggesting that the U.S had some obligations to civilians. While this may be the case, the consequences are that over a million people have already been displaced.

The U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged US$26.5 million in new humanitarian aid (from the Emergency Refugee and Migration Assistance Fund) for Libyan refugees and has eased visa restrictions for Libyan students studying in the U.S. There have been no recent announcements of American aid for displaced Syrians. Australia has announced an extra AUS$4 million to assist what it estimates to be 300,000 Libyan asylum seekers who are fleeing to Tunisia and Egypt. This brings Australia’s contribution to the current Middle East refugee crisis to AUS$15 million.

The decision to establish the no-fly zone over Libya is likely to cost the Western coalition over US$1 billion. The expense of patrolling the no-fly zone is likely to be anywhere from US$30 million to US$100 million a week. By comparison, the Afghanistan war costs more than US$9 billion a month. The multi-nation campaign against Muammar Gaddafi has been sanctioned until 27 June 2011.

Defending the cost, the British government’s Defense Secretary Liam Fox has said: “…if we are going to fight operations in the future based on minimizing civilian casualties there is clearly a financial price to pay. But I think that that shows that we are on the moral high ground and that we place a higher value on human life than the Gaddafi regime does.” It seems that the West is prepared to pay the cost of war but not the cost of humanitarian aid, especially given that the aid is required as a consequence of the West’s decision to take sides in the armed conflict and thus prolong and extend the violence and exacerbate conditions for civilians on the ground.