With 10.8 million civilians in dire need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria, 6.5 million internally displaced people, and over 3 million refugees within the region, the crisis in Syria is intensifying on a daily basis. March 2014 marked the third anniversary of the Syria crisis and echoed three years of failure in containing what is now described as the biggest humanitarian disaster of this era.
Thus unsurprisingly, countries bordering Syria, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, welcomed the Berlin Conference last week (28 October) on the refugee situation in Syria and supporting stability in the region. The conference – attended by 40 countries and international organisations – wasn’t a pledging event, but rather a chance to consolidate existing pledges, many of which have yet to be met, in a worryingly underfunded crisis. In his opening speech, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier stated that countries should “undertake longer-term commitments,” suggesting a move away from merely providing protection and shelter toward longer-term development based on the acknowledgment that most refugees will not be returning home soon.
March 2014 marked the third anniversary of the Syria crisis and echoed three years of failure in containing what is now described as the biggest humanitarian disaster of this era.
Long-term development would give Syrian refugees the opportunity to go to work, school, have access to healthcare, contribute to their host communities and ultimately, return to some sort of normalcy amidst the chaos surrounding them.
Since the beginning of the crisis, refugees from Syria have been flowing into the surrounding countries and have been faced with a feeling of confusion, unemployment, insecurity and growing hostility from host communities. Thus traditional approaches to assistance based on humanitarian relief alone, while essential, do not constitute a solution for the protracted situation they now face.
“Tangible and concrete actions”
Nevertheless, agreeing to spend development money more efficiently and to think long term is almost the easy option; it overlooks the need for a more political approach to the refugee crisis. It suggests that European nations don’t have to deal with Syrian refugees on their backyard by ensuring their needs are met in the region.
Among the many speeches at the Berlin conference was a collective speech on behalf of 50 NGO representatives, calling on the West to itself take in more Syrians. The NGOs suggested that of the over 3 million refugees across the region, countries outside of the region should commit to resettle at least 180,000 of the most vulnerable refugees by 2016.
Agreeing to spend development money more efficiently and to think long term is almost the easy option; it overlooks the need for a more political approach to the refugee crisis.
This is essentially saying that more Syrian refugees should be allowed to seek refuge in European countries, such as the UK, Sweden and Germany, to name a few. The UK may be a top donor to the Syria crisis and consistently claims that more needs to be done, but the latest figures show that since the start of the UK Refugee Resettlement Programme in January – which was arguably a kneejerk reaction – as of June 2014, only 50 Syrian refugees have come into the UK, a remarkably low figure in comparison to Germany’s intake of over 70,000 Syrian refugees. Moreover, Sweden has opened the doors to a total of just under 70,000, meaning there are more refugees per capita in Sweden than any other European country. Such interventions not only provide a solution for vulnerable individuals and families, but are also an expression of solidarity and burden-sharing with countries in the region currently hosting the lion’s share of Syrian refugees.
Of course, taking in refugees is a very politically sensitive issue, as much as a humanitarian one. Given the UK’s half-hearted efforts so far, coupled with a general election fast approaching and the need to secure votes, resettlement doesn’t seem to be a priority for the current government.
Participants in Berlin also noted that some countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Jordan, are not State Parties to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees and its 1967 protocol. States that have signed the Convention have to accept refugees and allow them to work among other rights and even countries not part of the Convention cannot refuse admission to a person seeking protection based on the principle of non-refoulement (this prohibits the return to a territory where his or her life is at threat). Thus, the 1951 Geneva Convention means everything and nothing at the same time for refugees. States not part of it have accepted refugees and advocates of it, such as European nations, are reluctant to resettle refugees. The UK may lecture European counterparts on applying the refugee convention and call for more aid money, but it is guilty of sealing its own doors; the irony of the conference is that top Western donors will blow the funding trumpet, but when humanity and burden-sharing in terms of accepting refugee numbers comes into question, there is much less action. Clearly, this also makes it much harder to meaningfully pressure regional states to act in a manner consistent with the refugee conventions, and who are now talking about closing their borders to new refugees given the burden they already face from existing numbers.
The irony of the conference is that top Western donors will blow the funding trumpet, but when humanity and burden-sharing comes into question, there is much less action.
But we must avoid losing compassion. Syrian refugees, or any refugees for the matter, are not merely migrants seeking to live in a different country. Refugees are faced with persecution or danger in their own countries and have been forced to leave. Many Syrian refugees have already attempted the risky sea crossing to Europe on overcrowded and unsafe boats. Those who make it to Europe are also faced with hostility; for those who don’t, their fate is left at sea. To make matters worse, the UK has now announced it will no longer “support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.”
Ultimately, the international community must translate the course of action agreed in Berlin into tangible action. As the civil war in Syria drags on, the number of refugees and internally displaced people will only increase. Whether it is out of compassion or protection, Syrian refugees shouldn’t become just another number.
Priya Shah graduated from Warwick university in July 2014 in Politics and International Studies. She then spent 3 months working in the Syria Crisis Unit at the Department for International Development and is currently working as an intern in the ECFR MENA team.