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A big idea for a better response to Syrian displacement

26 Mar 2019 - 10:23
Source: Mustafa Khayat

It’s here to stay: A big idea for a better response to Syrian displacement

The third conference on ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region’ took place on 12-14 March in Brussels (‘Brussels-III’). Now into its ninth year, the Syrian civil war triggered at least 5,6 million refugees that have mostly sought shelter in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 1 The UN estimates that an additional 6,6 million Syrians are displaced within the country (IDPs), with roughly half of this number living in hard to reach or besieged areas. Syria’s population in 2011 was 20+ million. Co-organised by the European Union and the United Nations, the Brussels-III conference aimed to raise funds to support Syrian refugees, IDPs and host countries alike, and to improve the international policy response to Syria’s regional refugee crisis. At the end of its three days, the conference had mobilized an impressive USD 7 billion.2

What the conference did not do, was addressing the fact that past and current funding commitments have not yet tangibly improved the lives of many Syrian refugees in their host countries – with Turkey being a notable exception. Why has this been the case? And what lessons can be learned from the past eight years that should be factored into how the USD 7 billion raised at Brussels-III will be spent?

Durable solutions that are unlikely to happen

Brussels-III was preceded by the occasional organised return of Syrian refugees that made headlines in the past year and yet, large-scale and dignified returns that are both voluntary and safe are unlikely to happen at scale in the foreseeable future. The regime of President Assad has no intention of allowing such returns on conditions acceptable under international humanitarian law. In fact, the regime has put an array of administrative and legal impediments in place that makes it difficult for refugees to return, prove their identity, (re-) claim their property and restart their life safely. Many factors that led Syrians to flee in the first place – insecurity, injustice and being chased from their areas of origin – remain in place. Reports of screening, detention, intimidation, arrest and even torture of the handful of returnees by the Syrian security forces are not uncommon.

''President Assad himself minced no words in this regard when he stated on 20 August 2017 that ‘while it is true that Syria has lost its youth and infrastructure, it has won a healthier and more homogeneous society in the real sense’.''

The background to this bleak state of affairs is that the Syrian regime has repeatedly made it clear that it views refugees as disloyal at best, and hostile at worst. President Assad himself minced no words in this regard when he stated on 20 August 2017 that ‘while it is true that Syria has lost its youth and infrastructure, it has won a healthier and more homogeneous society in the real sense’. Homogeneity was used here in reference to loyalty to the regime and the state, not in religious or ethnic terms. As the Syrian regime gradually emerges from war, it will seek to re-establish itself on its own terms despite its heavy indebtedness to its foreign patrons, Russia and Iran. It will not add large-scale refugee return to its many burdens, save for those who can contribute useful skills or money to the regime’s rebirth, or those who can prove their loyalty.

Next to return, large-scale resettlement to other countries would offer another durable solution to the Syrian displacement crisis. Just under a million Syrians have already reached Europe, either through organised resettlements or during the 2015 Mediterranean crisis. But the political resistance in many Western countries against higher resettlement quotas is significant. In any case, many of our interviews with Syrian refugees in Lebanon indicated that not all Syrian refugees are interested in resettling in a Western country because it means leaving their existing social networks behind and stark cultural adaptation. It is unlikely that organised resettlement will amount to the 10 percent of Syrians urgently in need of a safe haven, as estimated by Oxfam International in 2016. Handwringing over this disgraceful lack of hospitality is as gratifying as it is useless.

Syrian Refugees


The prospects for full local integration do not look much better. In both Jordan and Lebanon, permanent integration leading to citizenship would bring about fundamental changes in the social make-up of society, with attendant political changes in the longer-run. The memory of the Palestinian refugee problem after 1948 and 1967 is still vivid.

The inevitable conclusion is that protracted Syrian displacement will persist over the years to come. It may even continue to be met with a generous donor response that basically meets the requirements, as has been the case so far. However, these funds have so far not appreciably improved the wellbeing of many Syrian refugees in the region, with socio-economic indicators of the Syrian refugee population worsening in Lebanon, remaining uneven in Jordan and featuring positive changes in Turkey alone.

To address this paradox, we argue that the EU’s new ‘compact approach’ towards the refugee situation must be carried to its logical conclusion of looking for displacement solutions that benefit both refugees and host communities, namely, to negotiate and establish a pathway to an upgraded legal status of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Syria that falls short of citizenship.

Compacts as silver bullet?

Since 2016, EU compacts with Jordan and Lebanon, and the special agreements with Turkey, are the main political and financial instrument for donor engagement in the region. Compacts have emerged as a new approach to bring donors, development, humanitarian and private sector actors together under host-country leadership to deliver more coherent and more sustainable results for refugees and host communities. In principle, multiyear compacts offer a strong base for a more coordinated response to the protracted displacement crisis, but also for political dialogue and funding channels additional to humanitarian aid, such as concessional loans and bilateral investment. For example, over USD 20 billion has been promised to the region in loans and Foreign Direct Investment as part of compacts – complementary to humanitarian aid - to strengthen regional economies in view of the refugee crisis.

Compacts assume that refugees are likely to remain displaced for a longer period of time; that the socio-economic wellbeing of refugees and their host communities are strongly related; that refugees’ economic integration and the host countries’ ability to turn their presence into an economic asset is key to the socio-economic wellbeing of both; and that economic and governance reform is crucial to create adequate host country absorption capabilities.

While these assumptions are correct, they also take a rather optimistic view of the willingness of host countries – Lebanon and Jordan in particular – to accept the high degree of social political and economic adjustment needed to ensure compacts deliver on their objectives and make their funding count. In this way, these assumptions risk creating a new stasis in which Syrian refugees lead a life with few prospects as the required policy reforms in the host countries stall, blocked by vested political and economic interests, while refugees’ presence is used by these same interests to acquire a permanent lifeline of humanitarian and development aid.

''Without real freedom to move, work and rebuild their lives, refugees remain dependent on aid and vulnerable to structural exploitation.''

Despite this danger, however, the compact approach has potential to offer much-needed protection for millions of displaced Syrians. By combining negotiations of the politics of refugee hosting with refugee livelihood prospects and seeking to improve the wellbeing of both through coordinated and multi-year resource mobilization, compacts can help turn refugees from being aid dependent into valued socio-economic contributors that enrich their host countries.

Yet, the economic and human potential of refugees cannot be unlocked without upgrading their legal status in Lebanon and Jordan in ways that are respectful of the socio-political make-up and concerns of their host countries. Without real freedom to move, work and rebuild their lives, refugees remain dependent on aid and vulnerable to structural exploitation. Legal insecurity easily increases physical insecurity.

Both Turkey and Armenia offer positive examples of the ‘win-win’ socio-economic benefits that can result from upgraded legal status. In Turkey, Syrian refugees have access to entrepreneurship and more than 6,500 companies were registered in Turkey since 2011 as a result – enriching the Turkish economy as well as Syrian lives. In Armenia, Syrian refugees have used their access to entrepreneurship to create sustainable livelihoods and new markets in the hospitality industry.

Upgrade legal rights of refugees, but short of citizenship

Concretely, if the EU and UN wish that the funds raised at Brussels-III are used more effectively in the service of the wellbeing of Syrian refugees than those of Brussels-II or -I, they should leverage the compact framework to negotiate and establish a simple pathway to upgraded legal rights for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. This requires an intensive policy dialogue with the respective political elites of these countries, including reassurance that full citizenship is not on the cards.

In addition to the funds of Brussels-III, the EU must also double its own resettlement quota to help make its case. Next, large scale, economic and educational interventions – largely externally (EU) funded - could help reduce competition at the lower end of the labour market and help smooth refugees’ entry into the Lebanese and Jordanian economies.

None of this is perfect and it is open to critiques of trying to keep the Syrian refugee problem in the region. But improving the dignity and relevance of the human potential of Syrian refugees would already be a significant step forward in view of present constraints.

  • 1.  The real figure is likely higher due to the ‘politics of numbers’, i.e. refugees are afraid to register themselves and refugee host countries exert pressure on UNHCR to decrease the official number of registered Syrians to show their constituencies that they are tackling the issue.
  • 2.  Donors exceeded their original pledges made at the two past Brussels conferences by 38%. At Brussels-III they also met almost half of the pledges for the coming year and provided loans representing 77% of the lending target. Source (accessed 22 March 2019)