How to manage the human consequences of Syria’s chaos

Half of Syria’s population is now either an internally displaced person (IDP) or a refugee. The international community is still struggling to respond to this humanitarian catastrophe, now in its sixth year, with the resources of host governments, aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and a multitude of other actors stretched to the limit. In the absence of viable political solutions to the Syrian conflict, no end to the war is in sight—and funds to support an ever-increasing population of displaced persons are neither sufficient now nor likely to be sustainable in the future. Displaced Syrians—whom we should see not just as victims but as survivors—are taking matters into their own hands, leaving Syria in massive numbers and making treacherous journeys to seek safety elsewhere.

The Syrian tragedy is occurring against the backdrop of a global displacement crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, almost 60 million people have been forced from their homes by conflict, violence, and persecution. And a large proportion doesn’t go home quickly. Finding solutions for long-term displacement has been on the global humanitarian agenda for years, but the international community is failing in this task, especially in terms of providing adequate support for refugees and IDPs to become self-reliant, resettling refugees, and planning for sustainable solutions.

All trends point to Syria becoming yet another protracted displacement crisis with profound implications for Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the major host countries for Syrian refugees—as well as the EU and the broader international community. Can something be done about it?

Failed by our international structures?

We need to first recognize the implications of Syrian displacement for the international order. The ongoing conflict and the displacement it has caused demonstrate that international structures designed to prevent and resolve conflicts—including the United Nations and regional bodies—are not working, at least not in the Middle East. 

Ultimately, the solution to the Syrian IDP and refugee crisis is a political one, since it requires an end to the violence and destruction in Syria. It was only in late-2015, when the Syria conflict began to affect the security and stability of Europe, that high-level efforts were intensified to address the root cause of displacement. So far, a highly fragile and partial truce on the ground, paired with efforts by U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura to keep the warring parties at the negotiation table in Geneva, have not in any way lessened the challenges of extending humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians. The dire humanitarian situation continues to call for burden sharing and international solidarity.

The dire humanitarian situation continues to call for burden sharing and international solidarity.

To date, the burden of protecting and assisting refugees has largely fallen on the shoulders of major host countries—primarily Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The governments of these countries are providing a public good for the international community, and it is indeed disappointing that appeals by host governments and the U.N. system for more assistance received such scant attention—until large numbers of Syrians began to arrive in Europe. Even now, the resources that have been marshaled aren’t sufficient for the gargantuan task at hand, though Europe and the international community are realizing that they need a new formula for better burden sharing with host countries in Syria’s neighborhood. 

A how-to

It is against this background that we propose a New Global Approach for Syria in our new book (part of the forthcoming Brookings Marshall Paper series), “Consequences of Chaos.” This approach would bring together the governments of refugee-hosting countries, the U.N. and other intergovernmental agencies, regional bodies, international nongovernmental organizations, local civil society actors, and donor governments to consider and adopt a new system of burden sharing. The focus would be: 

  • Reaffirming the principle that protecting refugees is an international responsibility; 
  • Supporting common legal and policy approaches to Syrian refugees in the region that includes access to livelihood opportunities; 
  • Reaffirming resettlement as a core component of refugee protection and assistance and re-tooling elements of resettlement policy to meet the needs of the most vulnerable refugees, in particular; 
  • Providing a forum for creative thinking on solutions for internally displaced people; 
  • Establishing a new relationship between humanitarian and development actors; 
  • Engaging development actors such as the World Bank more effectively; and 
  • Laying the groundwork for longer-term reconstruction and recovery efforts in Syria. 

We propose that developing this New Global Approach for Syria could be worked out through a consultative process with stakeholders over a six-to-twelve-month period. It would be jointly led by the U.N. secretary general and the president of the World Bank, and could culminate in a global meeting in early 2017. There is no shortage of creative ideas for strengthening all of these elements—from enhancing resettlement to strengthening coordination between humanitarian and development agencies. The main challenge, as always, comes in implementation, to be carried out by a range of actors, including by national governments and international organizations. If successfully implemented, the New Global Approach for Syria would offer a win-win outcome: foremost for Syrian refugees and IDPs, but also for major host countries as well as the EU, not to mention the broader international community. This new system of combining relief and humanitarian assistance with a developmental approach may form the skeleton of a template for managing the broader global refugee crisis, as well as help reform international humanitarian governance.

Some tentative steps have already been taken towards implementing such an approach. In early February, the “Supporting Syria and the Region” conference in London raised over $11 billion in pledges. In March, the UNHCR held a high-level meeting calling on governments around the world to substantially increase their own resettlement programs for Syrian refugees. A deal struck in March between the European Union and Turkey has received considerable criticism but might mark a turning point in terms of regional engagement with the issue. However, what is still lacking is a comprehensive and well-coordinated approach to addressing the Syrian displacement crisis that is in some sync with efforts to consolidate the truce in Syria, ensure humanitarian access to affected populations, and push for a political solution to the conflict.