Not likely to go home: The challenges of integrating Syrian refugees

Western media reports are filled with stories on the “migrant crisis,” as hundreds of thousands of mostly Syrian refugees search for ways to reach European countries that will allow them to enter. Make no mistake: This is indeed a genuine crisis, as over 400,000 refugees and migrants have already arrived in Europe this year (far more than the 265,000 that arrived in all of 2014). But if Europe is facing a migrant crisis with 400,000 arrivals, what does that say about countries in the region who have been hosting 4 million people—10 times the number arriving in Europe?

Encouraging integration, not handouts

The answer to the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe lies in Syria and in its neighboring countries. Antonio Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, got it right when he warned: “Without peace in Syria and without massive support to the neighboring countries…we risk a massive exodus” of refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. We’re not too optimistic about prospects for peace anytime soon in Syria, but more can be done to support refugees in the region.

We just released a new report based on recent field work, where we looked at the response of the Turkish government to the almost 2 million Syrian refugees residing in the country. We found that Turkey has been deeply affected—economically, politically, and socially—by the Syrian displacement crisis, but has managed reasonably well. 

[C]learly much more is needed to make burden-sharing more than a catch phrase.

But as the crisis enters its fifth year, a different sort of approach is needed—less emphasis on building camps and more support for integrating Syrian refugees into Turkish society. Syrian children need to be in school. Syrians need support to learn Turkish. Breadwinners need the opportunity to access (legally) the labor market. 

The Turkish government rightly highlights the billions of dollars that it has spent to protect and support refugees, and clearly much more is needed to make burden-sharing more than a catch phrase. But there are steps that the Turkish government can take now, including:

  • developing a comprehensive policy to guide refugees’ integration process and mobilize public support for it;
  • deepening and expanding relationships with international agencies and nongovernmental organizations;
  • improving its own transparency in order to win the trust of major donors;
  • being wary of proposing safe zones which may put Syrian civilians at increased risk; and
  • contributing however it can to efforts to finding a negotiated settlement in Syria. 

We acknowledge that none of these are easy tasks, of course. We would further acknowledge that Turkey needs and deserves the help of the international community in taking these steps. However, they are urgently needed in light of the protracted nature of the Syrian crisis. Ultimately, these steps which will go a long way in upholding the rights of Syrian refugees and giving them some reasons for hope.