The Syrian refugee crisis and the erosion of Europe’s moral authority

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Half of Syria’s population has been forced to flee its homes and is displaced either within Syria’s war-ravaged territory or abroad. As is now widely acknowledged, Europe shamefully attempted—after spending decades lecturing countries in the Middle East on refugee rights—to shirk its responsibility to help those refugees even once they arrived tired, hungry, and scared.

But thanks to pressure from social media, the press, celebrities, and aid agencies, that situation has begun to change. The European Commission is proposing to accept 120,000 Syrian refugees over the coming two years, with most going to places like Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Truthfully, Europe will probably need to quietly take far more refugees than that in the coming months and years.

It will be critical for the EU—and other refugee-accepting countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia—not only to pay attention to the numbers of refugees but also to their needs and varied circumstances. After all, many of those reaching Europe are destitute and weary, but so are the hundreds of thousands of sick and elderly refugees in places like Jordan and Lebanon who are unable to make the journey and whose suffering goes unheralded by the media and celebrity YouTube videos.

Specific provisions must be put in place to help refugees with chronic health conditions and those requiring major medical treatments to reach Europe and gain the help they need. The United Nations, in partnership with refugee-accepting nations, should step in to ensure that refugee families headed by women with large numbers of young children—which also may be unable to make it to Europe—are also enabled to reach more prosperous host countries.

Not a beautiful day in the neighborhood

Of course all of this attention to refugees in Europe must not distract from a more basic fact: that nearly all Syrian refugees are not in Hungary or Germany but, instead, are in countries that neighbor Syria. Many aid workers and refugees are concerned that the renewed focus on Europe will pull attention and resources away from countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which together host more than 4 million displaced Syrians.

If this were to happen, it would only exacerbate mounting funding problems for the refugee response. The United Nations has only received 37 percent of the funds needed to support Syrian refugees in 2015. This has real, tangible effects. The value of food vouchers the World Food Programme provides to each Syrian refugee in Lebanon each month, for instance, has fallen from $30 to only $13.50, despite the fact that each refugee needs roughly $50 worth of food per month to get by. The aid cuts are also evident in Jordan and across the region.

These aid shortfalls mean that families will go hungry, that young children will be forced to leave school and take menial jobs, that young girls will be pressured into “early marriages,” and that spending on health and education will fall by the wayside. More Syrian refugees will, as a result of inadequate assistance in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere, head for Europe.

Supporting Syrian refugees in the Middle East—and supporting the host communities and governments in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, in particular—cannot become a second-tier priority. If anything, donor governments around the world need to do far more to finance food, healthcare, education, and shelter for refugees in these countries, and for those Syrians who remain in Syria. 

Paying their share

This is one area where the oil-rich Gulf states have a major role to play.

While all able countries, including Israel, have a moral obligation to support refugees and those affected by global catastrophes, all countries do not necessarily have to contribute in the same way. In the case of the Gulf states, they have opted to provide large-scale humanitarian contributions in lieu of hosting refugees. This not only represents political and security realities in the region (as discussed below) but also the basic fact that Syrian refugees have demonstrated little interest in heading southward down the Arabian Peninsula.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are unwilling to accept more than a token number of refugees beyond those that they have already let in as part of their support to the Syrian opposition. These countries’ tiny populations renders them uncomfortable about hosting large numbers of inevitably long-term refugees, particularly given their already sky-high levels of unemployment (e.g., at 29 percent in Saudi Arabia) and their direct involvement in the conflict. There is little to gain in chastising them for this basic political reality. Instead, the media and international community must push the Arab Gulf to continue supporting assistance to Syrian refugees elsewhere in the region.

Since 2012, the United Nations reports that the tiny nation of Kuwait has provided nearly $1 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria and the main refugee-hosting countries. Saudi Arabia (with $586 million), the United Arab Emirates ($405 million), and Qatar ($236 million) have likewise contributed. Those are huge sums relative to the size of population in these countries and their economies. It will be important that they maintain and, wherever possible, increase these contributions.

Turning off the spigot

Lastly, it’s important for countries in the region, in Europe, and beyond to increase their efforts to end the war in Syria and, thus, stopping the flow of refugees. Aid, for all its value, does not end wars. Diplomats, backed up by the use of threat of military force, are the only ones capable of taking on this herculean task.

Yet U.N.-led mediation efforts have thus far been lacklustre and fragmented. Russia and Iran continue to support the government of Bashar Assad while most Western countries back anti-Assad rebels with what amounts to relatively negligible support, in the grand scheme of things. It’s a recipe for stalemate and continued waves of refugees, particularly given that international attention is now primarily focused on the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Despite these challenges, the only real solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe and the region will require a messy, unpopular, costly, and closely-monitored political settlement. In the long run, deploying peacekeepers to help create safe havens within Syria, implementing a peace agreement, and providing vast amounts of aid to rebuild relatively stable parts of Syria will save Europe money and help them re-gain their eroding moral authority.