To really improve the lives of Syrian refugees, Turkey and the world must cooperate better

eosyriablogroundupv5The Syrian crisis is now in its sixth year. Half of Syria’s population is now either an internally displaced person or a refugee. Frontline countries are now hosting close to five million refugees. Turkey, which has taken in more than 2.8 million Syrians, is by far the largest recipient. Instability in Iraq has displaced another quarter of a million people into Turkey, joining an ever-growing number of asylum seekers from countries around the world.

In 2014, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey was home to the largest number of refugees in the world. That’s no accident. In 2011, when hostilities first broke out in Syria, Turkey adopted an open-door policy. Many expected at the time that regime transition would be swift and that refugees would return home quickly. 

Six years into the crisis, the situation on the ground is starkly different, and the war in Syria continues to force people away from their homes. The overwhelming majority of those seeking refuge will stay in their host countries for the foreseeable future. The situation has become, in the words of the UNHCR, “a protracted crisis.”

Mounting pressures

Unfortunately, this realization is setting in at a time when donor fatigue is growing. Although the Turkish public was initially welcoming and generous, this has changed as refugees’ presence has persisted. There are growing calls for them to leave and for new arrivals to be prevented from entering, particularly as competition for jobs, housing, and public services increases. 

[I]ntegration is the only way forward.

To avoid refugees getting locked into a permanent state of dependence on handouts or becoming alienated from the rest of society—both of which are likely to generate security challenges—integration is the only way forward. Turkey has already taken a step in the right direction by opening up its labor market to Syrian refugees. The right to legal employment is an important step, but it is not enough: refugees will need skills training and education on Turkish language and culture, and the Turkish leadership needs to develop new strategies for job creation. Recent studies estimate that less than one third of school-age children in Turkey have access to proper schooling. More worrisome, many are reportedly exposed to informal radical Islamist education. This does not bode well for the prospect of helping these children become productive members of society. It also makes them attractive targets for those trying to recruit more people into their crime or terrorism networks. 

Wanted: teamwork

Meeting these two major challenges to integration—employment and education—requires greater cooperation with the international community. More concerted action at the international level is needed to mobilize funds and implement capacity-building programs that can support Turkey’s efforts. This should be accompanied by a robust global resettlement program for refugees—possibly resembling the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees between 1988 and 1996—who are particularly vulnerable, such as single-mothers with children, the elderly, and those with particularly difficult medical conditions. 

The international community has been slow to respond to the crisis, but that is beginning to change. A donor conference for Syria in London in February 2016 raised government pledges totaling more than $11 billion. These should help to boost persistently underfunded U.N. humanitarian budgets for Syria and help improve the resilience of refugee-receiving communities in front-line countries. Another conference in Geneva in March significantly raised resettlements quotas pledged by participating countries to take Syrian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in order to honor the principle of burden sharing. The U.N. is gearing up to hold a major international conference in September to address refugee and migrant flows in general. 

At the ground level, these fundraising efforts are enabling an array of assistance programs to take root, and in many cases they’re already having an effect. The main areas of need—durable solutions such as integration and resettlement coupled with education and livelihood opportunities—are widely known to all involved, and specific proposals for continuing to fill those gaps have long been on the table. But progress has stalled because of an apparent communication problem in Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hasn’t exactly adopted a constructive approach to international cooperation. He speaks contemptuously of the international community in general and the West in particular (much of this rhetoric is intended for domestic consumption). But since most of the funds provided for U.N. budgets addressing refugees’ needs actually come from the West, both sides have an interest in arriving at a modus vivendi that benefits all, especially the refugees. Constructive language is also likely to lend more legitimacy to Turkish—and for that matter Jordanian and Lebanese—complaints that the international community is not doing enough to share the burden of caring for and protecting Syrian refugees.