“By the end of the year it is estimated that half of the population of Syria will be in need of aid. This includes an anticipated 3.45 million Syrian refugees and 6.8 million Syrians inside the country, many of whom will be displaced from their homes.” – UNHCR
There is no end in sight for the Syrian civil war. The number of Syrian refugees has already reached 1.6 million and is predicted to grow to 3.45 million by the end of 2013, placing significant pressure on neighbor countries, particularly Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. There are currently 550,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, 480,000 in Jordan and 386,000 in Turkey. These countries have shown increasing signs of refugee fatigue and rightly or wrongly an unwillingness to accept more Syrians. Their citizens are becoming hostile and even aggressive toward the refugees.
Even Turkey, which had originally insisted that it would cover all the costs needed to support the refugees, has started appealing for international financial assistance and for third country resettlement. Its refugee-related expenses have reached over 1.5 billion and will continue to rise, given that a total of 1 million refugees are expected by the end of 2013. In an effort to alleviate some of the burden falling on neighboring countries, the United Nations recently launched its largest humanitarian appeal in history, demanding $5 billion to assist Syrian refugees in 2013. Moreover, the UN aims to resettle around 10,000 refugees and has asked Western countries to consider resettling some of the refugees.
Given the existing number of Syrian refugees and its responsibility to protect them, the UNHCR is failing to use resettlement as a durable solution, as it has not only set an extremely modest resettlement goal, but it has also limited it to the most vulnerable refugee cases. Part of the reason why resettlement has become a key solution for the Syrians is that Western countries have not shown any willingness to allow the refugees in their countries and are displaying resistance to achieving the minor resettlement objective set forth by the UNHCR. German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has announced that his country has agreed to accept 5,000 Syrian refugees, but only a couple of hundred would be allowed to stay. Canada has also promised to take refugees, in a limited way, with resettlement being provided for people with particularly high resettlement needs.
In turn, the U.S. has announced that up to 2,000 Syrian refugees pre-approved by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be resettled in the United States. Even though, the new national security advisor, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power, the nominee to be 28th U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, are both strong advocates on behalf of refugees, they have not managed to convince the U.S. Congress to accept more refugees. Considering the fact that the U.S. usually accepts around 70,000 refugees every year and the size of the Syrian humanitarian crisis, the United States could and should have taken in more refugees. Failing to help when it can is offensive to the host countries that are shouldering an incredible amount of the burden for the care of the refugees who have been displaced.
The reason for this is that the U.S. and other Western countries have concerns that among the refugees there might be Islamic militants who have played a key role in the rebel forces and who might engage in terrorist activities once on the receiving country’s territory. In fact, the Syrian refugees have already been interviewed by their host countries and they will have to undergo more screenings before being allowed to enter any potential countries.
Not only is the U.S. accepting an extremely small number of refugees, but Jen Psaki from the State Department has emphasized: “Well, let me first say the preferred solution for the vast majority of refugees is to return home once it is safe.” In fact, a statement from the White House explained the increased financial assistance as a response to the “significant strains on host communities and the economic impact of providing refuge to such a large number of people. We call on all host governments to continue to keep their borders open to those still fleeing violence in Syria.”
Instead, the U.S. prefers to provide financial support for countries currently hosting the Syrian refugees. After providing over $510 million in aid assistance for Syrians affected by the conflict, the U.S. has recently allocated $300 million more to pay for food, medical care, shelter and other basic necessities. But considering that Turkey alone needed $1.5 billion and that there are at least 3 more host countries needing financial assistance, the U.S.’ contribution, the largest one, is still insufficient.
Syria’s neighbors have serious concerns about resettlement as well. Some of them, like Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, have expressed concerns that third country resettlement might increase the number of Syrian refugees who hope for a chance for a better life in one of the resettlement countries. Therefore, they believe that unless a significant proportion of refugees will be resettled, the durable solution is not worth implementing at all. At the same time, resettlement is not the key element in UNHCR’s strategy for the Syrian refugees. According to a UNHCR spokesman, Andrew Edwards, while trying to convince countries outside the immediate region to show solidarity to the countries affected by the crisis, the refugee agency’s priority right now is to maintain asylum in the region.
This is an unacceptable position, because the UN agency is responsible to protect and pursue the best interest of the refugees, not of the receiving countries. Yet, Syrian refugees’ situation is critical and often worsening in their receiving countries, given that the local population is feeling the strains of their presence. In Lebanon, where the Syrian refugees already make up one third of the population, they are forced to cope with expensive living and medical costs, with the Lebanese authorities paralyzed by the situation. Lebanon is increasingly angered by the pressure that the refugees put on the water, education and health care systems and the job market. Since Syrians are willing to work more for less pay, the Lebanese have complained that they themselves cannot find jobs and that their salaries are decreasing. The anger is growing and has already caused sporadic attacks on refugees.
Similarly, in Reyhanli, a Turkish town situated near the border with Syria, where over 25,000 refugees live, there is increased anger on the part of the locals, due to security concerns regarding the Syrians. These were prompted by two car bombs in May 2013, which killed 51 people and injured close to 150 and were believed to be Syrian-organized. Many of the Turkish inhabitants currently want the refugees to return to their country of origin, because they feel unsafe in their town. Clearly, local integration in neighboring countries is no longer a viable option for understandable reasons. The enormous number of refugees is without a doubt a burden to the host countries and local communities, regardless of their willingness to host their Syrian neighbors. Resettlement can be an elegant solution of sharing the responsibility for protecting refugees not just in the region, but in the world as well. Therefore, UNCHR should focus on rendering resettlement its key refugee solution for Syria and expand its efforts to convince Western countries to take in some of the Syrian refugees.
Moreover, resettlement is currently reserved for the few, often exclusively based on the receiving countries’ desires. Resettlement is typically applied for by either highly vulnerable individuals or by well-educated individuals that are seen as able to contribute most to their host societies. In the context of a humanitarian crisis, such as the Syrian one, these conditions should be widened to allow an increased number of refugees access to resettlement.
With instances of violence against the Syrian refugees increasingly occurring in host countries, and as the Syrian conflict continues to unfold and the refugee numbers expand, the international community should ensure not just the needed financial resources to assist the neighboring countries in receiving the refugees, but also provide considerable resettlement options to demonstrate that the effort to protect refugees is shared equally, as implicitly required by the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Through their current assumed resettlement commitments, Western countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are not fulfilling their international refugee obligations. They are not only displaying a lack of empathy for the refugees, but disregard for their Middle Eastern counterparts, who are struggling to host desperate Syrians. Moreover, the general public in Western countries is also not exempt from the blame. They should demand their governments provide financial assistance and resettle more refugees. Finally, resettlement should be open to all members of the Syrian refugee population, not just the most vulnerable and the highly-educated.