Syrian refugee crisis has been unfolding for years

Friday 18/09/2015
It is a crisis of civilisation and humanity

The world has finally woken up to a reality that the Middle East has been living through for four years. The unbearably tragic picture of a Syrian toddler face down on a beach in Turkey has driven home the tragic fate of millions of refugees fleeing the unspeakable violence caused by the Syrian war. It is a crisis of civilisation and humanity.
When violence in Syria erupted, some Syrians moved from their country to neighbouring lands, mainly to Jordan and Lebanon, two countries with their own economic, demographic, social and political woes. These two countries have made the incred­ibly bold decision to not turn away. Neither country has signed the Geneva Convention on refugees but both are abiding by it.
Lebanon, for example, a country of 4.2 million, has received and sheltered close to 1.5 million refugees — more than a quarter of its population. This is unthinkable anywhere else. It’s a decision that has provoked what is possibly an irreversible shift in this delicate country’s social balance.
The same openness and generosity go for Jordan.
One pauses to think, therefore, about the public turmoil that a few thousand refugees have provoked in rich and vast Europe.
But now the question is: What can be done?
Conflict, violence and interna­tional sanctions have not allowed the World Bank to engage in Syria. We have, however, been focusing on the mitigation of the impact of the war on host countries, primarily Lebanon and Jordan. We have devel­oped analytical tools to measure the effects of the Syria situation on the two countries.
We have engaged in emergency operations to reduce the adverse effects of the crisis, such as establishing financing mechanisms and rapid responses to help municipalities cope with the additional pressure on infrastructure. We supported the host governments allowing refugee children access to schools and education and so that health care facilities could keep serving citizens and refugees alike. We have expanded existing poverty-targeting programmes to include communities that are hosting Syrian refugees.
Our work has complemented that of UN humanitarian agencies and other donors and has offered a new dimension to the interna­tional community’s approach, enlarging the discussion from a purely humanitarian one — addressing the needs and chal­lenges of the refugees — to one that takes the plight of the host communities very much onboard. The world has moved from a purely humanitarian approach to one that stresses resilience and development.
At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the refugees were wel­comed in Lebanon and Jordan. Their numbers were relatively small and they did not present an immediate challenge. There was a solid sense of solidarity. With time, however, and with the growing number of refugees, the interaction between the host and refugee communities became more difficult.
Looking ahead, we will need to focus on maintaining social cohesion to ensure smooth co-existence between refugee populations and host communi­ties.
The situation in Syria has deteriorated and is so complex that no one can predict when the conflict will end or when the refugees will be able to return. Interna­tional experi­ence shows that refugees fleeing conflict spend an average of 17 years before starting to return home in small numbers. Some never leave their host countries. The prospect of this becoming reality is starting to trickle down into the discourse of policymakers in Jordan and in Lebanon.
In Jordan, Syrian refugees are not just settled in camps — the Zaatari camp being the most well-known — but are spread throughout the country. Syrians in northern Jordan are starting micro and small businesses, allowing them to subsist and contribute to an interesting economic dynamic.
The same can be witnessed in Lebanon with the pressure the refugee influx is putting on the labour market, housing and basic services. Could we be so bold as to observe that the incremental weaving of refugees into the economic fabric of both countries could lead to the transition of “refugees as a liability to refugees as an asset”? From a purely economic point of view, possibly.
But other considerations are to be looked at, which makes the situation more complex.
The fact remains that these countries are hosting dramatic numbers of refugees — potentially altering an already delicate political and social balance and threatening to reverse hard-won development achieve­ments — and they are not supported in a way commensurate with the immediate needs of their tremendous effort to alleviate the plight of human beings fleeing a brutal war. Think about it: By welcoming the refugees, these countries are providing the international community a generous public good. And we are asking them to pay for it. The World Bank and other donors and partners should think seriously about identifying new, creative financing schemes for these middle-income coun­tries to cope with such crises and manage their own development agendas at the same time.
Let’s remember that the refugee crisis that we see in horror on the nightly news has been unfolding for years in the Middle East. Countries that have experienced their own conflicts are now in unsustainable situations as they cope with the consequences of this war.
It is time for Europe, and indeed the world, to pay much closer attention, lest they see this wreck drift towards their shores. Working to settle the conflict in Syria and helping the host countries are the only ways to first contain and then resolve this human tragedy.