Now in its 14th year, Syria and its refugees are one of the world’s most severe and most forgotten crises (Photo: WFP)


After Ukraine and Gaza, the forgotten crisis - Syrian refugees

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After 13 years of conflict and crisis, the situation faced by many Syrian refugees remains desperate. There are now more than five million refugees from Syria are registered in the region - with the majority living in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Despite many having been displaced for more than a decade, returning home in safety is simply not an option. Without a political solution in sight, the escalation of hostilities across Syria since October 2023 has caused suffering to a level unseen since 2019. In some areas the threat of arbitrary arrest and detention for those who do return also continues to loom large. Many refugee families that we speak to have had family members returned to Syria only to never hear from them again.

Meanwhile, while refugee hosting countries in the region have shown incredible hospitality for over a decade, they are also facing their own compounding crises. In Lebanon, where over 25 percent of the population are Syrian refugees, two in every three people - spanning both refugees and their host community - currently require humanitarian support.

Not only do these pressures mean they are less able to support refugees’ complex needs, but they are contributing to increasing negative sentiment towards them. Across the region, the spectre of return to a country that UNHCR continues to deem unsafe is increasingly hanging over many Syrians.

Until safe, dignified and truly voluntary returns to Syria become a viable solution, it’s clear that the international community has a vital role to play in protecting and supporting refugees in the region.

This week’s Brussels Syria Conference is a chance for the European Union and its member states to make this a reality, and it is vital we see bold commitments for the coming years. There are four key actions needed.

Four steps

First, funding is key. Despite the clear increase in humanitarian need, funding in response to the Syria crisis has plummeted. In 2023, the humanitarian response was more than 60 percent unfunded and donors have warned of an additional 20-40 percent budget cut in 2024. In recent years, the Brussels Syria Conference has provided an important forum for the EU and broader international community to reinforce their support for the region, and they have consistently stepped up their financial commitments.

These pledges have helped to sustain humanitarian efforts. Yet, they remain far short of covering the growing needs of displaced people inside Syria, and those who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. This year, they have the opportunity to put this right. Rather than divesting from the region, it’s time to look at how we invest and better support Syrian people and the countries hosting the vast majority of its refugees.

Second, it’s not just more funding that’s needed but also the right type of funding. There is growing recognition that the bifurcation of humanitarian and development finance is unhelpful in addressing protracted crises such as this one. Instead, the EU needs to respond both to people’s immediate needs, and invest in programmes that build their self-reliance and resilience, so they can thrive in the longer-term without external assistance.

One key to making this a reality could be the establishment of a new Resilience Fund - jointly owned by the European Commission’s departments for International Partnerships (INTPA) and Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) - to help meet basic needs and drive resilience of people impacted by fragile and conflict-affected states like Syria, with a view to ensuring people can safely return to their homes. The commission should also ensure that its funding is funnelled directly to locally-led NGOs to ensure it has maximum reach, scale and impact.

Third, the international community must stand firm against human rights violations and the persecution of refugees. In some host countries, such as in Lebanon, there are reports of Syrians facing discrimination, including frequent raids, evictions and forced deportations by authorities. While host governments are working to fulfil their obligations towards providing refugees with basic social services, it is important that they also prioritise their safety and protection. The International Rescue Committee's experience shows clearly that when host governments adopt more inclusive policies, it not only benefits refugees but their host communities.

In Jordan, for example, the government - with support of the international community - has worked to ensure that Syrian refugees have access to primary and secondary education, resulting in over 135,000 Syrian refugee children being enrolled in public schools across the country. While more work needs to be done to improve the quality of education, this initiative both offers Syrian children a chance of a brighter future, and fosters greater social cohesion and resilience within Jordanian society.

Fourth, there is an urgent need for more safe routes out of the region. Trapped in a precarious - and in some cases increasingly hostile - situation in their first countries of asylum, Syrians are left with few safe options. Until voluntary returns become viable, it is essential that wealthier, more stable countries - including those in the EU - urgently expand refugee resettlement, and other safe pathways including work, education and employment visas. 

This week, the EU, together with the broader international community, must demonstrate that it can lead with humanity, and use its influence to raise the bar for people impacted by one of the world’s most severe and most forgotten crises. This is not only a vital expression of solidarity with Syrian refugees, but with host countries in the EU’s southern neighbourhood who are in urgent need of greater support and responsibility-sharing.

Now in its 14th year, Syria and its refugees are one of the world’s most severe and most forgotten crises (Photo: WFP)


Author Bio

Harlem Desir is the senior vice president for Europe of the International Rescue Committee, where Nivedita Monga is the country director for Jordan.


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