An unthinkable number of Syrian men, women and children have been forced to watch their homes burn to the ground. Metaphorically and literally, they have seen their houses, communities and nation burn for four long years in a vicious civil war. Many have been forced to flee and are currently waiting in desperate anticipation to be able to return, so that they can rebuild their lives. For now, they persist in a kind of limbo. They have lost that critical foundation which allows them to move forward. So they wait to have a home again, to live again. This is the plight of the refugee.
Today, almost half of the population of Syria is displaced. That is to say, in a country of 22.85 million, 9.5 million no longer have homes. According to Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, this has been the worst mass exodus since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Indeed, Syria’s civil war is commonly held to be the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011 when peaceful protesters, inspired by the dawn of the Arab Spring, took to the streets in opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Government forces immediately responded with violence. Continued clashes led to an armed resistance and eventually, to the formation of a powerful coalition of opposition forces. The United Nations estimates that approximately 220,000 people have been killed since fighting began nearly four years ago.
Both government and opposition forces have been cited for crimes against humanity by groups such as Human Rights Watch and the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. This includes sexual violence, torture, arbitrary arrest, indiscriminate killings, raids against hospitals and medical personnel, targeted large-scale killing by government forces… even starvation is used as a “deliberate tactic of war by the regime,” according to ICRtoP. The worst stories coming out of Syria are the chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by Assad’s forces in Damascus and Aleppo, which left hundreds of civilians dead. Syria has become an image of rubble and suffering and death. For the half of the country who have been forced to flee their homes, they’ve left behind a place that no longer resembles itself. Until the fighting stops and the rebuilding begins, they no longer have a home to return to.
The most commonly cited reason for Syrians fleeing their home is to escape atrocities perpetrated on civilians. But fleeing itself is infinitely dangerous, potentially as high-risk as staying. Families must walk through the night to avoid sniper fire and coming across soldiers, who will abduct their sons to fight for the regime. Displaced persons in general face severely high risk of disease, violence, exposure, and death by leaving the safety of their homes and committing to the most dangerous journey of their lives. Still, the number of displaced Syrians has grown exponentially every year.
The vast majority of Syrians remain internally displaced, and thus less accessible to humanitarian aid. Those who are able to cross the border into neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Egypt are entitled to refugee status under the UNHCR. Of Syria’s 9.5 million displaced persons, 3.8 million are refugees.
At the beginning of a crisis, refugee camps are essential to help shelter, feed, and protect the mass influxes of refugees escaping disaster. But over time, a camp can become the stagnant setting of a family waiting to begin their lives again. Indeed, refugee camps are expressly designed as temporary shelters. For Syrians, however, the crisis is entering its fourth year. Many have languished for too long already.
According to the UNHCR, a “protracted” refugee situation is one in which the conflict lasts for at least five years. With two thirds of the world’s refugees living in protracted situations, the average time in exile is closer to twenty years. This means that generations of children have grown up in camps all over the world, never having known their homeland, or any kind of home which was not constructed on the foundations of transitory living.
Syrian refugees are already facing obstacles relevant to a protracted situation. Their needs have shifted from food aid and shelter, to the need for employment, self-sufficiency, and dignity. Children must go back to school and adults back to work. Homes must be rebuilt and communities reformed. What refugees face in camps are the ever-worsening conditions of disease, poverty, increased militarization, and violence, including sexual violence, along with high rates of despair, boredom, and low self-worth. Indeed, many Syrians have already left the camps in an attempt to forge a life for themselves in the local community.
In the border towns of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, Syrian refugees try to make a living. Yet many families end up sleeping in parks and relying on charity for food. Young boys are sent to work to support the family, and refugees are paid measly wages as local employers take advantage of their desperation. Many lack access to basic health care, partly because the country’s resources are seriously strained. Public services such as hospitals, electricity, and transportation systems are stretched to the limit, especially in countries like Lebanon, which struggles to support their own population. Cultural clashes and language barriers are significant impediments to refugees’ ability to integrate in the local community, not to mention religious and sectarian violence.
Humanitarian actors have attempted to shame the international community into resettling a greater number of refugees. Too often, the burden falls on low to middle income countries in the conflict’s surrounding areas to bear the cost of sheltering refugees. Recently, Canada committed to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. In Sweden, 30,000 Syrians are already making a new home, and Germany has resettled 40,000. But overall, humanitarian actors are disappointed with the international community’s “pitiful” response (as put by Amnesty International) to the crisis by offering humanitarian admission to only a small fraction of Syrian refugees.
Moreover, the international community can help bear the cost of refugees by investing in local, long-term development. For example, Syrian refugees currently lack the long-term, preventative health care and health-related education necessary in any settlement situation. Investments in health services will benefit the local area by decreasing disease (and by extension, poverty), as well as by providing increased access to health services for local communities. Investments in education and other public services will likewise contribute to the well-being of both refugees and local groups. Indeed, studies indicated that a policy of local integration – whereby refugees can legally seek employment in the local community – will actually benefit the host country’s economy in the long term. Not to mention, policies of local integration, along with campaigns against refugee discrimination, go a long way towards encouraging solidarity, and decreasing the threat of regional and sectarian violence.
No matter the path to forging a new home – either through resettlement in a foreign country, or local integration – the solutions for long-term refugees must be long-term themselves. The international community and development agencies must direct their resources towards providing a space for refugees to make a new home for themselves. This is done through funding for housing, employment opportunities, health services, educational facilities, and so forth. These represent a shift from humanitarian aid, which aims to provide the necessary elements for life, to opportunities for self-sufficiency. As the saying goes: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In this story, Syrian refugees already know how to fish. All they need now is access to the river.
Over time, the Syrian story becomes old news. International funding dries up, camps languish, and refugees are forced to rely on diminishing assistance. The way we think of and assist refugees in long-term situations needs to change. Humanitarian assistance that targets local development and community integration can provide long-term benefits for both refugees and local groups. Syrian refugees need the chance to live their lives again. They need to be able to forge new homes. Then, when the war is finally over and it is safe to return, they will know how to rebuild their lives – because they did it once before.
By Layne Carson