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Safeguarding Syrian Refugees

By Amanda Roth

Over two and a half million people have fled Syria – more than 10 percent of the country’s population. In Lebanon last week, the number of refugees officially surpassed one million. One in four residents there is now a Syrian refugee. In Jordan, the Za’atari refugee camp is the second largest in the world, and the fourth largest city in Jordan. The number of people seeking refuge in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq is growing exponentially; the UN predicts the total number of refugees from Syria may exceed four million by the end of 2014.

This is the worst refugee crisis in recent history. Governments and humanitarian aid groups are desperately crying out for more aid, but out of the $6.5 billion requested by UNHCR, only 14% has been funded. Not surprisingly, the international community has been slow to react. 

By now, the narrative of massive and underfunded humanitarian crises is par for the course. But if the United States and other western countries ignore the plea this time, they do so at their own peril. The Syrian refugee crisis is not just a humanitarian atrocity – it’s a grave security concern, and if nothing is done, it may destabilize an already volatile region for decades to come.

The security community has been warning of the risks of large refugee flows for years –refugees increase the likelihood of conflict in the receiving state, within the sending state, and between the two states. Two million Syrians outside Syria’s borders, in other words, could extend the seemingly intractable conflict in Syria, cause civil unrest and uprisings in Lebanon, Iraq, or elsewhere, and – perhaps most critically – turn Syria’s civil war into an interstate conflict.

This is not just unnecessary hand wringing on the part of academics and political scientists. On the Turkish border, for instance, smuggling networks that once used to transport cheap oil and goods between the two countries, now deliver ammunition and smuggle Sunni fighters from other countries to help the war effort. In Lebanon, the local population is growing increasingly hostile as refugees contribute to increased competition for jobs, high demands on stretched social services, and increasing fear for Lebanese security (last August, Syrian jets fired rockets into a refugee camp in northern Lebanon). In Iraq, an influx of Syrian Kurds has brought Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government into the conflict.

It’s easy to see how this humanitarian crisis becomes a massive security risk. And no, neither the United States nor the international community can stem the flow of refugees or eliminate the problem without somehow ending the conflict. But there is an opportunity to tailor the international response in such a way that it will mitigate many of these risks – and in all likelihood, improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of refugees.

First, receiving countries must stop warehousing refugees in large camps such as Za’atari. These camps, often housed near the border, make it easier to smuggle and hide arms and ammunition, or for Syrian fighters to recruit child soldiers.  Near the borders, the limited amounts of food and medical supplies available in the refugee camps can be easily diverted to sustain conflict. In past crises, attacks on refugee camps have been suspiciously timed to coincide with aid drops.  

Second, funding should be targeted to sustain refugees and to stabilize the local population. Integration with the local population can reduce the risks posed by large refugee camps, but only if assistance is provided to both. In Lebanon, for instance, the UN is requesting aid to help promote job creation and supplement over-extended social services in border towns that have seen huge influxes of refugees. This was effective in Kenya in the 1990’s, when UNHCR distributed regional aid and reduced the tensions that had originally occurred when the poor local population watched refugees receive meals and financial assistance that were unavailable to Kenyan citizens. Providing funding and aid to refugee camps while ignoring the local population will only increase hostility and the potential for conflict with the local population.

Countries should also be encouraged to grant refugees the right to work and move freely. Thus far, receiving countries have treated most refugees with respect, but as the number of refugees increases and aid does not, this may change. Jordan, for example, recently began requiring Syrian refugees to hold work permits that cost $500 each. The international community must acknowledge that the majority of refugee situations are protracted, and that allowing refugees to hold jobs or farm local land is the only way to promote long-term stability. Otherwise, Syrians in urban areas may be forced to return to the large border camps and rely indefinitely on humanitarian aid. 

These responses have been proven to help mitigate the security concerns related to refugee camps before, in countries such as Uganda, Thailand, and Kenya. Using small, village like camps located away from the border – or better yet, allow refugees to self-settle in existing towns and villages and providing financial support to the entire region – can not only improve the lives of refugees, but can lead to more peaceful integration conditions for all involved. 

Many host countries, however, maintain large refugee camps on their borders for two primary reasons. First, they lack the resources to assist in any other way. Most host countries have difficulty providing for their own citizens, which leads to the second concern: countries know that large refugee camps are a reminder to the international aid community. They may fear that if they integrate refugees into the larger fabric of the country, they will be forced to shoulder the burden themselves, often indefinitely. Housing refugees in large refugee camps near insecure borders is the best way to make sure international aid groups continue to provide assistance.

This is where the aid requested of the international community becomes critical. We don’t know how to end the violence in Syria, and we don’t know when it will end, nor when refugees will be able to return home. Providing targeted and strategic relief for the millions of refugees and the small countries struggling to assist is one place to begin, and may go a long way towards mitigating the growing security risks in the region.

The movement of two and a half million people across international borders will always be destabilizing, and these measures are not a panacea. But the plight of Syrian refugees is not just a humanitarian crisis. It’s a security crisis, and the international community must recognize that and act accordingly. 

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Amanda Roth is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal, and is a graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

[Photo courtesy of  IHH Humanitarian Relief ]

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