After four years of conflict, the crisis inside Syria not only shows no signs of letting up, but is now expanding into the region as never before.
Jordan is escalating its bombing runs in Syria in retaliation for the gruesome execution of its pilot at the hands of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). The emergence of ISIS in Iraq reignites sectarian conflict that has now displaced 2 million people there. The fighting around Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border has brought another 200,000 refugees to join 1.5 million already in Turkey, and has inflamed the passions of Turkey’s own Kurdish population. Lebanon teeters under the weight of 1.2 million Syrian refugees as the delicate balance of its own sects is strained to the breaking point.
When no political or military solution is on the horizon, just keeping a bad situation from getting worse becomes the imperative.
With 3.8 million refugees already in the immediate region, wider sharing of the refugee burden is essential. It’s not simply a matter of generosity. Humanitarian aid is a critical tool for convincing countries of first asylum—the ones just across the frontiers of Syria and Iraq— to keep their borders open to people fleeing for their lives. Moreover, it provides essential support to prevent the countries that bear the brunt of the burden from becoming so destabilized that they become part of the burgeoning crisis.
Syria’s neighbors make no secret that that they believe they have reached their limit.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey said some variation of “No more refugees” four times in a recent interview.
In Lebanon, where the refugee influx would be the equivalent of a population as great as Texas, New York, and California combined suddenly flooding into the United States, the government for the first time has introduced a new set of regulations at its border limiting access to Syrians who meet certain criteria and with only narrow exceptions for extreme humanitarian cases.
Jordan has been rejecting undocumented Syrian asylum seekers at its border crossings for some time, and has diverted nearly all Syrians to remote sections of the border, where they attempt difficult and dangerous crossings and are sometimes pushed back. For Palestinians coming from Syria, crossing into Jordan isn’t an option even at remote borders.
“Basma,” a Palestinian from the Yarmouk refugee camp, attempted to seek refuge in Jordan with her husband and three children in December 2012, several days after the Syrian army began intense shelling of the Yarmouk camp. She said that Jordanian military officers there refused their entry even though they carried valid Jordanian birth certificates. “They said, ‘You are Palestinians, you aren’t allowed to enter.’ They took us in a bus and dropped us on the Syrian side of the border at 2 a.m.”
To do the right thing and not turn away refugees like Basma, Syria’s neighbors need the support of countries that have the good fortune not to be situated in a conflict zone. Although donor countries have made about $5 billion in pledges and commitments in response to the Syria crisis, the response is still inadequate. The 2014 U.N. appeal for refugees in the region was only 54 percent funded as of mid-December.
Then there is the question of relieving the actual burden of hosting refugees. Since 2013, only 8,116 Syrian refugees have been resettled to countries outside the region, and another 11,130 granted other types of visas. In all, a paltry 79,180 resettlement offers have been pledged worldwide in response to UNHCR appeals to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees.
The United States admitted 335 Syrian refugees from January 2012 through December 2014. The UK has accepted 90. Germany has taken a more generous approach, pledging 30,000 spaces although the numbers admitted thus far are unclear.
One thing is clear, though: Europe cannot insulate itself from the massive displacements that are now occurring. More than 217,000 Syrian asylum seekers have irregularly arrived in Europe at last count. The lack of safe legal routes to reach protection in Europe combined with the relatively few numbers of refugees admitted means that more desperate people from the Middle East and Africa will put their lives at risk by putting themselves in the hands of criminal smuggling networks or boarding unseaworthy boats. The tragic disaster on February 8 and 9 that cost the lives of some 300 boat migrants in the Mediterranean attests to that.
A European Commission proposal to allow people to file asylum applications at EU offices in North Africa could help, if EU governments were willing to support it, and if applicants could be protected while their claims were pending.
Humanitarian responses are palliatives, not solutions. Feeding and sheltering the displaced will not stop the violence or prevent more people from being forced from their homes.
But the humanitarian response is more than charity. By providing a lifeline to the victims, aid and resettlement also provide needed breathing room for their hosts. Reducing the misery not only benefits the sufferer, but it could also help keep the region from unraveling further—which serves the self-interests of countries near and far.