It has been a decade since the first group of Syrians sought refuge in Turkey on March 29, 2011. No one was expecting this forced migration to be a turning point for the region and the world.
Syria, ironically, was the second-largest refugee-hosting country in the world before 2010, with large communities of Iraqi refugees. Its rapid transformation into the world’s largest source of refugee flows only a few years later demonstrates that “being a refugee is not a choice.” Having said that, there are critical issues relating to the humanitarian aspect of the conflict that needs to be addressed.
Columnists, analysts, and researchers write analyses on the anniversary of the uprising to analyze and reveal different aspects of the humanitarian situation. Unfortunately, the increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has been a major change in these analyses over the years. Each year, new images of dead children in the Mediterranean, silenced victims of chemical attacks, and separated families as a result of aerial bombings are added to the archives, adding to the pain and suffering.
Over the course of a decade, the conflict has claimed the lives of over 500,000 people and left 13 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, of whom 6 million are in acute need. In addition to these, 7 million people were forced to flee the country, with the majority seeking refuge in neighboring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The lack of effective international burden-sharing mechanisms exacerbated the pressure on these countries.
Turkey has been hosting around 5 million Syrian refugees, including 3.6 million registered Syrians, transit refugees on their way to other countries, and those granted Turkish citizenship. They have been granted a “temporary protection” status, which allows them to access healthcare, education, and the job market. However, an ambiguous situation for long-term integration remains an essential matter to consider. Along with Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, which host the most refugees per capita and are thus at the top of the list of overburdened countries, are grappling with the issue of refugee self-sufficiency and sustainability. The refugees in these countries were disproportionately affected by pandemic-related problems, on top of their already extremely precarious situation. Delivering basic needs, providing decent living conditions, and ensuring access to basic rights are still among the priorities of the organizations working in the field.
Resettlement, return, and integration are the three options in the conventional approach to displacement. Both resettlement and return, as traditional long-term solutions, do not appear likely in the near future. Integration into host communities is critical for refugees to have a decent standard of living. However, “permanent temporariness” in hosting countries and COVID-19-related challenges make refugee integration a more tangled issue. Hence, new approaches and burden-sharing mechanisms are crucial to addressing the displacement problem.
Living trapped in war zones, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Syria are another face of the humanitarian crisis. Four million people, more than half of whom are children, have been living in precarious situations, and their tragedy is deepening by the day. Humanitarians in the region are working in coordination with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to provide assistance to these civilians. The number of crossing points on the Turkish border has been reduced from four to one (Bab al-Hawa) by the UN Security Council. In July 2020, the council agreed to extend cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria for another year after lengthy negotiations. The potential absence of cross-border aid mechanisms to northern Syria could leave over four million civilians without assistance, putting them at risk of starvation.
Besides the challenges in gaining access to northern Syria, safety and security are major concerns for humanitarians. They have been targeted by the parties to the conflict deliberately. Killing humanitarian aid and health workers, targeting hospitals and critical infrastructure are some of the violations that have amplified humanitarian crises, as they pose significant challenges to aid operations. As the Aid Worker Security Database indicates, Syria is the most dangerous place to deliver humanitarian aid.
Humanitarian operations are also hampered by a lack of international political support aimed at alleviating human suffering. Silence and a lack of adequate response to public auctions of forcibly displaced people’s property, as well as war crimes, such as the use of chemical weapons, starvation of entire populations, and blockade, must end immediately, and the international community must take a more comprehensive approach to protect civilians.
Another aspect of the international response to the conflict is effective burden-sharing mechanisms. Syria's neighbors, which host nearly a quarter of the world’s refugees, bear the brunt of the crisis. In the last decade, there have been several attempts by international organizations for the relocation and resettlement of the refugees; however, these plans have also failed. After 10 years of war and untold suffering in Syria, the answer to this question is crucial than ever: Quo Vadis?
Given the slow pace of the peace process, ongoing civilian casualties, destruction of civilian infrastructure, violations of international humanitarian law, and millions of displaced people, it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Leaving another year of the conflict behind, funding gaps and other negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are the main threats to the humanitarian community. The Syria Humanitarian Response Plan’s unfunded requirements increased to 51 percent in 2020, up from 37 percent in 2019. Given the donors’ tendency to reduce international humanitarian spending and divert resources from existing humanitarian projects to COVID-19-related programs, effective humanitarian funding schemes are essential to continue assisting the displaced people. Effective humanitarian programing requires the support of local humanitarian actors, increased self-resilience, and active participation of stakeholders.
Despite the fact that humanitarian actors have worked to alleviate suffering in Syria, it is clear that their efforts have only served to prevent worse scenarios. Nevertheless, in the current situation, humanitarian response is more crucial than ever to prevent another generation of Syrians from being lost. The UN is aiming to provide humanitarian assistance to 10.5 million people in 2021 via Syria Humanitarian Response Plan. This means that the target has been increased by one million people in comparison to last year. The humanitarian community's multi-sectoral responses, which include responding to protection risks, maintaining critical basic services, scaling up livelihood support programs, improving malnutrition, and addressing basic needs, are critical to alleviating the suffering of millions of aggrieved people.
By Dr. Selman Salim Kesgin
* The author is a humanitarian analyst. His research areas cover migration policy and humanitarian action. He is a part-time lecturer at the Social Sciences University of Ankara and Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.