The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis: Material and Historical Legacies

Estella Carpi

15 marzo 2021

While the “refugee crisis” in Europe and other western societies has often made the headlines, the vast majority of nearly seven million Syrian refugees still remain in neighboring countries including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. The legal status and the diverse financial capacity of these refugees often determine and impacts the decision-making processes decisive of their faith. In this article, I will first discuss the living conditions of these refugees, still living in the countries neighboring Syria. I will then provide some thoughts about the legacies left by the Syrian conflict and the subsequent humanitarian crisis, now ten years old.

While refugee diversity is increasingly marked by gender, ethnicity, and religious belief, the professional, financial, and class differences of refugees still goes unheeded in humanitarian and media accounts. Due to economic, political, and legal constraints, internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees in the Middle East are those in the greatest need, having irregular access to basic services such as healthcare and education.

Approximately 30% of the refugees remaining in the Middle East still live in official or informal camps. Most refugees live in cities, where finding employment is generally easier. Nonetheless, refugee support systems, now increasingly faced with budget shortfalls due to the length of time since the crisis outbreak, have not been able to provide adequate shelters. Extensive flooding has damaged poor-quality tented shelters in camps, which refugees are likely to have made and maintained themselves throughout their years of residence. Even as the 2016 Global Compact on Refugees was aimed at prompting the formalization of refugee labor and, consequently, the end of refugee labor exploitation, working conditions are still very bad for the few capable of accessing regular salaries by working in the cleaning, agriculture, and construction sectors. Indeed, most of the refugees who presently live in the region are from working-class backgrounds and are either financially unable to access smuggling networks to illegally reach western shores or are unlikely to be prioritized in humanitarian corridors and global resettlement programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also raised the issue of inadequate healthcare given that humanitarian agencies only generally cover medications and healthcare up to 80% of expenses, and only in the case of non-chronic diseases. Refugees have therefore mobilized themselves to support each other and put in place safety measures to fight the pandemic across the region. The long-term timeframe of the crisis has also made the difficulty of access to education an important concern. Ten years on, providing Syrian refugees with formal, high-quality, and internationally recognized education is the focus of significant effort. 

Moreover, while the spotlight has mainly been on refugees and on the daunting impact of the crisis on the infrastructure, social cohesion, and security of receiving countries, scarce attention has been paid to IDPs. Numbering more than six million, IDPs also live in poor conditions, suffering from food insecurity, unemployment, and lack of access to basic welfare, especially in the previously “liberated” areas, subsequently regained by the Syrian government. The depreciation of the Syrian pound and the current dramatic economic situation have worsened living conditions in a country devastated by a decade of war and destruction.

In this framework, the international humanitarian community has failed in providing effective protection to refugees by not preventing deportations and evictions, and return is not an acceptable scenario if minimum humane conditions are to be guaranteed: some people who did return were shortly afterwards reported detained or missing. International humanitarian agencies have too often shied away from providing advocacy since they either lack a suitable legal mandate or because they do not intend to endanger their relationship with the host government. What has gone unheeded in discussions around return to Syria is the issue of indirect forced returns. For instance, some refugees report threats to their families by the Syrian regime if they do not return and join the army. Many of the stories I have heard in Lebanon’s informal tented settlements have dangerously passed for “voluntary returns”. 

It is noteworthy that Syria has been in and out of the news over the last decade, which has not enabled external spectators to grasp how things have changed on the ground during that time. The Syrian crisis, in this sense, is an example of how quickly humanitarian and forced migration history slips out of public memory. As a result, we have also lost track of other contemporary crises and how they relate to the Syrian.

The way in which media representation contributes to the sweeping away of historical information points to three main mistakes that continue to be perpetrated. First, a lack of respect for the diversity of refugees is indicated by the fact that aid, too often, is not accompanied by advocacy. Advocacy, however, cannot be enough if humanitarian assistance is not to be mistaken for a solution to politically grounded violence and injustice. Second, the lack of focus on advocacy constitutes a significant failure by international humanitarian agencies to provide refugee protection. Third, we need to shift the gaze from refugee victimhood to the civic responsibility of local citizens. Programs involving the inclusion and integration of refugees inadvertently remain politically conservative: there is an urgent need for local citizens to learn about forced migration and what refugee reception involves. Political conservativism thrives exactly on such partial views, which fail to understand human mobility as an everlasting process involving all social groups, with no need for the latter to physically move in order to learn, receive newcomers, and progress.

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