UNOPS

Learn from the past to manage Syria refugee crisis in a smart way

  Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK​

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Op-ed by Grete Faremo, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNOPS.
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 As seen in the Huffington Post.
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On Thursday (4 February), leaders from nearly 70 countries meet in London to pledge money for Syrian refugees. For decades, caring for refugees was a simple – if discouraging – challenge. Most often, large camps were set up in sparsely inhabited areas near the border of the country the refugees came from. A minimum of food, shelter and sanitation was provided to meet people's most basic needs.

These camps were, and several places still are, operated in the hope that conflicts will end soon and people will return home. They are temporary waiting pens; the host country often place severe restrictions on movements and prevent refugees from working – fearing they will take jobs from locals.

Over the years we have learned that many of the assumptions behind such refugee "care" were wrong. The main one: Few modern conflicts of a scale that drive large populations to flee have quick and happy endings. They often stretch on for decades.

Another obvious lesson: People are fundamentally creatures of community and enterprise. Camps soon turn into cities, with commerce, social structures and pecking orders. The more restrictions and unfulfilled need, the more enterprise is driven underground, breeding black markets, exploitation and violence.

In fact, tens of millions of people are living in such semi-permanent "camp-cities" today: Somalis in Kenya, Afghanis in Pakistan, and Sudanese in Chad, to mention a few. These camp-cities are terrible places of violence, fear and lost hope. They waste the productive years for millions of people and breed resentment and extremism. 

The crisis in Syria, catastrophic and tragic as it is, is different. The countries surrounding Syria have to a large extent been able to absorb a dramatic number of people – 1.4 million in Jordan, 1.5 in Lebanon, 2.7 million in Turkey and another half million in Iraq and Egypt into their societies. Only a small minority of these are in camps.

There are several reasons for this: extended families reaching across borders and absorbing fleeing relatives; the lessons learned from previous conflicts to avoid putting people in camps; and new and more flexible ways of registering and distributing support to refugees, such as retina scanning, prepaid credit cards and mobile phones to reach, inform and support refuges, making camps unnecessary.

While every effort should be made to end this terrible conflict, we must realize that large parts of the Syrian population will be refugees for years, and many may not ever return. This crisis is our chance to take 70 years of experience in coping with refugee situations and doing it right. So far, we have not done very well, and the tragic scenes of drowning refugees desperate to reach Europe are only the most visible sign of our failure.

Yes, we must provide the money needed to support food and shelter for these nearly 6.2 million people. (So far, only half of the money needed for humanitarian aid in the countries surrounding Syria have materialized, being one of the reason so many people have chosen the risky road to Europe.)

But we must go much further. We need to provide education for one million refugee children. The alternative – a lost generation of children with little or no schooling, with few prospects of work and being easy prey for exploitation and extremism – is a guarantee for decades of trouble and instability in the region and beyond. Investment in education can also reduce the steady, tragic stream of children who are sent on their own on the dangerous trip to Europe as their parents hope for a better life for them there.

We must also be smart enough to encourage and facilitate economic activity and enterprise for the refugees and their host communities. Yes, thousands of refugees overwhelming local communities may seem like a threat to jobs for the locals, but this is not a zero-sum game. People are fundamentally a resource – not a burden, and helping them start businesses and channel investments to areas with large numbers of refugees is an investment in growth – not charity. We also need to consider barriers to economic growth in countries dealing with a large number of refugees, to help drive economic development.

The United Nations organizations are driving the thinking and planning for such "smart refugee solutions". The UN organizations, together with the World Bank and others, are hammering out new ideas to treat refugees like the resource-rich, proud and enterprising people they are, and to find ways to help both the refugees and their host countries make the best out of a tragic situation.

This week, heads of governments of more than 70 countries will come to London to pledge more money for the Syrian refugee crisis. This conference should be the starting point for a commitment to treat refugees in a new and constructive way – not lock them into years of inaction, poverty and despair. ​