A reality check on Syrian refugees

Op-ed: It's clear that the Syrian refugees won't be returning home any time soon.

As we mark the fifth anniversary of the Syrian Civil War, it is becoming increasingly evident that the millions of people who have fled their homes will not be returning any time soon.

Traditional humanitarian aid is provided with the expectation that the emergency situation is temporary, and with the case of refugees, in the hope that they will be returning home in the near future. But in the case of Syria, that is clearly not going to happen. And despite all of the media focus on the harrowing stories of the hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to enter the European Union, the vast majority — more than 95 percent — are living in the countries immediately bordering Syria. Of the 4.8 million people who have fled the country since 2011, more than 2.7 million are living in Turkey; a little over a million are in tiny Lebanon; more than 630,000 are in Jordan; and nearly 250,000 are in Iraq. An additional 6.6 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes but are still living somewhere in the country.

These Syrian refugees are living in extreme poverty, some in camps or in housing they have found wherever they can in urban communities. As the conflict stretches on, coping mechanisms and humanitarian aid are proving inadequate. Refugees who had savings have largely spent them amid the spiraling cost of living. For refugee families, who have not had access to formal employment opportunities in their host countries, financial resources are hard to come by and living conditions are becoming increasingly dire.

Problems abound for host countries as well. The nations that have admitted the most Syrian refugees have seen their national resources stretched thin. Unemployment, already high before the civil war, has dramatically risen as low-wage workers in these countries are being replaced by Syrians willing to work for less.

Conditions are even harsher for those displaced within Syria. The unrest has strained livelihoods and made food increasingly expensive and difficult to access. As one in three Syrian families has fallen into debt because of food costs, many are desperately trying to make ends meet by selling their possessions, sending their children to work and arranging for the early marriages of their daughters.

For these reasons, we have reached the point where we must make the restoration of livelihoods and access to job opportunities a priority for displaced Syrians to sustain and restore dignified living conditions and reduce their reliance on humanitarian aid.

One strategy that has proven to be very effective in the short term is the provision of cash grants to individuals in exchange for labor that benefits the local community, commonly referred to as Cash for Work. For example, two Baltimore-based international humanitarian agencies, International Orthodox Christian Charities and Lutheran World Relief, are working together to support several local communities in Syria, where there are few jobs or income-generating opportunities, by providing small cash grants to carry out community development projects. This has the advantage of benefiting both individual families as well as the community at large.

While resolving the conflict in Syria is going to take time, there are hopeful signs, including improved humanitarian access in some places as a result of the current cease fire, and the promise of future diplomatic negotiations. It is important to remember that a successful peace agreement will need to address massive humanitarian needs in Syria and neighboring countries, and must include a safe and choreographed return of Syrians to their homes.

While the news headlines focus on the influx of refugees traveling to European countries like Greece, Hungary and Germany, it is developing countries like Jordan and Lebanon, as well as Turkey, that face even bigger challenges and need greater support from the international community. These are also the places where instability caused by the stresses of the huge influx of refugees could further destabilize an already tense region. The United States needs to be bold in increasing our humanitarian support, and be ready to sustain it for some time, if we are to counteract the dangerous forces at play.

Daniel Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian organization. He previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as ambassador to Greece and to Belarus, deputy chief of Mission in Iraq, and a senior official at NATO. He can be reached at president@lwr.org.

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