The fate of the displaced

After more than three years of fighting, the Syrian civil war shows little sign of abating. Meanwhile there has been an intensification of the humanitarian crisis. The rise of the phenomenally violent Islamic State, which has spread from its de facto capital in Raqqa, displacing Syrians previously inclined to remain in spite of the war, has in part contributed to the problems. An increase in the willingness of the government to use tactics which indiscriminately target the Syrian population such as barrel bombing, and the continued use of certain types of chemical weapons, has further added to the number of Syrians seeking refuge. This ongoing displacement has enormous implications not only for the future of Syria, but also for neighboring countries currently playing host to refugees.

Seeking to address some of the issues the region is facing, Carol Batchelor, the Turkey representative in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Brian Hansford, the UNHCR spokesperson in Washington DC, and Andrew Tabler, senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute, Tuesday joined Elizabeth Ferris, the co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement in a discussion on Syrian Displacement: Views from the Region.

Opening the dialogue, Brian Hansford noted the sheer number of Syrian refugees now registered by the UNHCR. As of August 29, that figure stood in excess of three million, though Hansford stressed that this does not account for those internally displaced within Syria, or for those who have crossed borders but failed to register. Indeed, those Syrians who are now registered often report having been displaced within the country multiple times before attempting to cross the border. He also drew attention to the number of children – making up more than half of the refugees – now in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

Carol Batchelor picked up on the significance of the number children in refugee camps, noting that this is exerting a toll on the education of a generation of Syrian children. The situation is complicated further in Turkey where the lack of a common language between host and hosted has led to educational difficulties. In some cases children have now missed up to four years of schooling. This is important when considering the long term strategies for rebuilding Syria. If its people are to succeed in reconstruction then they must be furnished with skills and opportunities so as to be empowered to rise to the challenges of rebuilding a state.

Batchelor also warned of the dangers that have arisen as the humanitarian crisis has become more protracted. While she praised the generosity of the Turkish state in its efforts to accommodate refugees, she expressed concern that little has been done to transition from short term, reactive strategies focussing on the emergency encampments set up at the onset of the crisis, to a longer term strategy. As the situation stands, the psychological well-being of the refugees is suffering after three years of living in tents. If this is not addressed there may well be implications both for short-term stability and for longer term rebuilding efforts.

For Andrew Tabler the primary concern lies not with the refugees inside of the camps, who are relatively well cared for despite their growing numbers. Instead he drew attention to those refugees who are unregistered and unaccounted for, whom he believes represent a two-fold security concern. On the one hand there is concern for these displaced persons’ personal security and well-being, which without support from the UN and NGOs may become vulnerable. On the other hand there is the more general security concern that these unaccounted refugees could become radicalized or facilitate attacks and unrest in host nations.

The panelists were all in agreement that there is no end in sight, either for the war or for the displaced Syrians. Tabler estimated the crisis could easily continue for five years, with full settlement taking a decade or more.

But there was disagreement as to how Syria might one day be reconstructed. Though Tabler claimed that it was beyond Syrians themselves to put the pieces back together, both Batchelor and Hansford stressed that the refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan do not see themselves staying in their host countries indefinitely:  generally they want to return, and to play a role in shaping the country’s future once it is safe enough to do so. It is now important for the UN and the international community to ensure that these refugees are empowered so when the time comes they are able to realize this future.

Listen to the event here.

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