Durable Solutions for Syria’s Displaced: U.S. Support for a Better Future
March 8, 2021
The Path Forward is a CSIS Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in food security, disrupted health systems, humanitarian access, civilian protection, and, ultimately, recovery for the Syrian people.
After 10 years, our future became all about war. Our life in Syria is difficult, our house was destroyed in our village, and now we live in a tent. Our house is better, and I wish to go back to our house and for it to be safe . . . I wish to live in any country other than Syria, where it’s safe and there are schools and toys.
- Lara (pseudonym), 7 years old, displaced several times, and now in a camp in Idlib
Over five years ago, in September 2015, three-year-old Alan Kurdi lost his life just off the Turkish coast while fleeing the conflict in Syria. Images of his dead body became a tragic symbol of the so-called “refugee crisis,” when over 1 million refugees and migrants, a third of whom were children, entered Europe. His drowning was expected to inspire new measures to protect forcibly displaced children and their families.
Instead, five years later, displaced children and families from Syria are often worse off. The numbers are staggering—over 13 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since the onset of the conflict. Many face uncertain futures, with little hope for durable solutions: a safe return home, local integration, or successful resettlement. The impact of Covid-19 and the economic crises affecting both Syria and the region intensify current challenges and dim prospects even further.
President Biden assumed the U.S. presidency with a commitment to resuming U.S. global leadership. Recent actions to reinstate a more ambitious resettlement cap and restore the refugee admissions program in the United States are part of reasserting America’s welcoming tradition. But putting the United States back at the center of global leadership on issues of forced displacement will require more than this. A comprehensive approach and strategy to deploy American diplomatic and financial influence are fundamental to addressing forced displacement worldwide. In Syria—the largest forced displacement crisis of the last 10 years—the United States can help prevent tragedies like those of Alan Kurdi by investing in at least three areas: the protection of refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) rights, funding for both Syria and countries hosting large refugee populations, and support for the systematic inclusion of the voices and choices of refugees and IDPs themselves.
The initial welcoming attitude of Syria’s neighboring countries has worn thin as the conflict has continued. Restrictions around legal residency, evictions targeting refugees, and limited access to services and employment are just some examples of host country policies that incentivize returns. Yet Syria remains unsafe for the return of those who fled its violence, with ongoing armed conflict, fears of arrests or forced conscription, and ongoing risks of gender-based violence.
U.S. financial support can help ease the economic and political pressures facing the region’s host countries. But the United States should also use its diplomatic influence to encourage all host governments to uphold international refugee and human rights law, particularly the principle of non-refoulement, and end coercive measures that incentivize or force return. The United States can also do more to lead by example: it has taken in about 17,000 refugees, while Lebanon has received 1.5 million. As the United States rebuilds its resettlement program, it should look to substantially increase its resettlement of Syrian refugees, increase funding for Syrian diaspora groups, and increase Arabic language support to facilitate access to services. All host governments—here in the United States, in Europe, and in the region—must uphold the basic rights of refugees and asylum seekers to healthcare, education, and protection from discrimination and violence, including gender-based violence, while seeking to improve their access to legal and decent employment. Special attention needs to be given to the plight of young people, who risk “aging out” of the special asylum protections afforded them as refugee children.
According to the United Nation’s Regional Needs Overview, 10 million people—over 5.5 million registered refugees, as well as some 4.8 million host-community members—need some form of assistance across Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria. The United States has proven to be a consistent and generous humanitarian donor. This will need to continue, both inside Syria to address the current humanitarian crisis and to neighboring countries to help support the refugee population. The United States should sustain adequate funding to all pillars of the Humanitarian Response Plan and lead a collective approach across donors to ensure multiyear, predictable, and flexible humanitarian and development aid for refugee and host communities. Such funding should promote access to humanitarian assistance and basic services, particularly among the most vulnerable populations, while also supporting investments in livelihoods, human rights, and peacebuilding initiatives. When the time comes for future reconstruction, any U.S. aid should be built around a robust human rights and due diligence framework, developed and implemented with Syrian civil society for plans developed with their participation.
In the meantime, the United States should accelerate aid localization efforts and commitments, including adequate support for overhead costs to cover national civil society organizations’ safety, health insurance, severance pay, and other risk management priorities. Flexible and consistent support for women’s rights organizations is critical to ensure that even the most marginalized are not left behind, including women and girls at risk of gender-based violence. Children and youth need investments not just in their physical safety but to ensure mental health and psychosocial support focused on their unique needs.
Ultimately, Syrians will need to define their own futures, and any U.S. support will only be effective to the extent that it reflects the priorities as expressed by Syrian refugees and IDPs themselves. The United States should support the idea put forward at last year’s Brussels conference for a dialogue track based on community consultation that includes those forcibly displaced, including women, youth, and persons with disabilities, to develop a joint plan of action on durable solutions that can guide the activities of both practitioners and decisionmakers. Donors, host governments, and operational actors should work to include the perspectives of forcibly displaced people and analysis of their needs, identifying required policy change to contribute to their inclusion and self-reliance. Special attention needs to be given to ensure the safe and meaningful participation of girls and women, who face distinct risks, including exclusion from decisionmaking spaces.
Ten years on, many of Syria’s children have known nothing but war. None of the recently interviewed displaced Syrian children in Save the Children programs foresee bright and happy futures inside Syria. Protracted conflict has led to fear and pessimism around the ability to build their lives in a country scarred by war and a society that is struggling to heal. Children want the opportunity to fulfill their dreams in safety, with full access to their rights. The United States has a fundamental role to play in making that opportunity possible.
Bernice Romero is a senior director for international humanitarian public policy and advocacy with Save the Children in Washington, D.C. Jiwan Said is an advocacy and campaigns coordinator for Northeast Syria with Save the Children.
This article drew from Joint Agency NGO Report, Into the Unknown: Listening to Syria’s Displaced in the Search for Durable Solutions (June 2020).
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