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The West should give financial aid, but more must be done for Syrian refugees

February 4, 2016 at 9:36 am

The Supporting Syria Conference, starting in London this week, aims to raise $9 billion for Syrian refugees. The purpose of this money is to end the limbo in which Syrians living in neighbouring countries are currently trapped; unable to work, their children are also in many cases missing out on education. As world leaders gather for the conference to discuss the increase in aid money and how to distribute it, the goal is to prevent the creation of a permanent underclass of frustrated, uneducated, disenfranchised Syrians. The conference has been convened by David Cameron, Angela Merkel and the leaders of Norway and Kuwait. The organisers want money to stop going solely for the purpose of food and aid handouts; instead, it should be used to encourage local host countries to allow Syrian refugees to enter the workforce.

The reasons for this are twofold. Western governments want to stop angry Syrians from turning to extremism. They also want to stop people from deciding to make the journey to Europe. The migrant crisis has led to a full blown political crisis in the EU, with member states reluctant to accept mass resettlement and a broad anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping over the continent. This sentiment is perhaps exemplified by Denmark’s decision to seize the assets of refugees in order to pay for their upkeep. Over the past year, uncomfortable questions have been raised over some basic tenets of the EU, such as the principle of free movement and the Schengen visa system.

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Governments across the continent are keen to avoid a repeat of the situation seen last summer, when hundreds of thousands of migrants attempted to reach Europe. Many of these people were not fleeing directly from Syria, but made the journey after several years in camps in Jordan or Turkey because they realised that the war in Syria is not going to end any time soon. They no longer wanted to live in limbo, unable to work and with their children out of school. (A recent survey found that 50 per cent of Syrians in Jordan wanted to leave because they could not see a future in the country.)

It is this logic — and a recognition of the enormous strain on neighbouring countries – which will underpin the conference discussion about increased aid. It is certainly true that more money is needed, urgently. The 2015 appeal for Syrian refugees failed to meet even half of its targets. This year, insist the organisers, the goal must be to get 1 million more Syrian refugees into education and to get work permits for tens of thousands.

This, though, is far from being a simple proposition. The numbers are dizzying. Syria’s neighbours have hosted 4.6 million refugees collectively. Countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have seen severe disruption to their domestic labour markets, and are therefore reluctant to offer work permits. One suggestion on the table is to offer more aid to countries like Jordan as a sort of pay-off for letting more Syrians into work, but is this going to be effective? If these jobs are created at all, it will take months, and there’s no guarantee that there will be anything like an adequate number, or indeed that the roles on offer will leave Syrians any better off than working as part of the black economy. There are only so many jobs that a small country can feasibly create and sustain, whatever the incentives to do so.

Ever since the start of the conflict, the British government has favoured giving aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon rather than offering resettlement in Britain. Thus far, this has not been effective in keeping them in the Middle East, and it is highly optimistic to think that even these increased measures will be sufficient.

It is not a bad thing to support the right of Syrian refugees in the Middle East to work, nor to increase desperately needed food and educational aid. However, to have a realistic chance of easing the suffering, this needs to happen in conjunction with a whole host of other measures. One of these is structured resettlement. Due to the prevailing anti-migrant sentiment in Europe, most governments have been extremely reluctant to establish a formal mass resettlement programme, although this has not stopped people arriving in their droves. A properly managed resettlement scheme would be morally right as well as pragmatic, giving governments a measure of control over who enters their countries. Given the scale of displacement involved, a mass resettlement scheme should also include the Gulf States and the US. It does not seem likely that this will happen in the near future; thus far, these countries have been just as reluctant as Europe to offer refuge to desperate Syrians.

The war in Syria is one of the worst humanitarian crises of modern times and it demands an exceptional response. It is right that wealthier nations should give generously and work to make refugees’ lives more viable wherever they are; on its own, though, this is simply not going to alleviate either their suffering or the strain on Syria’s neighbouring countries.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.