Syria’s refugees: Lower the drawbridge

European states must ease the burden on fragile Middle Eastern countries

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in Lebanon
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in Lebanon

When the top representatives of the world’s international bodies arrived in Beirut last month, they had a clear message to convey. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and Anthony Lake, the executive director of UNICEF, were desperate to urge people and governments to extend more help to the victims of the Syrian civil war. Cautioning that the crisis had now produced the worst humanitarian disaster in at least a decade and the highest number of child victims, they warned that future generations would look back on recent months as a lost opportunity to end the war. It looks likely that their appeals will again fall on deaf ears.

Frankly, the conflict is falling out of circulation. In March there were more than 100 articles on Crimea and the vanished Malaysian airliner for each one on the Syrian civil war, while the country’s crisis barely featured on Google Trends in the West. Not since August and September 2013, when the possibility of a United States-led attack on Syria loomed large, has the world’s attention been focused on this epic crisis. It is becoming a forgotten war.

This is partly due to a fundamental underestimation of the crisis in Western states. As Angelina Eichhorst, European Union Ambassador to Lebanon explains (see interview), the common response when Europeans learn of the scale of suffering is surprise.

This ignorance impacts the ability of aid organizations to find funds. A quarter of the way into 2014, only 15 percent of the money needed to care for refugees this year has been raised, according to the United Nations. Support for neighboring countries bearing the brunt — such as Lebanon — has been “very low,” Guterres admitted to Executive. This will have severe ramifications; cuts to aid look increasingly inevitable.

Shifting strategies
It is partly logical that interest in the war has waned. As the over-simplistic narrative of bad dictator versus good protesters has been debunked, what remains is a confusing picture with no easy solutions. The common refrain among Western citizens “why should we concern ourselves with their civil war?” is understandable, particularly when the developed world is faced with a range of ongoing economic and foreign crises.

Yet it is a flawed logic, first because it assumes no level of responsibility for the state of Syria today and second as it fails to consider the future. On the former, clearly the Western world’s actions have exacerbated the crisis. At times, their interference has been plainly hypocritical — with calls for humanitarian aid juxtaposed with concomitant deliveries of weapons.  In this light, a group of 19 US senators recently introduced a new draft resolution calling for President Barack Obama to come up with a “new humanitarian strategy … protecting human rights inside Syria.”

While the words sounded great, more careful inspection revealed humanitarianism was not the only cause on the agenda. Indeed, in a subsequent interview Senator Bob Casey, who proposed the bill, advocated for increased military assistance so that opposition groups can defend themselves from Syrian government bombing and protect civilians — so that aid can reach those in need.

It appears that foreign powers still have not realized that adding weapons to a civil war is unlikely to calm the situation. Too often, Western governments are still guilty of thinking that this is a war that can be won. It is increasingly clear, in the short term at least, that it can only be managed.

Looking forward, therefore, if more arms will not work and negotiations are unlikely to lead to a breakthrough, the most prudent management of the situation would involve reducing the pressure on those areas most at risk of contagion. Part of this must be a reassessment of the West’s commitments towards Syria’s refugees. Fortress Europe has sought to inoculate itself from the crisis by keeping refugees in neighboring states such as Jordan and Lebanon, but it is clear that host countries can no longer cope (see article on Lebanon’s healthcare network).

This is leading to a desperate scramble to get out. According to the newly released UNHCR report on asylum seekers in 44 developed economies, the number of applicants grew 28 percent to 613,000 in 2013. For the first time in history, Syrians represented the most applications — at 56,400. This was more than double the 2012 number (25,200) and six times more than in 2011 (8,500). Hundreds are dying each year in desperate boat trips across the Mediterranean, while even those that make it alive are often trapped in inhospitable southern states due to EU law.

Letting more refugees into the EU would ease the burden on the Lebanese and Jordanian governments, thus dampening pressure in a volatile region. Europe must lower the drawbridge.