Syria is now a protracted refugee crisis and efforts should reflect this realitySyrian refugees and displaced must be able to live with dignity rather than just to survive.
By Ann Mary Olsen, International Director, the Danish Refugee Council
Sidra is three and a half years old. She is Syrian but hasn’t seen her homeland since she was a baby. She lives with her family in Turkey after they had to flee Syria two years ago. Sidra is just one of around 12 million people who had to leave their homes after the demonstrations in Syria turned into a war, which today marks a sad anniversary.
It is five years since the Syrians went to the streets. Now, many of the streets are left in ruins. Homs' and Aleppo's centers are bombed and uninhabitable and Syria is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.
The only sustainable way forward is peace. There is no other good solution for the Syrian people. There is a great need for the international community to put more pressure on the parties in the conflict to lay down their weapons. But despite negotiations for ceasefires and pockets where acts of war have stoppped - there is no indication that the war in Syria will be over anytime soon.
Instead the five-year commemoration for the war in Syria is yet another and far sadder turning point. When the UN speaks of protracted refugee crises, it's the ones that have lasted longer than five years. Five years on the run, away from your home, driven away from safety, future, education, family, health and security. More than 12 million Syrians have been forced to leave their home. Seven million are internally displaced in Syria; nearly five million are in neighboring countries and about one million have arrived in Europe. A large proportion of Syrians who made the trip to Europe did so out of a sense of desperation and growing loss of hope for a return to Syria anytime soon.
When the war now officially is considered a protracted crisis, the international community must to an even larger extent conjoin the immediate and long-term efforts. Humanitarian aid and long term development should for example not be divided into two different pillars. It takes more than delivering winter clothes and hot food when people are entering their sixth year in exile. Emergency assistance is necessary, but not sufficient. The refugees needs to be able to build a life with a future so they can support themselves, can send their children to school, can go to the hospital, can live - and not just survive - while waiting to return.
Today the average time a person is displaced is 17.5 years. If Sidra is to live the next 15.5 years away from Syria, then it is necessary that she and the rest of her generation go to school and have the opportunity to carve out a dignified life, so they can return and help rebuild Syria when the bombs eventually stop falling over the country. It will require far more money than what is currently being given to the efforts in the neighboring countries. It also includes an enhanced assistance to the host countries that have accepted the vast majority of Syrian refugees, and now are stretched to the limit of their capacities.
At the same time it doesn’t help the potential solutions to say that "we would be able to help many more in the neighboring countries, if no asylum seekers came to Denmark", when the reality is that asylum seekers will come to Denmark and we as a nation are committed to help when we became the first country in 1951 to sign the UN Refugee Convention. The human values, that all people on the run has the right to assistance offered by the Refugee Convention, are Danish. Most of these were formulated by a Danish official. It shall not be forgotten.
In recent years, the UN appeals for funds for immediate relief have only been met with about half of what is necessary. And that's just for the most basic necessities for survival. The World Food Programme (WFP) has repeatedly been forced to cut food rations to refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.
Recently I visited our work in the eastern part of Turkey and spoke with a number of refugee families. Almost all were desperate and had lost hope of peace and a better future. Their children were not in school and many had exhausted their savings and being unable to work, they could no longer pay the rent for the often damp basements or garages, where they lived. Food rations were not enough to feed the families. Because of these circumstances several families have been forced to send their children on to the streets to beg or collect garbage which could be sold for pennies. Each and every one told me that their greatest wish was to return to Syria. A country – their country - just 25 kilometers away.
But even if peace comes tomorrow, the challenges in Syria are far from over. The last time the world saw something that were even close comparable to the situation in Syria in human and physical destruction - was the Balkans in the 1990s. Back then, I worked in the Balkans and have since followed the reconstruction through the Danish Refugee Council's continued work in the area. It has so far taken 20 years to rebuild the countries and heal the wounds and the work is still not over. It will be the same in Syria. A reconstruction of the country will require billions and billions of dollars in aid. In addition, the country has a traumatized population and a young generation where many not received a proper education. Just because the war ends, the battle will not be over.
But we can make it easier for the Syrian population. As mentioned, first of all we need a political solution to the war and a lasting peace. Everything else is just a stopgap. But while we wait for peace, we as the international community must ensure that the Syrian people have the opportunity to live in peace and safety under much better conditions than today. Inside Syria and in the neighboring countries. It will require that Denmark, Europe and the rest of the world are devoting far more resources than what are being given today. There is a need for access to education and health care, opportunities to work and assistance to the Syrians in being able to support themselves. There is a need to give the Syrian refugees their life back and hope for the future. They must be able to live with dignity rather than just to survive.