Hugh Fenton in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan ©DRC
“Many countries have closed their borders to Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria – they are very much caught in the conflict”
The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is providing humanitarian aid to half a million persons affected by the Syrian conflict in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey as well as inside Syria. The ECRE Weekly Bulletin has spoken with Hugh Fenton, Director of the DRC Middle East and North Africa Office, about DRC’s work in the region, the challenges for some groups to find safety and access humanitarian aid and Europe’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis.
Are the borders in the region open for everyone trying to flee Syria?
All the borders are managed, which means that the receiving countries are setting rules about who can cross, when and how. All minority groups have problems crossing the borders. It is usually quite unclear who is allowed to cross and how. There are negotiations between the refugee-hosting governments and the people in control of the border zones to manage the access of people to the border. There are not hundreds of thousands of people queuing to cross because the people controlling the other side of the border know the rules and will be informed by the government of the number of persons who are going to be allowed to cross the border every day. We do not know which selection criteria are used to decide who are going to be allowed to cross. We are very concerned about this.
“All minority groups have problems crossing the borders. It is quite unclear who is allowed to cross the border and how”
What is the situation for Palestinians who lived in Syria? What alternatives do they have to seek safety?
Before the conflict, Syria was hosting 525,000 Palestinian refugees. Syria was one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the world, and very supportive towards Palestinians, Iraqis, Somalis and Ethiopians.
The ability of Palestinians to flee the conflict is really worrying. Many countries have closed their borders or are not welcoming Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria. Palestinians are very much caught in the conflict. Lebanon has been traditionally more welcoming to Palestinians but now Palestinians with insufficient documentation are also having problems entering Lebanon.
Not only can they not flee but also a higher percentage of Palestinians have been affected by the conflict than Syrians in Syria. We estimate that 80% of Palestinians need humanitarian support while a third of Syrians need humanitarian support now.
“80% of Palestinians in Syria need humanitarian support”
Is it possible for Syria’s neighbouring countries to close their borders?
Like any border, the borders in the region are porous and there is irregular access but Turkey, Jordan and Iraq have the ability to manage their borders quite effectively. Lebanon has more difficulties controlling their borders.
It is assumed that the numbers of people who have fled Syria are much higher than the number of persons registered as refugees. Why are so many people unable or unwilling to register as refugees and what consequences can this have on their access to assistance?
There are many reasons not to register. For some people, the trip to the areas where they can be registered is too expensive. Some people who still have some assets might think they do not need to register. Also, there are people, especially from particular ethnic minorities, who might be scared of registering.
Access to assistance for unregistered refugees is an issue. Different actors have different policies. UNHCR focuses on the registered population. ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian protection and civil protection office, has been very generous and supportive regarding assistance to the unregistered refugees.
The crisis in Syria has forced two million people to flee their country and register as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey. How has the local population reacted to this?
Refugee-hosting countries have severe problems but these problems are minor compared to the problems within Syria. We have 6.5 million people displaced in Syria receiving far too little aid. This is a catastrophe. The host countries are in a crisis, not a catastrophe.
In the refugee-hosting countries, the level of aid is insufficient for the needs, especially considering the social stress caused by having this many refugees in the country. However, the local population can also benefit from refugees. If you are a person that is trading in food or household supplies, you are making money from refugees. More and more, the humanitarian agencies are going to a cash distribution method, rather than receiving food or kitchen sets, refugees will get cash to make their own decisions
There are also some people in the community who are not benefiting from the presence of refugees. Refugees work in the informal labour market and are driving down wages. Furthermore, education, health, and all the government services are under severe stress.
The answer is to provide support to the hosting governments so that they can expand education and health services to cope with the increased demand of these services due to the refugee influx. This also encourages integration of refugees into society rather than setting up parallel systems for the refugees. The expensive and temporary systems of humanitarian supply of education and health are not the answer.
The stress is not just limited to the immediate areas where the refugees live. For instance, there is a very large pool of Egyptian unskilled workers who used to work in Jordan but have now fewer job opportunities there due to the increase in Syrians working in the informal labour market. There is not much work in Egypt and Libya is very difficult. What will they do? They might come to Southern Europe, we just do not know what will happen but we need to look at the effects on the whole region not just in the areas where the refugees have arrived.
Many people in Syria are not receiving the assistance they need. What are the main obstacles for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in Syria and the region?
The Danish Refugee Council works through Damascus, giving assistance in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. However there are parts of the country that are not reachable from Damascus these days, including parts of the suburbs of Damascus. We are very concerned about the people that cannot receive humanitarian assistance because they are caught in conflict pockets. Some other agencies work from across the border from Turkey, Jordan or other countries.
Does DRC provide aid exclusively to the refugee population or to the vulnerable local population as well?
The best solution is providing aid to people in need without looking at status, as whether the person is a refugee, a migrant or a poor Jordanian. That is what we try to do but there are restrictions on it. Sometimes donors do not want to see money to go to host communities, only to refugees. And sometimes, we are not allowed to help the refugees. For example, the Jordanian government allow us to provide vocational training to Jordanians, not to Syrians in the community.
“The best solution is providing aid to people in need without looking at status, as whether the person is a refugee, a migrant or a poor Jordanian”
How do you assess Europe’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis?
ECHO has responded very well and very fast. However, we are concerned that the host countries which have put the most resources into the response are getting the least support from all donors, not just European donors.
Turkey and recently the Kurdish region of Iraq have put a major amount of their own resources into the response, billions of dollars in the case of Turkey. Because most of the humanitarian needs have been met by those governments, the percentage of support coming into these countries is very low. A clear message is being sent that if the hosting countries provide support, foreign aid will not come.
Turkey is still managing the camps very well but the government recognises that the majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside camps, and is asking for support to assist these people.
“A clear message is being sent that if the hosting countries provide support, foreign aid will not come. If the host countries do not provide the funds, funding will be provided”
Regarding EU migration policy, there is a double message being sent: we are not willing to keep our borders open but Syria’s neighbouring countries should. This massively reduces the credibility of the EU Member States in this dialogue.
Also, at present, it is incredibly muddy who is being accepted under the humanitarian admission programmes and why. Whatever numbers Europe decide to accept temporarily or permanently, there has to be clarity on who is being accepted and why. The German example is not shown in great light.
The majority of people want to stay close to home. The number of people who intend to migrate to Europe is very small.
“The double message sent by the EU – we are not willing to keep our borders open but Syria’s neighbouring countries should – massively reduces the credibility of the EU Member States in this dialogue”
80% of Syrian refugees live out of camps throughout the Middle East. Why do people choose not to live in refugee camps and what are the opportunities and challenges regarding their access to rights?
In a normal situation we prefer people to live outside camps as it is a much more dignified solution for refugees. More support should be given to those outside camps to make sure they are not forced into camps by poverty. However, with the scale of the crisis there is an increasing argument that a structured approach is needed for the people who cannot cope in the host community so that they have somewhere to go.
Hundreds of news items on the plight of Syria’s refugees are published and broadcast every day, is there anything that is not being said about the Syrian crisis?
What is happening to Palestinians, Somalis, Iraqis, and all non-Syrians who lived in Syria is underreported. 8,000 Somalis lived in Syria at the start of the crisis, what has happened to them?
“8,000 Somalis lived in Syria at the start of the crisis, what has happened to them?”
How do you think the situation will have evolved within the next six months?
At the moment there are no signs of a political solution, but there is no alternative to a political solution. A military victory is not possible. There are a number of powers which would prevent a military victory because, contrary to the situation one year ago, nobody wants to see any of the sides win, so the solution has to be negotiated.
“If Syria changes to such an extent that Syrians don’t recognise their own country, if it becomes a theocratic islamist State, there would be a lot of refugees who wouldn’t want to return”
The problem comes if the country changes to such an extent that Syrians don’t recognise their own country. If Syria becomes a theocratic islamist state, then there is a real question about return. There are a lot of refugees who wouldn’t want to return to a certain variety of State. For instance, there are many wealthy Iraqi Christians in Amman who do not see Iraq as their home anymore because the place has changed. If Syrians do not see Syria as their home, then we’ll have a major migration problem
“Nobody wants to see any of the sides win. There is no alternative to a political solution”