10 Insights About the Syrian Refugee Crisis Five Years On

By Amin Awad

Syrian refugees arrive on the Greek island of Lesvos in July 2015.

This month the Syria conflict enters its sixth year. As the world marks this grim anniversary, questions abound. “How many refugees have left Syria?” “How many will come to Europe, North America and Australia?” “Do the refugees pose security risks?” And most pointedly: “When will it all stop?”

As the Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Syria and Iraq Situations, I have been listening to all of these questions. And I feel it is high time to provide a few answers.

Refugees rush across the border at Akçakale, Turkey, after renewed fighting in Syria.

① The world is at a crossroads with regard to the global treatment and perceptions of refugees. How we identify with, express compassion towards, or disavow and reject the needs of displaced people is being shaped by the Syria crisis. We are seeing this phenomenon unfold in numerous countries around the globe, as each day brings new developments with regard to refugee legislation, border closures and political decisions. How we choose to respond to the current crisis will define the future of international protection and humanitarian response.

Refugees and migrants sleep aboard an Italian military ship after being rescued at sea in June 2014.

② There is a legal distinction between refugees and migrants. Words matter. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution based on reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. The Convention guarantees these individuals international protection, and refugees should not be incorrectly categorized as “migrants” in media, or in legislation. Although economic migrants do not have the same legal status as refugees, they too should be treated with dignity and respect, with adequate safeguards in place to protect their basic rights.

A young Syrian refugee teaches other children at an informal settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in March 2014.

③ Despite continued appeals, UN humanitarian aid agencies are still significantly underfunded. There is sometimes a perception that the UN is a well-funded, even overfunded, entity. This is far from the truth. UNHCR remains grateful for donor contributions, but in 2015 the inter-agency appeal for the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) was only 62% funded. Further, the majority of UNHCR’s budget generally comes from a limited number of donors — the funding base needs to be expanded to include more countries, and we also need increased contributions from the private sector.

A young Syrian refugee helps graze sheep at a tented settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in March 2014.

④ The dramatic movements towards Europe are linked to the current underfunding. UNHCR and partner assessments reveal seven primary reasons why refugees move on beyond the immediate region. These are: loss of hope regarding a political solution to the conflict; feeling unsafe and vulnerable; deepening poverty in countries of first asylum; limited livelihood opportunities and unemployment; aid shortfalls; hurdles to renewing legal residency; and limited education opportunities. Increased funding for UNHCR’s humanitarian response could help to stabilize the onward movements by providing improved assistance so that refugees might envision a better future for themselves in the first countries of asylum, until they are able to go home.

Workers erect 300 tents per day to accommodate 1,500 people at the Ifo camp extension in Dadaab, Kenya, in July 2011.

⑤ Only 1% of refugees are resettled by UNHCR to third countries, and those who are resettled undergo significant security screening. It is important to clarify that the majority of the world’s 20 million refugees today live in developing and middle-income countries bordering conflict states — countries like Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Kenya. These countries are providing a tremendous global good and must be recognized for their continued generosity. Only 1% of these refugees will ever be resettled by UNHCR to countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, Canada, the US or Australia. Currently, many countries around the world do not have refugee resettlement schemes in place, and UNHCR is calling for an expansion of countries willing to initiate refugee resettlement programmes. Further, in the wake of the recent tragic terrorist incidents, some have expressed concern that refugees might take advantage of the resettlement system to enter into Western countries. It is important to clarify that UNHCR has a standardized system in place through which it identifies only the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement. Refugees do not “apply” for resettlement. And those refugees who are resettled undergo a series of security screenings, first by UNHCR and later by the respective host governments.

Mehdi, an Afghan refugee in Iran, opened a mechanical electrics shop after receiving vocational training.

⑥ Refugees can in fact benefit hosting countries and local economies. While refugees are oftentimes portrayed as placing a tremendous burden on hosting states, research consistently shows that, given the right opportunities, they can be a boon, not a burden, to host countries, providing diversified sources of labour and contributing to economic growth.

Maya was born in Sulaymaniyah, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a few weeks after her pregnant mother fled Syria.

⑦ There has arguably never been a more difficult time to be a refugee. UNHCR marked its 65th anniversary on December 14, 2015. At present, UNHCR figures indicate that there are more than 18 million displaced people in the Middle East and North Africa region, including more than 5,390,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, and 12,855,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). This is in addition to the 5 million Palestinian refugees eligible for assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA). With an unprecedented number of conflicts worldwide, refugee numbers have grown rapidly and financial assistance is simply not meeting the requirements. Since 2010, UNHCR’s financial requirements have more than doubled. In the current context, too many refugees are living in inadequate shelters, going hungry, missing out on educational opportunities, and they are also facing increasingly negative reactions rooted in xenophobia and fear.

A UNHCR staff member carries a young boy onto a bus on the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos in January 2016.

⑧ There has arguably never been a more difficult time to be a humanitarian aid worker. Over the course of my 27 years working with the UN, I have visited many refugee camps and settlements in Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia. Never have aid workers faced such significant security risks as they do today, targeted globally by radical extremist groups, which has changed the landscape in which UNHCR staff operate. I am incredibly proud of my staff, and UNHCR has been recognized with two Nobel Peace Prizes, in 1954 and 1981, demonstrating the continued courage and commitment to helping some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Refugees from Darfur, Sudan, walk through a camp in eastern Chad.

⑨ The average refugee crisis lasts many years. While some may have the impression that a refugee emergency lasts for six months or a year, before the tents are folded up and refugees return home, in fact, most displacement situations last many years. The majority of the world’s 60 million displaced people currently live in protracted situations. What this means, practically speaking, is that long after the international media has lost interest, many will remain displaced far from home, requiring aid and assistance. The global community needs to shift its thinking on assistance to refugees — with a greater emphasis on long-term planning, employment opportunities, livelihoods, and self-sufficiency.

A refugee family from Aleppo, Syria, walk through Wächtersbach, Germany, where they have found refuge.

⑩ Finally, when we look back on history, we know that closed borders and closed minds have never led to progress or innovation, or changed this planet for the better. New population movements, even those rooted in tragedy, can carry with them new dreams and ideas. So within the current refugee debate, to those who say “close the borders,” I say that a politics rooted in fear and exclusion is not only wrong legally, economically and morally, but it is also the most small-minded approach, and one which will not push us forward as a people. When we are courageous and clear-eyed enough to view the new population movements and changing landscape as an invitation and an opportunity, rather than a threat, the possibilities for human growth and innovation will be limitless.


Amin Awad is Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Syria and Iraq Situations and Director of the Middle East and North Africa Bureau for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He has served with UNHCR for over 25 years, working in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia and UNHCR headquarters in Geneva. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect official UNHCR policy.

Learn more about UNHCR’s response to the Syria crisis at unhcr.org, and please consider showing your support for displaced Syrians with a donation today.