Aiding host countries in the region

The Syria crisis shows no signs of abating and the numbers in need continue to increase on a dramatic scale. Of a pre-war population of 22 million there are now an estimated 13.5 million Syrians in need inside of the country and more than 6 million internally displaced. At least 4.5 million Syrians are registered or awaiting registration in neighbouring countries, principally Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, though the total number of refugees is likely to be higher with many choosing not to, or barred from registering. The Syria war has, more than any other factor, fueled the huge increase in refugee flows into Europe. Without the prospect of a resolution, or at least a meaningful decrease in levels of violence, the numbers of dislocated, needy Syrians, many of whom will choose to make the journey to Europe, will continue to increase.

In the face of this crisis, the EU bloc has emerged as the single largest donor, with the Commission and member states providing more than €5 billion euros in support of humanitarian activities inside of Syria and to the neighboring states since the crisis erupted. A further €3 billion was pledged at the London donor’s conference in February of this year. While the US is the largest single state donor, having contributed and pledged more than $5.1 billion in aid, the UK has committed £2.3 billion and Germany €2.5 billion. But, according to a recent fair share analysis conducted by the NGO Oxfam, a significant number of European countries, including France which has been the most active European state on the politics of the Syria crisis at large, are providing less than 50 percent of their fair share in terms of financial support for humanitarian activities relative to the size of their economy.

Set aside the realities and need on the ground the levels of financial support still remain wholly insufficient. Funding figures for 2015 show a shortfall of $3.13bn, with only 57 percent of the UN’s funding appeal of $7.21bn, for assistance both inside Syria and across the region, secured.In 2014 58 percent of the appeal was secured and in 2013 72 percent. Over the last year levels of support and various key assistance programmes, such as those provided by the World Food Programme, have been cut due to a lack of sufficient funding. Moreover, access within Syria remains extremely limited. In February the EU reached an agreement with Damascus to set up an office in the Syrian capital to better coordinate humanitarian aid deliveries from inside Syria, but the government’s restrictions on humanitarian access – used as a clear tool of war – means that it remains incredibly hard to deliver to the most needy, including 4.5 million Syrians now located in hard-to-reach areas, or besieged by the warring parties on all sides. Recent international negotiations by the International Syria Support Group have opened up some new channels but it remains to be seen how sustainable they will be. Cross-border humanitarian aid, mostly via Turkey, has increased, but remains at minimal levels due to the security situation on the ground.

With access into Syria limited, more than half of the external support is now channeled to neighbouring countries, with Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey receiving the largest shares. But the capacity and political willingness of these host countries to keep bearing the burden of this influx is becoming increasingly strained. In countries such as Lebanon where refugees now account for a quarter of the total population the political mood is shifting markedly. Even if not always based on fact – in many cases Syrian refugees have actually made a positive economic impact, and in the case of Jordan have largely taken jobs Jordanians wouldn’t themselves want, replacing migrant workers from the likes of Egypt – host countries are now imposing increasingly tight restrictions on Syrian refugees, notably in terms of the right of registration and by consequence the right of employment and access to other core services such as healthcare and education. They are also now blocking the arrival of new refugees from Syria leading to the creation of refugee camps on the Syrian-side of the Jordanian and Turkish borders.

This shift towards a more restrictive environment risks very significant consequences. Locked out of access to legal registration and employment rights, refugees are going to find themselves more destitute, un-accounted for and reliant on informal support mechanisms to survive. In addition to the intensifying humanitarian imperative, refugee populations are likely to emerge as far more destabilising elements, becoming both more desperate and assertive in seeking to survive, in forms that could significantly undermine state order. As a not insignificant corollary, extremist forces are likely to find ever more fertile recruiting ground within this environment. In an already fraught regional setting, this raises the prospect of a widening arc of instability. 

At the same time, a clear consequence of more restrictive regional environments will be a continuation, if not an increase, in the number of Syrians looking and prepared to make the dangerous trip to Europe. Bereft of opportunity and hope within these regional host countries more and more refugees will conclude that Europe offers them the only chance of a better future.

Much of the European debate about humanitarian support to the region is now driven by the desire to stop the huge ongoing flow of migration towards Europe. As part of this there has been a growing acknowledgment of the need to increase support to regional states – and that this can’t be purely directly refugee related if the local politics are to become more favorable. So in Jordan for instance, the UK has been pushing a package that would involve broader support, including loosening trade restrictions with the EU, as a means of strengthening not just refugee support capacities but the strength of the wider economy. Meanwhile, the €3 billion refugee deal with Turkey has required Ankara to grant employment rights to refugees, opening the door to a more sustainable future for them in the country. In Lebanon the situation remains much more complicated given the political vacuum created by the ongoing lack of a president and the fact that, unlike in Jordan and Turkey, most of the refugees are not in camps.

To this backdrop of increased European financial support and focus on regional capacity, there remains one significant elephant in the room: Europe’s unwilling to itself take in significant numbers of Syrian refugees. Indeed, the whole premise of Europe’s current approach is about finding a means of decreasing refugee movement towards Europe. But even were the lacklustre support efforts of today to be improved, the reality is that a significant number of Syrians will see prospects in Europe as better regardless of the local conditions. Attempting to decrease flows alone is likely to fall flat as a meaningful strategy. The flow of significant numbers of refugees towards Europe is almost certain to continue and while Europe can try and address local conditions, the real question it now faces is just how to manage the ongoing inflow. A sharp increase in resettlement numbers, a better managed process and greater burden sharing between member states would be a logical start.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

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