The exodus of more than 2 million people from Syria into other Arab countries is one of the defining humanitarian crises of the 21st century, and one that could have massive implications for economic development and wellbeing in the nations that host them.
Michel Gabaudan, now the president of Refugees International, spent 25 years with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). He believes that the ongoing Syria conflict, which has displaced at least a third of the country’s population, recalls the massive movement of people from Afghanistan after the Russian invasion in 1979 – one of the largest and most protracted refugee crises in recent history.
The global community is struggling to keep up with the basic requirement to provide for people who have abandoned their homes and livelihoods. The UN-led humanitarian appeal has not yet reached 50 per cent of its funding targets.
“That’s serious, because for the aid agencies or the NGOs or the [host] governments, you need to respond to the needs, but you need to plan ahead a little bit,” Gabaudan says. “With the large arrivals that have been coming in the last months, what we’re seeing is that the conditions for refugees are getting worse over time, not better. That’s saddening, because certainly the conditions in Syria are not improving.”
Tensions between refugees and their host populations are building too, Gabaudan warns. Worldwide, the UNHCR estimates that 80 per cent of refugees are hosted in developing countries, which have their own challenges when it comes to delivering basic services to their populations. In Lebanon and in Jordan, the number of people crossing the border and integrating into the local population is straining already-struggling economies and societies. In Lebanon, one-fifth of the population is now Syrian refugees.
How a refugee population develops is contingent on the welcome and cooperation of the host country. The Burmese government’s failure to accept its Rohingya refugees, for example, is, according to Refugees International, the cause of persistent underdevelopment among that population. Preventing that kind of tension is a crucial part of any unified response.
“A lot of what the humanitarian community can do is constrained by what the host government’s attitude is,” says Simone Haysom, a research officer at the Humanitarian Policy Group in the UK’s Overseas Development Institute. “While I think that for a long time it’s been recognised that populations would like to be self-sufficient, that they need skills training, and access to credit, it’s just not something that’s always feasible for the humanitarian community to pursue.”
Research also shows that refugees are more likely to return to their home countries if they’ve been able to access some form of economic opportunity while displaced.
“It’s important, given the scale of the [Syrian displacement], that we don’t only look at this in terms of humanitarian aid,” Gabaudan says. “We want to bring as much support as we can to refugees. But we have to also take into account that the local population is severely impacted.
“I think we are getting to this critical point where the assistance to refugees has not been sufficient, where the impact on host countries is starting to be very serious, and countries are rethinking whether it is right for them to accept so many refugees.”
Refugees in camps are easier to provide for through humanitarian mechanisms, but the majority of Syrian refugees have joined national populations in neighbouring Arab states, putting a strain on services. Coordination with the international development community, which works more consistently on these issues, is going to be vital, Gabaudan suggests.
“What the humanitarian agencies can do is to identify the most vulnerable, to patch things up,” he says. “But they cannot address how [host] countries face massive aggression to their economies. You’re talking about countries that had their own problems, and were not in the best of circumstances even before the crisis.”
What is certain is that the international community will need to plan for the long term. While it is difficult to draw emphatic parallels between different regions and different conflicts, in Eastern and Central Africa, for example, lasting implications of war and displacement are still written on the landscape.
In northern Kenya, Lokichoggio is what passes for an airport. Its shipping-crate arrivals lounge is luxurious next to the wooden poles and tarpaulin that make up the terminal at the airstrip in the county capital, Lodwar, 200km down a single-lane road to the south. At the midpoint between the two is Kakuma, a town whose name, apocryphally, means ‘nowhere’, and for two decades has been home to a wealth of human suffering.
The Kakuma camp opened in 1992 to house refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan and, 20 years on, it still holds 100,000 people crammed into a city of tents, wire mesh and drifting garbage. Today it houses Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Congolese, Rwandans, Ugandans and Burundians, all displaced by violence in their home countries. South Sudanese still cross the border to arrive at Kakuma while, further south, on the road to Lodwar, prefab houses have sprung up to shelter internally displaced Kenyans who fled the post-election violence that ravaged the country in 2007 and 2008.
To the east, a camp of unimaginable magnitude – Dadaab, the near-permanent home to 600,000 refugees – sprawls across the semi-desert.
These refugee groups are among the world’s most vulnerable and, years on, they are still in Kenya. Whole lives have been lived in that camp, and even with relative peace in newly independent South Sudan, a whole generation was uprooted and is ill prepared to return.
Luka Biong Deng Kuol recalls the chaos. Kuol, who has worked in development and the NGO sector for most of his career, was working with the World Bank when the transition began, and served in a government of national unity created between the warring north and south of the country following the signature of a peace deal between the two. Now a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, he says that the early days of the transition – between coping with the humanitarian crisis and preparing to rebuild lives and livelihoods lost over decades of war – were understandably chaotic.
“During the UN assessment mission, we did not comprehend the magnitude of the challenges ahead of us,” he says. “The transition from a humanitarian crisis to development was so optimistic. We did not move gradually.”
The 2005 peace deal offered a chance of stability in South Sudan, and four years later the country was offered a referendum to secede from the north and become an independent nation. The lack of access to basic services and education for Sudanese living as refugees internally, or in camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, created a lost generation who would struggle to integrate and find economic opportunities. This created huge challenges of capacity. Kuol remembers civil servants arriving with ancient typewriters to start a new country.
Independence and reintegration has not been easy, and the country’s population is still heavily dependent on aid money. But the financial support that is still flowing in and around South Sudan is not enough to alleviate the tension and distress that still haunts the population. As the world tries to rebuild and repair the damage of the civil war in Syria for the people who left their country behind, Kuol’s experience is that the focus on reconciliation will be critical.
“These are people coming out of war,” he says. “I think one of the things the international community [should learn] is about the healing process. Dealing with the legacies of the past is so important. Sometimes people tend to bury them, or not to focus on them.
“People are dealing with the issues of the past, the things that have happened to them. For you to come along and say, ‘I want to provide health, education, water,’ that is not enough.”
Isolated and traumatised, those caught up in humanitarian crises are even more vulnerable without access to news and information. At the same time, aid agencies need the most up-to-date data possible to respond to unfolding disasters. For both, the ubiquity of the mobile phone has made data collection and communication possible even in fast-moving and complex environments.
Ushaidi, an SMS-based reporting platform developed by activists during Kenya’s post-election violence in 2007 and 2008, has become a standard among the crisis mapping movement – volunteer groups who help to collate reports from civil society and private individuals in crisis-hit countries. The system was deployed in Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake to collect information from the field, taking data directly from affected communities and using it to direct and refine the response among rescuers and aid agencies.
For displaced communities themselves, crowdsourcing and mobile phones are being used by the Danish NGO Refugees United to reconnect families broken by war. Refugees can put their details onto the online, mobile-enabled system and use its search tools to find and contact relatives.