Amid the ongoing war against the Islamic State (IS), the international community’s main objective has been curbing this emergent threat. But as funds are increasingly directed to battle IS, efforts to tackle the Syrian regional refugee crisis—another potentially pervasive and far-reaching trend—continue to be understaffed and underfunded. The situation of refugees keeps deteriorating, with refugees facing increased economic hardship, growing restrictions, and, in many cases, xenophobia and resentment. Yet only a concerted effort to tackle both the security and humanitarian challenges will contribute to long-term regional stability and curb the rise of extremist movements like the Islamic State.
The United Nations has set a 2015 humanitarian appeal for Syria at the staggering sum of $8.4 billion, with over $5 billion earmarked to address a refugee crisis expected to affect more than 4.2 million people by the end of 2015. The new appeal for 2015 comes after last year’s UNHCR funding fell $1.7 billion short of the requested $3.7 billion. Their funding gap is linked to the generally overstretched budgets of the main humanitarian agencies, which are dealing with multiple global crises while facing both unfulfilled pledges and a lack of sufficient monetary contributions. As in past years, the international community again seems poised to fall far short in providing sufficient funding for refugee assistance, supporting the economies of host countries, and offering adequate resettlement options to the refugee population.
From the outset of the Syrian war, the international community has been engaged in two distinct conversations. The first is a hard-security, strategic debate focused on containing the fallout from the war and preventing the destabilization of the region. As the war developed, undermining the Islamic State project was also added to the security agenda. In parallel, there has also been an intense, soft-security discussion on how best to assist the Syrian civilian population and tackle the “worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the Cold War.” The de facto separation of hard and soft security issues has led the international community to prioritize the former at the expense of the latter. Countries like the United States currently spend more than $300,000 an hour in military costs related to fighting the Islamic State, in addition to the billions poured into training and equipping Iraqi and Kurdish forces to confront the Salafi-jihadi threat. Given where the bulk of the funding has gone so far, there is reason to worry that the generally short-term and compartmentalized focus on hard security issues has been to the detriment of effectively tackling the broader Syrian crisis and its humanitarian implications.
Indeed, these humanitarian implications are also strategic, both in terms of regional stability and the ability of Syria’s neighbors to be effective partners against the Islamic State. As funds are channeled toward security initiatives, Syria’s neighbors continue to grapple with the monumental challenge of providing accommodation, health care, or other basic services to the refugee population. Host countries’ infrastructures are overstretched and struggling to cope with the pervasive economic impact of the refugee influx. Fox example, Lebanon faces rising unemployment and decreasing wages as Syrians are forced to accept work for lower wages, harsher conditions, and fewer rights than their host counterparts. Wages in the service and agricultural sectors have decreased by as much as 50 percent in Lebanon between 2011 and 2013—with similar dynamics occurring in all host countries. This has created intense domestic pressure that affects economic performance, social cohesion, and ultimately internal stability.
The UNHCR’s 2014 Syrian Refugee Response Plan aimed at addressing these concerns, but it has proven insufficient. The budget sought to cover not only registering and assisting refugees in resettlement and supporting at-risk groups, but also to provide food, education, health, shelter, water, sanitation, and other basic needs, in addition to increasing opportunities for income generation. Yet funding gaps have forced UN agencies to cut or downsize vital assistance programs, from food vouchers to water and sanitation initiatives, or to reduce the number of beneficiaries. Just as significantly, insufficient funding has led these agencies to prioritize emergency interventions, such as providing food rations, at the expense of more long-term development programs that provide vocational training and employment assistance or increase education enrollment rates. Moreover, the absence of such sustainable, long-term programs risks marginalizing individuals, making them vulnerable to recruiting by both radical organizations and organized crime, in turn impacting broader regional stability.
In this context, increased assistance for Syrian refugees and their host communities is key. The first step to addressing it is a firm commitment to meeting the UN funding requirements and following through on unmet pledges. In 2014, the two largest donors in the Syrian refugee crisis, the United States and the European Union, spent roughly $1.7 billion and $586 million, respectively. But the international community—and especially high-income countries—have overall fallen short of committing enough resources to the humanitarian response.
As time passes and as the Syrian war drags on, successfully aiding refugee and host communities also requires that states and international agencies spend raised funds strategically. Already, international assistance strategies, such as the 2015 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan, are increasing their focus on boosting the resilience of host communities to their efforts providing short-term assistance and relief. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, “We need a new aid architecture that links support to the refugees with what is being done to stabilize the communities who host them.” For example, in Lebanon, $2.5 billion is needed just to restore services to a pre-war level, according to the World Bank. A separate report estimates that the refugee crisis pushed another 170,000 Lebanese into poverty by the end of 2014.
In addition, increased resettlement of refugees would ease the burden on Syria’s neighbors and reduce the risk of regional instability. At about 80,000 persons, the total number of spots offered by the international community still falls short of meeting the UNHCR’s expressed goal of finding a new home for 130,000 refugees by the end of 2016. Although pledges to resettle Syrian refugees have increased in the past few months, resettlement goals have proven particularly elusive. Syrians are barred from resettling in Gulf countries and have much trouble arriving and staying in Europe (with the exceptions of Germany and Sweden, which together have received roughly 64 percent of all asylum applications to the European Union). The United States, which officially has a policy of open-ended resettlement, has recently declared its intention to increase the number of Syrians it resettles from 350 to 10,000 per year. But to date, over 95 percent of Syrian refugees remain in five regional states: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.
If left unchecked, mounting pressure in host communities will have a negative impact at the regional level, both from a humanitarian and security perspective. This will complicate any effort to stabilize the region or fight extremism. Choosing to invest in hard security objectives at the expense of softer ones risks achieving neither.
Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a post-doctoral fellow at Ben Gurion University, a TED 2015 Fellow, and the author of Armed Political Organizations.