This year’s big Syria aid conference has come and gone and it arguably did more than simply meet monetary targets. Held in London for the first time rather than in Kuwait, the conference actively sought to end the beguiling fiction that the refugees from Syria are a short-term problem and nothing to do with Europe.
It underlined that the refugees’ immediate neighbourhood is not obliged to serve as a bulwark between Europe and Syria’s huddled masses. Crucially, it acknowledged that Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which host at least four million refugees between them, cannot be expected to uncomplainingly bear the burdens of hospitality as best they can. Europe has a duty of care as well.
The message has come just in time. The so-called “quiet season” for refugee flows will end when spring eventually blooms, as it must. Then the numbers fleeing the horrors of Syria will rise. Peace in Syria seems more remote than ever right now – the Geneva talks to start talks may or may not resume on February 25 and there’s no clarity about what might be discussed and by whom. If 2015 brought to a head the world’s biggest refugee crisis in 70 years, 2016 may yet throw up more intractable problems.
This is why the London conference can be said to constitute a small but significant step forward in a debate that has dominated the geopolitical agenda, spreading heat but not much light. It has already caused ructions within the European Union, “temporary closure” of several hitherto open borders, a vicious blame-and-shame game directed mainly at German chancellor Angela Merkel for daring to be compassionate, and the rise of right-wing populist parties and anti-immigrant violence.
But now, for the first time, there is growing acceptance that the problem will be with all of us – Europe included – for at least a generation.
That Syrian children – packed into refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey or scattered elsewhere around the world – will need to be educated.
That their parents, uncles and brothers will need to be able to find jobs and a secure foothold in their host countries.
That Syrian families must be stable, well-supported units if they are to raise fine upstanding members of their adopted communities.
This is good news, if only because the problem is being defined better and more realistically.
David Miliband, the chief executive of International Rescue Committee, the global humanitarian NGO founded by Albert Einstein in 1933, recently suggested that the London conference had forced Europe to face its moment of truth. Now, it is beginning to realise that the choice is not between whether the refugees come to Europe or not, he said. The choice is whether they come in a chaotic, illegal and disorganised way or by a more streamlined and orderly process.
There’s the rub. And it is no surprise that Mr Miliband, a former British foreign secretary, is insisting that the world see “the arc of crisis from the war zone to the neighbouring states, to the transit routes and then to refugee resettlement”. Only then, says Mr Miliband, can solutions be formulated.
So, what is likely to happen?
The money raised for Syria at the London conference says a great deal. At $11bn (Dh40.4bn), it is said to be the largest amount ever pledged in one day in response to a humanitarian crisis. There have been wisecracks that it is not far off the $9bn Germans spend on chocolate every year, but it is important because the money was pledged despite its purpose being made plain at the outset. The conference said that it would be used to help Syrians as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey who had to house, feed, clothe, educate and provide jobs.
There are signs of a push from European capitals, led by Berlin and London, for Jordan and Lebanon to provide work permits to the refugees. Crucially, Europe is willing to put up the money needed to sweeten the deal.
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative, has said Europe is determined to help Jordan and Lebanon cope with the crisis as they are “rocks in the Middle Eastern storm”. Just weeks ago, Turkey agreed to offer limited work permits to the two million Syrians and 30,000 Iraqis it hosts, but it is harder for Jordan and Lebanon.
Syrians now constitute nearly 20 and 25 per cent of their population respectively and the economic strain is immense even though the World Bank classifies them as middle-income countries.
Europe is also realising the importance of processing refugees in a more regimented fashion. Just two of its 11 designated “hot spot” refugee reception centres in Greece and Italy currently function as planned. Chaos still prevails everywhere else, leaving refugees dangerously dependent on smugglers’ routes and false shepherds who profess good faith.
But there’s more to be done. If the London conference failed, it was in its inability to tap into the non-European wellspring of compassion. It did not argue for a massive worldwide resettlement programme – much bigger than the UNHCR’s modest placement scheme, which helped just 162,151 Syrians until December 11. And it did not press for more balanced sharing of the burden with western countries that have a track record in providing safe harbour. Even though the US-committed $900m at the conference, it is yet to indicate that it will take more than 10,000 refugees this year. Canada has not upped its agreed intake from 25,000 and Australia is at about half of that.
It is good that Europe is beginning to realise that the refugee flow is a long-term problem that must be shared. But a long-term solution can only emerge from a broader arc of compassion.