The Syrian refugee crisis: More than meets the eye

Families crowded on tiny boats, mothers pushing children through chain fences, border police rebuking people with tear gas and water cannons, and people abandoned or killed on a treacherous journey – these are the images the West now associates with the Syrian refugee crisis. The crisis came into the international consciousness as shocking photographs of the journey from Syria to Europe began circulating in mainstream media this summer.

But with all eyes on Europe, many have missed the bigger picture.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 4 million Syrians have been forced to leave the country to escape the ongoing armed conflict. Within Syria, another 7.6 million people have fled their homes to other areas of the country. Turkey alone hosts 2 million Syrian refugees. To put that into perspective, the entirety of Europe has seen around 700,000 asylum applications from Syrians in the last four years.

The international community needs both a regional and global coordination strategy to respond to this crisis in a way that respects the human rights refugees as guaranteed under international law. At Asylum Access, we are directly engaging with policy makers in Geneva, Washington D.C. and Istanbul to form a strategy that specifically addresses the need for economic opportunity as a crucial element of long-term refugee response.

In October, Global Policy Associate Alen Mirza participated in the 66th Session of the UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting (ExCom) in Geneva, where he delivered an assertive Statement on Protection on behalf of a large coalition of NGOs.

There, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, attributed the recent influx of Syrian refugees to Europe on the lack of economic opportunities for forced migrants throughout the Middle East. “Seven out of ten Syrian refugees in Lebanon live in extreme poverty,” he cited. And in Jordan, 86% of urban refugees live below the poverty line. The rise in extreme poverty among refugees throughout the region is related, in large part, to the lack of access to safe and lawful employment.

Coupled with the stark reality that UNHCR is expected to receive just 47% of its funding needed to provided humanitarian assistance for the year, it’s no surprise that Syrian families are hoping to find better opportunities in Europe despite the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

Our statement called on host countries and donors to facilitate access to asylum, safe, lawful employment opportunities, and to increase paths for safe migration, including study and work visas.

Alen also attended the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) in Istanbul, which, for the first time, focused on forced migration. There, he participated in various working sessions to identify how development solutions can address the shortfalls of traditional humanitarian response. “Refugees do not only need rescuing,” said European Union Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos in his opening remarks, “they also need opportunities for empowering and developing.”

In the same month, Global Policy Director, Jessica Therkelsen, submitted a written testimony to a U.S. Senate Judiciary hearing on Syrian resettlement. Based on our 10 years of experience and research for the Global Refugee Work Rights Report, we highlighted two main themes: 1) when given access to safe work, refugees contribute far more to their host states than the cost of initial settlement, and 2) security threats and onward migration could be mitigated by providing refugees access to education, economic opportunities and protection from exploitation in countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

While the war in Syria has been devastating for the region, it has produced a crisis felt by the entire globe. Any response that guarantees the rights of Syrian refugees in the long-term must look beyond humanitarian aid for a long-term, sustainable solution.

Written by the Global Policy Team