With no end to the conflict in sight and no prospect of safe return home, the new deal must provide more investment in Syria’s neighbours, which host more than 4 million refugees, and an end to restrictions that prevent refugees from working and in some cases living legally in these countries. At the same time, it must protect and strengthen their right to seek asylum.
“Many refugees are currently being condemned to a life in legal limbo with an array of restrictions which leave them in fear of arrest, detention and deportation,” said the Secretary General of Norwegian Refugee Council Jan Egeland. “Their living conditions are deteriorating dramatically, forcing refugees to adopt extreme measures to cope, including increasingly to return to the warzone they fled or to risk their lives crossing to Europe. We need to help the host countries give refugees the opportunity to live dignified lives and make a positive contribution to the communities hosting them.”
The agencies argue that a new, creative long-term approach is needed. With the right help from international donors, Syria’s neighbouring governments should develop policies that allow refugees to better support themselves financially without the risk of arrest by authorities. This would also allow refugees to contribute to the economy of the communities hosting them.
Unable to afford rent or food, and relying on dwindling aid, refugees are pushed into a spiral of destitution and debt. Some 70 per cent in Lebanon lack the documents needed to stay in the country legally, and many refugees in Jordan outside of camps are struggling to access medical and education services because they lack updated documents.
“For over four years now, refugees have been living hand to mouth, relying on humanitarian aid, not knowing where the next meal comes from,” said Oxfam’s Executive Director, Winnie Byanyima. “Experienced carpenters, farmers and teachers, among others, who we often meet are struggling to keep a roof over their heads as they scrape money together to pay rent. Their skills should be put to good use, to allow them to provide for their families and support the economies of the countries hosting them. New jobs could also benefit the millions of Jordanians, Lebanese, Turkish, and Iraqis who are facing this crisis too.”
“We risk losing a whole generation of young Syrians – the same generation that will have to rebuild Syria once the conflict is finally over. With adults unable to earn a living, more and more children end up in work. Hundreds of thousands of children are missing years of education as the school systems in neighbouring countries are bursting at the seams and need much greater support,” said Misty Buswell, Regional Advocacy Director at Save the Children.
“The international community needs to realise that, rather than a burden, as refugees are often wrongly portrayed, the evidence points to the contrary: that refugees who are legally able to work can make positive contributions to host economies with their diverse skills and experience,” said Peter Klanso, Danish Refugee Council Middle East and North Africa Director.
Even with the right investment and policies, the scale of the crisis means that the most vulnerable refugees will need asylum outside of the region. Rich countries should provide a safe resettlement option for at least 10 per cent of refugees who are most in need, but they have only pledged to accept less than three per cent so far and waiting time is far too long.
- Danish Refugee Council
- International Rescue Committee
- Norwegian Refugee Council
- Save the Children
- World Vision International
Lebanon is hosting more than one million refugees, 30% of its population, including almost 500,000 school-age children. Since January 2015 it has effectively closed its border to new refugees. Those who wish to obtain legal residency have to sign a pledge that they will not work, or find a Lebanese citizen to sponsor them. Hundreds of thousands are facing a choice between giving up their ability to work, or living without valid residency with all the risks that entails.
In Jordan, more than 83% of its more than 630,000 Syrian refugees live outside of camps, in towns and cities. Some 48% of Syrian refugees in host communities have not left the camps through the bail out system and face challenges remaining registered, accessing services and humanitarian assistance and registering birth, deaths and marriages. 99% of refugees who manage to find work have to do so in the informal sector, usually for extremely low wages.
In Turkey, which is hosting some 2 million Syrian refugees, some towns have seen their populations double. Refugees can get services where they arrive but unless for family reunification or medical reasons are often unable to move to urban areas where jobs are available. Around 600,000 Syrian refugees remain unregistered and cannot officially use most public services. Most are unable to work legally and end up in the informal economy, often in exploitative conditions.
In the Kurdish Region of Iraq, refugees in camps can get residency permits allowing them to work and access services – although these are difficult to get for refugees outside camps. Refugees in camps elsewhere in Iraq are unable to work.
In Egypt, there are almost 130,000 registered Syrian refugees but the government estimates there are almost double that number in the country. Only a tiny fraction has been able to obtain work permits due to the lengthy and costly process and quotas limiting the number of non-Egyptians in employment.