The Syrian conflict that started in March 2011 has triggered a massive exodus of the country’s citizens: close to 8 million people are internally displaced, and more than 4 million have sought refuge in third countries. Today, Syrians form the largest contingent of refugees in the world, and this emergency will continue for years to come as the conflict goes on with no resolution in sight.

The refugees’ situation is immensely painful and complex. Beyond the steps already taken by the international community, this crisis deserves more political attention from the European Union and other stakeholders as well as a more cohesive policy framework. Denying the stark reality and outlook of the crisis is not an option.

The EU and other Western actors have shown a good deal of solidarity with the Syrian refugees. But so far, the international community has dealt with the refugees mostly as a temporary emergency. Instead, European and other stakeholders should acknowledge that the refugee crisis is no longer a short-term regional issue: it is a long-term international problem that deserves a coordinated answer.

Massive Movements of People

Marc Pierini
Pierini is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, where his research focuses on developments in the Middle East and Turkey from a European perspective.
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Since March 2011, more than half of Syria’s 22 million citizens have fled their homes. The number of those who have left the country and registered as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey (or, to a lesser extent, Egypt or Iraq) has now surpassed 4 million. Syrians also account for the highest number of internally displaced persons worldwide: 7.6 million have moved within Syria itself.

These estimates of the numbers of recorded displaced Syrians don’t tell the entire story, however. More citizens have fled Syria by their own means and are now living undocumented in neighboring countries or farther afield—in the Gulf, the Maghreb, or the EU. Unregistered refugees are hard to track, but they and their host communities also suffer from hardship.

As usual in war zones, the immediately neighboring countries have taken in the largest numbers of refugees. There has been a sizable humanitarian effort from host countries in the region, especially Turkey and Jordan, as well as substantial international assistance.


Jordan has registered about 630,000 refugees as of June 2015, adding to a precrisis population of around 6 million. Syrian refugees now represent some 9 percent of Jordan’s population. Amman has opted for full international cooperation and has given priority to the traditional refugee camps close to the border with Syria and faraway from Jordan’s largest cities. Despite this policy, more than 80 percent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live in urban areas outside the main Zaatari and Azraq camps in the north of the country.

Tensions between host communities and refugees remain relatively manageable because most Syrian refugees in the country have strong tribal ties to northern Jordanians. The infiltration of jihadists among Syrian refugees crossing the border into Jordan is an ever-present concern.


Lebanon, although it has long refused to acknowledge the problem, is submerged with refugees. Almost 1.2 million refugees have entered the country since the beginning of the crisis, before which Lebanon had a total population of about 4.3 million. Refugees now represent 26 percent of the Lebanese population, the highest number of refugees per capita of any country in the world. Criminal activity is on the rise, and the economic strain is becoming tangible in many communities.

Lebanon has no official policy on Syrian refugees, and no camps. But the Lebanese government has now reacted to the risk of growing instability. In 2015, Beirut imposed a visa requirement on Syrians entering the country.

In May 2015, Lebanon ordered the UN refugee agency to suspend the registration of refugees. The issue of unregistered refugees will therefore escalate. These people are almost out of the reach of international assistance and education, and they cannot make a living and integrate into society. This may provide fertile ground for militant organizations that try to exploit security risks and the desperate situation of many Syrians in Lebanon.


Turkey has now taken in more refugees than any other country in absolute terms: 1.8 million Syrians against a total precrisis population of 72.1 million. Around 10 percent of the refugees are hosted in well-equipped camps run by the state agency for disaster and emergency management, AFAD. Others are in municipal camps or on their own.

Overall, Turkey’s policy toward Syrian refugees has been generous. Turkey has granted them temporary protection status and identity documents and has recently issued them temporary car license plates. The delivery of work permits for Syrian workers has started. Yet, social tensions have occurred locally.

Ankara has long managed Turkey’s refugee crisis on its own terms and has only accepted international assistance offers in the form of cash donations, which is contrary to the procedures of most donors. This choice has resulted in Turkey receiving a less-than-proportionate share of international aid. The Turkish government claims that it has spent $6 billion and received only $300 million in international assistance. Turkey’s EU minister recently drew the EU’s attention to the possible worsening of the refugee crisis on the country’s territory.

A Patchy International Response

It should be acknowledged that there has been a massive display of international solidarity with the Syrian refugees. The EU has provided some €3.7 billion ($4.1 billion) in assistance, half from the EU institutions and half from the member states. Following the international conference convened in Berlin in October 2014 on the initiative of the German Foreign Ministry, the EU created the Madad Trust Fund to mobilize more aid in response to the crisis.

Despite these commendable efforts, the international response has left many needs unaddressed. As of July 2015, only 25 percent of the UN’s calculated requirements for the whole year have been funded. Assistance will thus likely cover only about half of the estimated needs this year.

There is also a growing concern that donor fatigue may make things worse in coming years. Humanitarian assistance is traditionally easier to mobilize than a long-term commitment under a comprehensive strategy that would cover both humanitarian and developmental aspects.

Consequently, many refugees lack access to jobs and basic services and have lost their social stability. Refugees are in need of more cash and food assistance in many places. Across all host countries, 75 percent of refugees are experiencing difficulties in satisfying their food needs. The UN World Food Program lacks funds and is already cutting its aid by 50 percent in Lebanon, with more cuts likely in the near future. But cash and food aid can only be short-term responses for new arrivals.

Legal work opportunities for urban refugees are also very limited. In Turkey, refugees may be allowed to work, but the new employment regulations are only in the early stages of implementation. A recent study by Turkey’s disaster agency found that more than 50 percent of refugees in Turkey had a monthly income of less than €250 ($276). Linguistic barriers will continue to aggravate the problem of finding a job.

Education is another major concern. More than 50 percent of the 4 million registered Syrian refugees are under the age of eighteen. But analyses indicate that about 70–80 percent of school-age Syrian refugees in Turkey do not go to school, especially outside refugee camps. The situation is less dire in Jordan, with 38 percent not receiving formal education; but in Lebanon, the figure is higher than 50 percent. A large part of an entire generation of Syrians is growing up without proper education. Militant organizations often exploit the social destabilization of refugees.

National and international actors have identified some of these problems, with limited funding being an important issue. The security of NGO operations and competition among international NGOs that pursue their own autonomous agendas may also hamper the response to the crisis. Projects can duplicate and areas of intervention overlap. Some host countries occasionally complain about the high salaries of international NGO staff.

In addition, increasingly desperate Syrians are trying to enter the EU via smuggling networks that are active in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and Libya, adding to a wider migration crisis.

Bleak Short-Term and Long-Term Prospects

The current military and political status of the Syrian conflict leads to a pessimistic outlook. Humanitarian needs will not decrease for the foreseeable future; rather, they will increase and may even surge massively under certain circumstances.

A Precarious Military Situation

The military situation in Syria may well deteriorate further in the short term. In the north, fighters from the Nusra Front and other groups have made substantial territorial gains, as have militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in the north and center. These groups are fighting against a Syrian regime that is confronted with the collapsing morale of its army and an increasing reliance on Hezbollah and Iranian troops. The military situation in the provinces of Aleppo, Idlib, and Latakia is volatile.

Along the Turkish border, Syrian Kurdish forces have scored recent successes in pushing back Islamic State jihadists and creating territorial continuity between the Kurdish-majority areas of Kobanê and Jazeera. These advances mean that the Islamic State is now cut off from one of its main routes for equipment supplies and oil exports. Meanwhile, Turkey is thinking about establishing a buffer zone in Syria’s north to host possible waves of new refugees.

Inevitably in a region where different rationales and diverging interests overlap, this development has raised concerns in Ankara. There is currently no evidence of immediate political implications of the Syrian Kurds’ territorial gains for the Kurdish issue in Turkey itself. But concerns are motivated by Ankara’s assimilation of the Syrian Kurdish movement with Turkey’s insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and by allegations that the Syrian Kurds perpetrated ethnic cleansing of Arabs and Turkmens in the conquered areas. The Syrian Kurdish leadership has formally denied such allegations.

Political clarifications by the Syrian Kurds about their neutrality on the Kurdish issue in Turkey and about the protection of Arab and Turkmen populations in the affected areas would go a long way toward alleviating Turkey’s concerns. That would help reassure local populations and reduce the need for emergency assistance.

In Syria’s southern Daraa Governorate, a group of Free Syrian Army fighters has brought large areas under its control and is threatening the regime in Daraa city. The Jordanian government, meanwhile, may be contemplating the establishment of a safe zone in the south of Syria to prevent jihadist advances in the area.

In humanitarian terms, the prospects of further gains by rebel groups and of further attrition of regime forces create additional needs for assistance. If the northern Syrian city of Aleppo falls to rebels, hundreds of thousands more refugees may move toward Turkey. In addition, renewed battles in Homs, al-Qusayr, and Daraa as well as the fall of more Damascus suburbs would generate new waves of refugees moving toward Lebanon and Jordan. In the short term, a complete collapse of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have even greater humanitarian consequences, as the population would fear a takeover by al-Qaeda or the Islamic State of the entire country.

No Short-Term Return to Syria

Most Syrian refugees are not contemplating a rapid return home. There are three reasons for such reluctance. First, the refugees have traumatic memories of unspeakable atrocities and human losses caused by both the regime and jihadist groups. Second, there has been widespread destruction of urban habitats. And third, the land and homes of Syrians who have fled abroad have often been occupied by internally displaced people.

Given decent conditions for housing, education, and social services, the majority of refugees therefore prefer to stay in neighboring countries for the foreseeable future. But the experience of Iraqi refugees in Jordan in 2003 should also be remembered: many never returned to Iraq even during the period of relative stability in subsequent years.

An Uncertain Road Toward a Political Transition

The elusive nature of a political transition in Syria provides another motivation for Syrian refugees to extend their stay in neighboring countries until they consider that peace and security have returned to their homeland. Aside from Russia’s anti-Western posture, a political transition hinges on Tehran’s position due to the paramount importance that Iran attaches to what is often referred to as the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah axis. It is safe to assume that Iran’s priority is to keep an allied regime in Damascus, but it is not clear if Tehran would eventually support a figure other than Assad as Syrian leader.

Iran’s influence on any transition in Syria will also depend on the position Tehran will want for itself as a respected regional leader in the context of the international deal on Iran’s nuclear program that was reached in Vienna on July 14, 2015.

After a political settlement is achieved and stability returns to Syria, a massive reconstruction effort and an equally massive effort to clear ordnance and land mines will be urgently needed before a sizable return of refugees can be foreseen. Whereas limited returns occurred recently, a massive resettlement is still several years away.

Social Challenges and Resentment

Some Syrian refugees are now entering their fifth year outside their country, with little hope of a political settlement that would entice them to return home. This raises a new set of issues associated with semipermanent refugees or resettlers looking for protection, jobs, education, other social services, and decent housing.

Combined with these challenges, there is also a long-term budgetary and social burden on the host countries. Most analysts and governments represented at the Berlin conference agree that prolonging the current situation will nurture a lost generation of Syrian children, with adverse (and anti-Western) long-term consequences, including a lasting attractiveness of radical ideologies.

The political risk is that this situation will create, by default, a category of semipermanent refugees with second-class status in the host countries. The analogy with the Palestinian refugees, one-third of whom have been living in camps or settlements in Lebanon, Jordan, or Syria for more than sixty years, inevitably comes to mind.

As their long-term situation in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey remains uncertain, the refugees’ status continues to generate frustration, a loss of dignity, and resentment. In addition, this drives more Syrians to make their way to Europe—whatever the risks and costs.

The overall outlook is therefore a pessimistic one. More refugees will move to Syria’s neighbors and to Europe, and a large proportion will need to stay for a long period of time. The international community should adjust to these evolving realities.

Policy Options for the EU and Other Stakeholders

Confronted with what the UN refugee agency has described as the largest humanitarian emergency in recent history, the EU, countries in the region, and the international community have to provide answers on several fronts.

A More Welcoming Approach From EU Member States

European policymakers should address the specific issue of accepting Syrian refugees in the EU. Although the union can only address the needs of a fraction of concerned Syrians, the attitudes of member states toward taking in refugees will be of great importance for reversing current negative perceptions of asylum seekers and for rekindling hopes among the refugee community.

To the extent possible, and despite refugee fatigue among the general public, the EU should distinguish the specific case of Syrian refugees from the wider crisis of irregular migration, which is now turning into a European political issue of major proportions. The EU should undertake a targeted communication effort devoted to avoiding a situation in which xenophobic reactions lead to a failed EU asylum policy. Citizens should be reminded that Syrian refugees have already suffered one of the harshest repressions in recent history.

A crucial part of the EU effort remains the fair allocation among EU countries of those Syrian refugees who qualify for asylum. The current wide discrepancies among member states’ positions on this issue are not sustainable. In addition, the determination of refugee status should be handled according to existing policies and procedures with the full involvement of the UN refugee agency.

Beyond the remarkable efforts of Germany and Sweden, other EU countries should be more forthcoming in welcoming Syrian refugees, to improve perceptions among the refugee community and the regional host countries. A more accommodating approach would give the EU credibility in the region, where people remember how generous the EU was when it took in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Kosovo War in 1998–1999.

In addition, the EU should pay due attention to handling visa requests from Syrians who do not want to be refugees and who have the means to travel and initially sustain themselves.

Timely Humanitarian Assistance

The international community should plan ahead so it is ready to provide increased humanitarian assistance at any time. As illustrated above, the refugees’ humanitarian needs may surge at short notice depending on the military situation in Syria. However, these requirements are relatively easy to foresee and should therefore be budgeted in advance.

Donors and partners should address specific issues concerning humanitarian needs and the methods for meeting those needs, given the magnitude and duration of the aid effort as well as sensitivities in the three main host countries. One important issue is the provision of cash for refugees to meet their daily subsistence expenditure.

Decent Living Conditions

The Syrian refugee crisis entails much more than humanitarian assistance, however. The international community should provide workable options for semipermanent refugees and for the host countries.

Given the duration of their presence in the region, the EU and other donors should use development aid to provide Syrian refugees with decent living standards in terms of housing; education in native languages; medical, psychological, and social services; job opportunities; and infrastructure. The EU should also consider options for making the host countries more capable of withstanding the strain on their own social infrastructure—namely, hospitals and schools.

This massive endeavor is essential if the EU and other donor countries are to abide by their moral duty and commitment to assist refugees and if the majority of those refugees prefer to remain in the region. If the EU feels under pressure from uncontrolled flows of Syrians, the first answer is to be genuinely forthcoming in creating opportunities for those semipermanent refugees who opt to stay in neighboring countries. In this way, the EU’s credibility would increase among both refugees and the host countries in the region.

Four areas are of crucial importance for refugees in the medium to long term: housing; education; job opportunities; and social dialogue to ease daily tensions on issues such as health, education, work permits, and religious matters. These challenges cannot be resolved by simply providing more funding for regional host countries; they also require legal adjustments and more efficient coordination among stakeholders.

The EU and other Western donors should support these responses, with particular emphasis on the issuance of identity documents, mechanisms for resolving legal issues, and vocational training. Equally important are the recognition of secondary-school diplomas for those seeking to attend university, access to foreign scholarships, and job-creation opportunities for refugees in camps and urban areas.

Syria’s neighbors should take specific steps as well. Turkey should cooperate more openly with Western donor agencies and should continue to adjust its education system. Rules for accessing the labor market should also be reviewed. Analysts have made recommendations on how Turkey could successfully manage the new reality of semipermanent refugees, and initial discussions have taken place with the EU.

Lebanon should address the issues of setting up properly defined and administered camps, ensuring security for both refugees and host communities, and beefing up border management. In doing so, Beirut needs greater support from the international community.

Jordan should improve the delivery of services to refugees and the screening of refugees for security reasons. Again, the international community should step up its backing of these efforts.

The Missing Links: Dialogue and Dignity

Despite massive assistance efforts, the human aspects of the Syrian refugee tragedy have been somewhat neglected and the dignity of the refugees often overlooked.

Beyond increasing and streamlining assistance, it is also of paramount importance to establish a permanent dialogue with representatives of the refugees and of the host communities—with the help of the UN refugee agency as well as local and international civil society organizations. This is an immensely sensitive issue given the diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds of the refugees and of the host communities’ populations.

Finding the proper form of dialogue with refugee communities will go a long way toward restoring the dignity of the refugees, fostering the use of skills within these communities, and countering the current perception of benign neglect by the international community. Effective dialogue will also facilitate the acceptance of refugees by the host communities and check the influence of radical movements.

Some of the areas less well covered by current assistance are of particular importance. These include psychological rehabilitation work and cultural activities as ways to safeguard the refugees’ identity. A Turkish NGO, the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly Turkey, made a onetime attempt at dialogue in the city of Gaziantep, but the effort failed to attract the participation of local authorities. Similarly, the experience of multipurpose community centers outside camps in Turkey is worthy of interest.

In parallel, the countries and institutions that are helping refugees should enhance their cooperation, avoid overlapping actions, and make burden sharing more efficient. This assumes a cooperative attitude from all stakeholders in spite of often-chaotic working conditions, rapidly evolving situations, and difficult political environments.

Collective and Inclusive Action

The conference organized in October 2014 in Berlin was a commendable first step toward dealing with long-term refugee issues and outlining the related broad principles for action. The conference also led to the adoption of a Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for 2015–2016.

The need now arises for a follow-up meeting of all stakeholders—at the level of ministers or senior officials and with the presence of refugees’ representatives—to address in a comprehensive and constructive way the entire range of humanitarian, developmental, and political issues raised by the crisis. The Berlin conference’s conclusions must now be adjusted to evolving needs.

The EU and other stakeholders should establish a multifaceted, comprehensive policy dialogue with each of the three main regional host countries—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The aims of such a dialogue would be to identify the best ways of adjusting policies and programs to address refugees’ needs, to apply EU funding to those instruments, and to use the EU’s experience of integrating large contingents of foreign populations. One option would be to attach to the meetings of the EU’s Madad Trust Fund a mechanism allowing consultations with regional host countries and with representatives of refugees and host communities.

Short of a bold, visible step forward, the EU and the Western community will lose the moral battle in support of refugees, the region’s host countries will see their efforts wasted, and Syrian refugees will drown in despair.

This article was written by Marc Pierini with Jonathan Hackenbroich, who was an academic intern at Carnegie Europe in spring 2015.