How is the Syria situation changing on the ground, after 4 years of fighting?

May 29, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Went to a fascinating briefing on Oxfam’s work in the Syria crisis last week, which set out the underlying trends and the syria-timeline-3million-refugees-oxfam_610ncevolving challenges for aid agencies, beyond the periodic TV news bang bang coverage..

The numbers are stark:

  • Total of 18 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside and outside Syria – including almost 4m registered refugees and about 1.8m unregistered
  • 12.2 million people inside Syria needing humanitarian assistance, including 7.6 million Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and more than 5.6 million children.
  • 11.6 million people in urgent need of access to clean water and sanitation.
  • Death toll estimate of 220,000 and counting…

The initial response to the outbreak of fighting was short term, both from the Syrians who fled (who expected to be back home in a few months, so started selling assets etc expecting to be able to recoup their losses), and the aid agencies, who saw this as a short term response.

Four years in, no-one thinks that any more. Aid agencies need to think through responses if refugees are staying for decades rather than months. Some of the challenges include:

–          waning public interest in the rich countries, meaning that new aid appeals are seriously underfunded. The World Food Programme has faced repeated challenges in meeting the costs of their monthly rations to refugees and has had to make cuts in recent months

–          growing hostility in some communities in host countries due to the economic burden (roughly 1.5m refugees in Lebanon – population 4m), exacerbated by security concerns over ISIS and other forces. The incredibly generous initial welcome and solidarity to refugees from Syria from neighbouring countries has given way in some areas to suspicion, resentment and raids by security forces. After taking a number of refugees that European nations would never even have countenanced, regional Governments are also echoing the nasty ‘pull factor’ rhetoric of the Europeans – helping refugees will just encourage more to follow.

Mideast Lebanon SyriaOxfam has mounted a big and complex response in Syria, working from government held areas but with some projects that reach across front lines: Over half of the pre-conflict water infrastructure has been damaged and we have been repairing water systems, alongside emergency measures like trucking water and providing hygiene kits to displaced people. That entails close collaboration with the Syrian authorities.

We are also doing international advocacy on the conflict, and running large refugee and host community programmes on water, protection and more, in Lebanon and Jordan, including links to the Palestinian refugees who have been there for 50 years (shape of things to come?).

Everything is difficult: in Syria, security of staff, government delays, restricted access to the people we’re trying to help; outside Syria, governments and populations’ increasing disenchantment.

Our global campaigning has evolved from an initial focus on aid to long-term solutions – how are refugees supposed to earn a living when host countries restrict the areas in which they can work? Can potential host countries improve on their lamentably low offers of resettlement? Will the UN Security Council ever act on arms flows and other issues?

But this is also uphill work – our campaigners are good at getting public attention and making the case for aid, but influencing regional governments or the UNSC is a much harder proposition. Interestingly (and unexpectedly), our global aid campaigns have sometimes helped –the Jordanian authorities were really pleased with our work on ‘fair shares’, showing what different countries should be contributing to the relief effort, based on their economic weight.

The team reckon one element of a 10-20 year advocacy strategy is beefing up the quantity and quality of research (music to lebanon-family-debt-800x800my ears). The fair shares papers are a good start – officials from at least three governments have told us they have helped to prise more cash out of their finance ministries.

We will also have to shift to focus much more on livelihoods (how are refugees in neighbouring countries going to earn a living for the next X years?). That shows the importance of getting beyond our self-imposed disciplinary siloes of ‘humanitarian’ v ‘long-term development’. For one thing, refugees are likely to depend heavily on the informal economy (especially when other options are closed off). Elsewhere in Oxfam we have good work on the care economy (crucial in allowing women in particular to work in informal jobs), and great partners such as WIEGO – need to join up.


May 29, 2015
Duncan Green