Expert: Leadership Vacuum Drives Syrian Crisis

Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria.
Residents wait in line to receive food aid distributed in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Syria.

By Todd Feinburg

Published September 24, 2015, issue of September 24, 2015.

“The UN has been talking itself blue, but I don’t think the politicians are listening.”

That’s Susan Akram’s shorthand explanation for why the Syrian refugee crisis has suddenly exploded four years into the civil war there. Akram, a clinical law professor at Boston University who directs BU’s International Human Rights Clinic, said the region has had years to prepare, but the leadership to develop a coordinated plan hasn’t materialized.

There are different categories of refugees who have gone unserved by the UN and by mankind itself.

Jews, Palestinians, Rwandans, Croatians, Ethiopians, Somalians and many others have experienced the fate of so many Syrians now struggling to leave misery and death in their home nation only to find transiting to Europe more dangerous than remaining at home.

There are an estimated three million who have been displaced from their homes but remain in Syria. Then there are the four million who have fled Syria and are living primarily in three neighboring countries: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan — with just two or three hundred thousand in Egypt and Iraq. Last, there are still millions more expected to flee Syria.

The countries that have absorbed the vast majority of the refugees thus far have taken as many as they can handle and have closed their doors. 

“Frontline states to Syria have been completely overwhelmed. In the first couple of years, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey had completely open borders for the refugees from Syria. They were able to come in, be registered in a minimal registration process,” reported Akram. “Really all three of those states have shown tremendous generosity. Now, Turkey has 1.9 million Syrians, registered, which means many more who are not registered. That’s Turkey. Lebanon has 1.13 million and Jordan has 700,000 registered and the Jordanian government folks that I’ve met with said there are close to a million in Jordan.”

“So if you think about Lebanon, one in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. It’s unsustainable,” exclaimed Akram. “In the last year, both Lebanon and Jordan have closed their borders, simply saying we can’t take any more.” 

Planning is the backbone of coping with large movements of fleeing populations, explained Akram in a recent phone interview. That planning is expressed in something called a Comprehensive Plan of Action, or CPA. “CPAs are a framework that involves multi-layered admissions programs, both temporary and permanent,” she said, “and shares responsibility among front-line states and resettlement states and allows various kinds of programs to look at the different types of people fleeing in terms of their urgent needs and longer term needs.”

When done correctly, leaders from all the countries directly involved and those willing to help get together and make a master plan for sharing the burden and resources can be shared so a mess doesn’t ensue, as is happening now.

Akram doesn’t understand why these mechanisms of international law haven’t been implemented to assist Syrian refugees. “That might include, for Syrians, plans for temporary protection, something we have now for Syrians in the U.S. In the EU there’s been a temporary protection directive since 2001 and for some unknown reason that’s not been triggered for this crisis, which it should be. So there are existing programs that are known and have a great deal of precedent for large refugee crises, but that for some reason are not on the table and are not being discussed by the politicians. They’re being discussed by the experts, but the politicians seem to be out of the loop.

“One of the interesting things we found is a bottleneck of other refugees who’d been recognized as refugees by UNHCR (the United Nations refugee agency) but were sitting for years and years and years in, say, Egypt and Lebanon and Jordan and even Turkey because third states refused to resettle them,” said Akram. “So now there is this sort of explosion with these other groups who have been waiting patiently in line, seeing that these resettlement slots are not being made meaningfully available,” she explained, adding to the flow.

Germany is now promising to take upwards of 800,000 refugees, a number they’ve budgeted $6.6 billion to accommodate. And that may be exacerbating the short-term problem, as refugees try to make their way to Germany. But no others in Europe have been so bold. And the United States, by contrast, has announced a willingness to take only 10,000 refugees.

“I think perhaps there are two fears: One is that once you open the flood gates then when does it stop?” explained Akram. “The other fear is the region the people are coming from. I think after September 11th the entire perspective toward refugees coming from the Middle East has been bound up in the notion they could all be or any one of them could be a terrorist.” Added Akram, “We haven’t reached the ceiling set by the president for 10 years of refugee admissions.”

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