Last week, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s pledge to support Syrian refugees was a swift response to a region mired in conflict. Mr. Baird’s support signalled Canada’s timely concern for the plight of those in need. However, in light of developments on the ground, Canadian efforts should plan beyond ad hoc assistance. Conditions in Syria seem poised to develop into a prolonged crisis where refugees might soon need long-term support.
At the outset, Mr. Baird’s financial pledge appears appropriate. While scrutiny must address who is tasked with implementing programs on the ground, it is clear that international action is necessary. By early August, only 33 per cent of the $193-million (U.S.) requested in a joint appeal by the United Nations and other international organizations to assist refugees from Syria had been met.
This shortfall poses considerable challenges in the field: One million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country, while more than 147,000 have been registered as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. In Jordan alone, local organizations have identified an additional 50,000 people in need of assistance. Up to 2,000 mostly impoverished and often illiterate individuals cross the border into Jordan every week.
Syria, already immersed in civil war, has more recently descended even further into calamity. The waves of violence raging in Damascus and Aleppo have shifted the conflict to key urban centres, resulting in unprecedented refugee movements from Syria’s major cities.
While this is an additional escalation, large-scale refugee displacements are not new to the Middle East. In 1948 and 1967 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries, while sectarian violence in 2006 resulted in an unparalleled mass exodus from Iraq.
In 1949, the international community responded with the establishment of an organization solely mandated to address the needs of Palestinians, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Similarly, in 2007, the international response to the violence in Iraq was at first notable: Financial support bolstered host countries, while more than a dozen Western states established refugee-resettlement programs.
However, as the Iraq conflict shifted from an emergency to a protracted sectarian horror, Western interest waned and international aid dollars dwindled. At the same time, refugee realities remained dire.
Nine years after the outbreak of the Iraq war, the majority of the estimated two million Iraqis forced to flee are still unable to return in light of continued violence in their home country. No longer reported, they live under precarious conditions with minimal assistance.
As a consequence, countries such as Jordan located at the centre of regional upheaval have been forced to bear the burden despite limited resources. Many fear that repeated refugee influxes will jeopardize the few remaining pockets of calm in the region as host countries themselves struggle with domestic unrest.
Today, the bleak example of Iraq offers an important warning for the current Syrian crisis. Given cultural proximities, similarly diverse sectarian demographics, and internationally divided positions on how to address the crisis politically, Syria threatens to repeat the experiences of Iraq.
Against this background, Canada’s recent pledge was noteworthy but is likely to fall short when measured against needs. Given the exigencies of refugees, financial first aid will likely need to be backed by long-term commitments to refugees and struggling host countries.
For if one lesson is to be learned from the history of refugee movements in the Middle East, it is that international support will be needed long after global headlines have shifted.
Jolie Chai has worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.