How do we meet the urgent needs of 11 million Syrians fleeing conflict?

21 Jan 2017

SyriaCrisis UNDP Syria

In March it will be six years since the start of Syria’s descent into ruinous conflict. We can hope that the latest ceasefire and talks generate progress towards ending the war. But we must also be realistic about how long it will take to reach effective peace.

Meanwhile, the millions of men, women and children whose lives have been uprooted by the conflict need to find ways to live and pursue their ambitions and aspirations. They require housing, jobs, education and healthcare – and the communities and countries that are hosting them need support to make this possible.

On 24 January, international donors and aid organisations will meet in Helsinki to discuss the latest plans for aid in response to the war in Syria and its impact on neighbouring countries. On the agenda are a response plan for 2017, and the humanitarian and resilience priorities inside Syria for 2017-18.

The numbers remain daunting. Inside Syria 6.3 million people are displaced, and in neighbouring countries at least 4.8m Syrians are living as refugees, most of them in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Securing funding to help those affected by the war is an ongoing priority. Since last year, international donors such as Britain, Germany and the EU have increasingly been making multi-year financial commitments. This makes it easier to fund the initiatives and projects – helping local authorities to expand access to basic services, for example, and opening up more opportunities for decent employment – that best support the needs of displaced people, refugees and host communities.

Nonetheless, the challenges remain enormous. The reality of long-term mass displacement inside Syria has meant a rise in poverty rates to unprecedented levels. An estimated 1.7m children are out of school.

In the countries neighbouring Syria, much has been done by host governments, local communities and aid organisations to help refugees obtain shelter, food and access to healthcare and education. But conditions remain precarious. Most adult refugees are unable to work legally, either because they are not allowed or because they do not have the requisite permits. There are nearly five million Syrian refugees, of whom 1.6 million are school-age children; just under half of them are without a place in school (pdf). Assistance is sometimes cut because of funding shortfalls.

So there is a risk, all too real, that the pressures on displaced Syrians and refugees, and in the communities and countries hosting them, will still grow. Social cohesion and local peace may break down in places where peace is fragile (for example in Lebanon); attitudes and borders may harden; and people who have fled before may be forced to migrate again.

At the Helsinki meeting, UN agencies and representatives from host governments, donor countries, the World Bank, and NGOs will ask, “How can we all, together, do better?

Discussion will focus on the fundamentals. How to ensure that the educational and life opportunity needs of millions of children and young people are met. How to protect women and girls from violence, abuse and disadvantage, and give them the support and opportunities they need. How to ensure that the adults of today and tomorrow can get jobs and work legally, and not be trapped in exploitative informal labour. And how best to respond to the continuing pressures for humanitarian aid where fighting is intense, and to build positive resilience.

The International Labour Organisation, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme recently conducted a comprehensive assessment of economic opportunity in Syria and the neighbouring countries hosting refugees. The report (pdf) brings together examples of the many ways that jobs and economic opportunity can be created, for the benefit of displaced people, refugees, host communities and host countries.

These range from local initiatives working with affected communities in villages, towns and cities, to multilateral financing agreements with the governments of the refugee-hosting countries. In Lebanon, for example, the UNDP has been supporting local infrastructure projects with the municipal authorities, which provide employment for refugees and host communities. In Turkey, the city of Gaziantep (which alone hosts around 300,000 Syrian refugees) has been investing in building industrial and business parks, to foster long-term job creation.

In February last year, donors and host governments set a target of creating 1.1m new jobs by 2018 in the countries neighbouring Syria hosting refugees. To meet this target will require building on some of the ways that have been successful, and finding new ways. But with ambition, innovative thinking and determination, it should be possible.

After the Helsinki conference, all involved in the aid response in Syria and the neighbouring countries must redouble their efforts to address the spectrum of needs – jobs, economic opportunity, education and health. At some point reconstruction too will become possible. In the meantime we must all push for more to be done to end the war.

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