Beyond Brussels III, Making the Well-Being of Refugees a Reality

Last week, government ministers, representatives of UN agencies and of international financial institutions and regional organizations came together for the third donor conference on “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.” The event was hosted by the European Union in Brussels and co-chaired by the UN. I attended the civil society sessions that preceded the main conference. These sessions convened representatives from Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, who spoke to the reality on the ground for refugees and host communities.

The crisis in Syria has entered its ninth year, and the needs of Syrians who have remained in or returned to the country, as well as those who sought safety in the region, remain staggering. Donors pledged $7 billion for 2019, and nearly $2.4 billion for 2020 and beyond, for Syria as well as the region. The amount of the pledges is welcome, but for the commitments in Brussels to translate into better conditions for the displaced, donors must do more than simply pledge money. They will also need to push for change in four key areas:  

1.      Refugees need better access to the formal economy in host countries. In Turkey and Jordan, which respectively host 3.6 million and more than 630,000 registered Syrians, some progress has been made on access to work permits. However, refugees are still barred from working in key sectors. In addition, they depend upon their employers to request work permits on their behalf, and they must navigate onerous administrative and bureaucratic requirements to get their paperwork. As a result, most refugees still work in the informal economy, where they lack decent wages and often suffer exploitation. This also deprives the host country of a valuable income in the form of taxes. The EU, the United States, and other donors as well as the UN should prioritize advocacy for policy changes that would make legal work, fair wages, and safe working conditions a reality for refugees in host countries.

2.      More needs to be done to make access to livelihoods for women a reality. The Brussels conference rightly highlighted the importance of women’s participation and inclusion in working toward solutions in Syria and the region. But when it comes to Syrian women’s access to legal employment in host countries, much more needs to be done. In Jordan, only 5 percent of the work permits issued by the government to Syrians have been issued to women. If donors and the UN are serious about bringing more Syrian refugee women into the formal labor market, they must do more to tackle the challenges women face. This includes helping with safe and affordable transportation, childcare, and ensuring that information on the pathways to legal work reach them. It is also essential that livelihoods programs for women include a full range of sectors and not just jobs that are gender-stereotyped.

3.      Donors and the UN should push for a strengthening of host governments’ protection systems. Registering with the authorities and obtaining documentation in the host country are key for refugees to access services such as healthcare and education, to be eligible for humanitarian assistance and to prove their legal status and move around without fear of arrest and deportation. The challenges of registration and processing of hundreds of thousands of cases are very real, but more efforts are needed to ensure that people are not left out of these processes. And while donor governments are right in highlighting the generosity of neighboring countries that are hosting numbers of refugees that far exceed those who have made their way to Europe or the United States, advocating for robust asylum systems in these countries should be a priority.

4.      Non-Syrian refugees must also be prioritized. While Syrians represent the overwhelming majority of refugees in the countries neighboring Syria, they are not the only ones seeking refuge. Refugees from Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan, and others have also sought protection in countries like Turkey and Jordan. These populations are often not eligible for the large refugee assistance programs designed to serve Syrians. In Jordan, I met people from Darfur who described their inability to access basic services, along with the racism and discrimination they must confront daily. In Turkey, Afghan asylum seekers face huge obstacles in registering with the authorities and obtaining identity cards. Without these cards, they cannot get healthcare and their kids cannot go to school. Nor are they eligible for EU cash assistance programs. Also in Turkey, LGBTI refugees from Iran told me of the violence, abuse, and isolation they felt. It is crucial that humanitarian assistance be available to all on the basis of need and does not exclude people due to their nationality.

It has been eight long and devastating years, and while the challenges that lie ahead are immense, there is much to learn from the steps taken so far to assist people in Syria and the region and from the gaps in this assistance. Now that pledges have been made, the coming months will tell if and how the commitments made in Brussels will translate into real improvements for Syrian women, men, and children around the region.