How should we help desperate, displaced people overseas? © Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/Press Association Images

What the UK can do to solve the refugee crisis

We need a comprehensive plan

by Neil Quilliam, Pari Ibrahim / October 6, 2015

This week Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan met EU officials to discuss how Europe can better deal with the refugee crisis. Turkish officials have routinely criticised the EU for considering it “their” refugee crisis, even though Turkey has so far accommodated more than two million Syrians.

This critique has some merit. No matter how many Syrians the EU allows to cross its borders, the majority of displaced people will remain within Syria or its neighbouring states. Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, whose refugee crisis started over four years ago, have not had the luxury of debating how many to admit across their borders. Jordan and Lebanon have absorbed over 1.6m refugees between them. The expansion of Islamic State has resulted in the displacement of 3m in Iraq, with over 1.5m Internally Displaced Persons concentrated in the Kurdish region alone, which has placed an enormous strain on resources. There is a growing risk that these communities will reach breaking point as the flow of people increases.

Last month David Cameron announced that Britain would take 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years. The first of these 20,000 have now arrived on British shores. But that does not absolve the government of its moral responsibility towards all communities affected by the Syrian conflict, including refugees and internally displaced populations.The UK, therefore, needs to show leadership, think long-term and focus its efforts on encouraging the international community as a whole to provide sustainable support to both host governments and affected communities.

There are five tangible ways in which the UK government can provide direct support to help host governments and refugee and IDP communities:

It should relieve some of the pressure on Syria’s neighbours by showing moral courage and working with the EU to accommodate more than 120,000 refugees over two years. It is difficult to persuade Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to keep their borders open when they have already received over 4m refugees, while the EU quibbles over so few. Cameron’s pledge to offer 20,000 places over five years amounts to Britain’s 433 local authorities receiving nine Syrians a year—hardly a “swarm.”

The UK must ensure sufficient financial support for host governments to provide education (primary, secondary and tertiary), healthcare and shelter to refugees. Education, in particular, will serve as a preventive measure against the appeal of extremism and the draw of radicalisation. While the UK has already provided significant financial support to Syrians (the EU’s pledge of €1bn included an additional £100,000 from Britain), it must ensure that such support is sustainable—one-off payments will not provide the stability host governments need. The UK must commit long-term support and the British public should be made aware of the risk of further destabilisation in the region if it fails to do so. Although an unfair comparison, Iran has since 2013 supported the Syrian regime with an estimated $1bn per annum and shows no sign of abating.

As argued in a new Chatham House paper, the UK should work closely with host governments to ensure that Syrians are given more opportunities to earn a living legally. Such a move would draw opposition, but the benefits to both refugees and national economies would outweigh these costs.

The UK must help build the capacities of local NGOs that have emerged since the conflict, so that they can not only provide services to the community, but also help mitigate against a culture of dependency developing between conflict-affected societies and international aid organisations. There is a tendency among the international aid community to undervalue the capacity of local NGOs, but they are often more effective at meeting the actual needs of communities, empowering local populations and delivering value for money. Over the long-term, investing in groups close to displaced communities, such as the Free Yazidi Foundation, will prove to be invaluable.

Support must be targeted towards practical services that help communities overcome the long-term impact of the conflict. In many cases refugee communities have been brutalised by armed groups, including Islamic State (IS), the Assad regime and opposition groups. International media coverage of the Yazidi case in Iraq highlighted how a whole community suffered systematic abuse and its women were forced to be sex slaves. With its focus on preventing sexual violence in conflict, the UK is well-placed to provide direct support to communities such as the Yazidis by not only funding centres for women and children, but also developing the capacity of communities themselves to offer post-trauma therapy. By lending its valuable experience and expertise, the UK government could help communities overcome their collective traumas and, at the same time, help re-build their resilience.

The UK needs now to show leadership and persuade the international community to invest in the long-term and help Syria’s neighbours live with their refugee crisis and help Iraq with its 3 million IDPs. It is not enough to throw money at the problem until the news agenda changes. It requires a much broader approach, which includes helping conflict-affected populations deal with the trauma of displacement and brutality, come to terms with their new realities and prepare for an uncertain future.