Syrians experienced the largest single-day exodus of the war on March 15, 2018. Seven years to the day since the start of the uprising in Syria, some 45,000 civilians fled their homes in besieged Eastern Ghouta. The fact that such large-scale displacement took place over the course of a single day as the conflict entered its eighth year is a stark reminder that the displacement caused by the war has not abated and will not end any time soon.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international agency mandated with the protection of refugees, has repeatedly called attention to the unprecedented scale of displacement in the current “refugee crisis.” The term itself deserves scrutiny. Panic in Europe about large numbers of refugees crossing the Mediterranean in order to seek asylum, peaking in the summer of 2015, led to the increased use of the phrase, especially in the international media, despite the fact that the vast majority of Syrian refugees continue to reside in neighboring countries. Crisis itself is a loaded term, particularly in the context of international law, where it would normally invite action or intervention. The responses to this so-called crisis, however, have been inadequate.
Indeed, the number of refugees worldwide seeking safety by crossing international borders is at its highest since the agency was founded in the aftermath of World War II. In addition to the huge numbers, the duration of displacement is increasing, leading to what the UNHCR calls “protracted refugee situations” where refugee populations of 25,000 or more have been in exile for five or more years. In this kind of situation, refugees are caught in a prolonged state of limbo in the countries to which they fled, but where their basic rights and needs are not met, leaving them frustrated, unfulfilled and feeling stuck. The scale and duration of displacement has exposed the limitations, or even the complete failure, of the tools that the international community—namely, the donor countries to agencies like the UNHCR that shape its policies and actions—has relied on for more than 60 years to assist refugees and to support the countries that take them in.
The UNHCR was created by the United Nations in 1950 with a double mandate: to provide refugees with international protection and to seek permanent solutions to their plight. It was promoted as a lofty, humanitarian and non-political project based on two principles: that refugee status should be temporary and that a long-term presence of refugees is a problem that must be resolved. The UNHCR proposes three “durable solutions” for refugees: repatriation, in which refugees return voluntarily, in safety and dignity, to their country of origin; resettlement, in which a third country accepts refugees from the first host country and grants them permanent residence; and local integration, in which refugees remain in the country to which they fled, but enjoy legal, economic and social rights. Examining the massive displacement caused by the war in Syria provides a way to gauge how these potential solutions to mitigate the suffering of refugees have held up under the weight of crisis.
The statistics are staggering. Half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million has been driven from their homes. Roughly half of those are internally displaced and half are now living abroad as refugees, primarily in neighboring countries. Turkey hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon has 1 million, and approximately 650,000 are in Jordan. There are over 5.6 million Syrians registered with the UNHCR as refugees, which does not include hundreds of thousands more who are unregistered. For instance, in Lebanon, there are an estimated half million unregistered Syrians since the Lebanese government instructed the UNHCR to suspend new registrations in May 2015. 
The regional response to the Syria exodus has been influenced by previous large-scale forced displacements. The countries of the Middle East have long been host to refugees fleeing other conflicts and oppressive regimes, such as the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese now in Egypt and the dispersal of Iraqis after the rise in sectarian violence following the 2003 invasion led by the United States. In addition, the region still grapples with the reality and repercussions of one of the world’s longest protracted refugee situations—that of Palestinian refugees. The highly politicized issue of Palestinians has significantly shaped government policies on Syrian refugees, especially once it became evident that there would not be a quick political resolution to the Syrian conflict.
Each of the durable solutions—repatriation, resettlement and local integration—promulgated by the UNHCR has faltered or outright collapsed. The ongoing violence in parts of Syria has deterred voluntary repatriation. Current military dynamics, which have shifted in favor of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, coupled with the implementation of de-escalation zones (agreed upon in May 2017 and guaranteed by Russia, Iran and Turkey) have given new impetus to discussions of the possibility of return for some refugees. Many analysts, however, agree that the prospects for a genuine peace that would truly allow Syrians to return in safety and dignity is remote.
Even if a political resolution brings open conflict to an end, large-scale voluntary repatriation of Syrians is not likely because of ongoing violence in certain areas, fear of reprisals and devastation of the economy, livelihoods and infrastructure. Most Syrians wish to return to their places of origin where they may have homes, land and other family, rather than to low-tension areas, which may not remain peaceful. The scale of destruction in Syria, however, is so vast that many question to what exactly Syrians would be returning. It is estimated that 85 percent of Syrians in Syria now live in poverty, with access to livelihoods, homes, infrastructure, education, health provision and other basic services severely compromised.  In addition, in some areas that have been reclaimed from ISIS, for example Deir al-Zour, returnees would have to contend with the fragmentation of social structures and disruption of social cohesion, the undermining of the city’s role as a regional economic and political axis and the severance of its links to other regions.  Tensions between Arabs and Kurds and fear of reprisals also keep some who have fled from returning.
Resettlement has its own limitations. It is not a legally recognized right and countries must voluntarily allow resettlement. Generally, the UNHCR submits cases for consideration to countries of resettlement, which in turn decide whether to accept the refugees using their own admission criteria—with no obligation to take any. On a global level, only a small minority of refugees are resettled. In 2017, the UNHCR submitted just 75,188 cases for resettlement, out of which 65,109 actually departed to their resettlement country. That number of resettled refugees is a significant decline from the year before, when there were 126,291 departures (out of 163,206 submissions).
The political atmosphere in the countries of resettlement presents another problem, especially now when the issue of migration has become highly politicized. The drop between 2016 and 2017 is largely due to the change in US policy following the election of President Donald Trump. Immediately upon taking office in January 2017, Trump instituted a temporary suspension of resettlement, followed subsequently by announcements that resettlement numbers would be reduced.  Moreover, the resettlement process is bureaucratically burdensome and may be quite lengthy, routinely taking two years or even longer to complete. There is no question that some refugees do benefit from resettlement, but in its current form and in the current political atmosphere, it cannot be the primary durable solution to the refugee crisis.
Local integration remains the only possible permanent solution—among those proposed by UNHCR—for refugees. The majority of the world’s refugees remain in host countries. In many situations, refugees have spent decades in those countries without being truly integrated and attaining critical civil and political rights. Palestinian refugees are a prominent example. Although their situation varies by country, in those places where they have not obtained citizenship, Palestinian refugees live with severe restrictions on the right to free movement, to employment, to forming organizations and associations and much else.
The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees—a UN multilateral treaty—is the foundation for the international legal framework governing refugee protection. It defines who is a refugee and outlines the rights and responsibilities of the signatory countries. A key principle in the Convention is that of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from sending refugees back to territories where their lives or freedom would be threatened. The non-refoulement obligation in Article 33 is seen as the cornerstone of protections that states must provide. Many argue that this principle has been elevated to customary international law, meaning that even states that are not signatories to the convention are bound by it.
The rights of refugees—such as the right to free exercise of religion, free movement and ownership of property, among others—are also set forth in the 1951 Convention. Some states developed domestic asylum law and legal frameworks that enshrine those rights for refugees. Other states that do not have domestic asylum laws, but are signatories to the Convention, have made reservations to some of its articles. For instance, Egypt has made reservations that exempt it from committing to provide refugees with public relief, access to primary education, labor protections and welfare.
True local integration means that refugees, during their stay in the host country, acquire a progressively wider set of rights that ideally culminate in citizenship. Article 34 of the Convention states that “the contracting states shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings.” In the Middle East, the local integration of refugees has been hindered for various legal, economic and socio-political reasons. Only a minority of the region’s states are signatories to the Convention or have meaningful domestic asylum legislation. In most countries in the region, the UNHCR operates through memoranda of understanding with the state and fulfills a quasi-state function for refugees.
The UNHCR is, however, not a state. It is constrained by personnel and budgetary issues, as well as by the host governments, which set the parameters for what it can and cannot do. The reality is that the UNHCR and its implementing partners can never adequately provide essential services to refugees. In Lebanon, where UNHCR was ordered to halt refugee registration in May 2015, refugees without registration papers or any form of documentation are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and can be detained or deported at the whim of authorities. In Egypt, a signatory to the Convention, Syrians obtain yellow cards from the UNHCR valid for 18 months. But Egyptian residency stickers that must be affixed to the card are valid for only six months. Residency must be renewed through an arduous process that can take weeks. Refugee status, even when it lasts for years, does not eventually lead to citizenship or even permanent residence.
The economic barriers to refugee integration are also considerable. First, the countries hosting the greatest number of refugees have their own economic problems. Second, refugees across the region face restrictions in employment. In Lebanon, they are not permitted to work legally. In Egypt, they are not barred from employment per se, but must meet the same regulations governing employment of foreigners, meaning they must have employer sponsorship and approval of the Ministry of Labor, a standard many cannot meet. In 2016, Jordan became the first country in the Arab region to issue work permits for Syrian refugees. There are now 10,000 temporary work permits (renewable annually) issued to Syrians to work in the construction industry (the applicants must also purchase insurance and obtain certificates attesting to their qualifications). Though limited in scope, the agreement represents the first effort to formalize the right to work for Syrian refugees in Jordan, where unauthorized employment was once a leading cause for detention. Overall, the crisis has intensified as people exhaust their savings, as donations to international aid agencies decline (for example, in 2015 the World Food Program was forced to cut in half its cash assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon due to lack of funds) and as refugees’ situation grows more desperate.
Finally, socio-political factors have impeded full integration. In theory, integration into countries of the Middle East should be easier for Syrians. With the exception of Turkey, they share the same language with their host countries. Despite hopes for change and democratization after the Arab uprisings of 2010–2011, however, the political atmosphere remains repressive across the region. Refugees are also viewed as a political issue. Since 1948, Palestinian refugees have often been a convenient scapegoat for political instability. Their full integration has been blocked both because the right of return to their homes remains a cornerstone of Palestinian demands for statehood and because in some countries, such as Lebanon, local concerns for sectarian balance among the population have taken precedence.
Syrian refugees also have to deal with political backlash in their host countries. In Egypt, after the 2013 coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, state media and President Muhammad Mursi’s opponents led a campaign that accused Syrians of supporting the Brotherhood. Syrians consequently faced much hostility, discrimination and arbitrary arrests and detention. In Turkey, opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have accused him of promising naturalization to Syrians in order to use them as a base of support for his reelection. As the conflict in Syria continues, Turkey has grown weary of the Syrian presence in the country, and the political discourse has shifted towards encouraging their return to Syria. There is also a high degree of political separation and tension between the countries of the Middle East, despite their linguistic, religious and cultural similarities and the fact that these modern nation states came into existence fairly recently. Visa rules for travel across their borders have become far more restrictive, whether because of the refugee crisis or for security reasons, such that it is common to hear of visa denials for even short visits.
Shifting Political Tides
One by one, the tools advocated by the United Nations to address the vast suffering and political consequences of displacement have failed. The increasing tendency towards protracted refugee situations stems from both political action and inaction, in countries of origin and host countries. In Syria, the ongoing conflict and flagrant violations of human rights and humanitarian law perpetrated both by the regime and by non-state actors continues to spur the flight of citizens and renders return unthinkable for many.
Except for a brief period in 2015 when some countries in Europe, led by Germany, adopted a more generous policy of admitting those fleeing the war, the political tide in Europe is against accepting more refugee arrivals. The March 2016 agreement between the European Union and Turkey has led to a dramatic decline in arrivals to Europe (according to UNHCR, boat arrivals in Greece dropped from 856,723 in 2015 to 29,718 in 2017). The agreement stipulates that asylum seekers arriving irregularly in Greece can be returned to Turkey in exchange for financial assistance and the loosening of visa restrictions for Turkish citizens. Since this arrangement began, the Greek government has adopted a containment policy that restricts arriving refugees to camps on the islands on which they land until their cases are adjudicated. The adjudication process is slow, and camp conditions are extremely difficult, which suggests the policy is deliberately attempting to deter further arrivals to Europe. Italy is making deals with the authorities in Libya to prevent boat arrivals, despite widely circulating reports about horrific abuse of migrants and asylum seekers there. Increasingly, European and other “destination” countries have adopted various strategies of externalization to prevent asylum seekers from arriving on their shores.
Granted, the scale of Syrian displacement is virtually unprecedented, and it is not the only ongoing refugee crisis in the world or even the region. But forced refugee flows in Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America were in the past resolved through comprehensive plans of action that involved the resettlement of much larger numbers of refugees than have been resettled recently. Some scholars suggest that the tide has turned since the end of the Cold War.  As the issues of migration and national security have been conflated, governments appear to have given up on the humanitarian principles that supposedly underlay the Refugee Convention: the need to take in those who are driven into exile by war and despotism, to share the burden of helping them and the need to provide for their return.
There are plenty of reasons why those principles have been abandoned. Local populations have their own woes that divert them from the suffering of others. Politicians use nationalism to wield power and turn their populations against outsiders. What is clear, however, is that displacement will continue to be a feature of our world. Whether for political reasons or for reasons not addressed in the 1951 Convention, such as environmental and development-related causes, people will move if their survival depends upon it. The current framework for addressing this displacement is failing those in need and will not improve until the mechanisms used to address forced migration are changed. The current system, which either pushes people into choosing increasingly dangerous paths of irregular migration or leaves them languishing for years in refugee camps or host countries without basic rights, is untenable.
1. Refugee statistics and numbers are from UNHCR.
3. Kheder Khaddour, “Back to What Future? What Remains for Syria’s Displaced People,”Carnegie Middle East Center, January 18, 2018.