“The [Syrian] crisis [has] reached a magnitude of unprecedented proportion,” said Amin Awad, Director for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Between 2-3 million people have fled the civil war in Syria, resulting in unprecedented flows of refugees into neighboring countries. Lebanon saw its population grow by one fifth. Za’atari, a refugee camp in Jordan, has an estimated 144,000 refugees, making it the country’s third largest “city.”
Mr. Awad said that the borders between Syria and neighboring countries are by-and-large open. “There are restrictions sometimes because of security, because of smuggling, because of infiltration…However, we’re working now with the governments in making sure that people are entering. We’re cooperating with the border authorities, with the ministers of interior, and the security apparatus, to make sure that there is law and order in the camps, in the host communities, and that these countries are comfortable and supportive to keep their borders open.”
He said they are preparing refugees and the countries for the long term by shifting from material-based assistance to cash-based assistance. “We are hoping that the millions of dollars that are spent on cash programs to the refugees will also trickle down to the host communities and stimulate those economies. And a byproduct of that will be generation of employment, access to services, stimulating the markets—as small as they are in these towns and villages—where the refugees live now.”
Mr. Awad said there are “over 200 groups that are working in the surrounding countries” and “there are converging efforts between the humanitarian, the development, and the national institutions in the region.” He said that UN agencies and international NGOs have some established fora for communication, and while this leaves out organizations in the region that don’t take part in the established humanitarian system, “there are informal settings where coordination and information sharing and dialogue is taking place” with these organizations. The comprehensive regional strategy that aims to support a more holistic and longer-term response to the crisis and bring together diverse initiatives and actors—being developed by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs— is “an important strategy and initiative,” he said.
He said that UNHCR contributes at the village-town-municipal level, where it supports services such as water, sanitation, education, health, expansion of electric coverage, waste management, income generation, and employment. He said it also contributes at the central government level where “we play a catalyst role in making sure that there is bilateral support to the neighboring countries from financial institutions and development actors. We also forge agreements with some of these development actors and financial institutions.”
The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute. He tweets at @jeremie_labbe.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I am here with Amin Awad, Director for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, based in Amman, Jordan. Concurrently, Amin also serves as UNHCR’s regional refugee coordinator for the Syrian crisis, which will be the main focus of our interview today. Amin, thank you very much for being with us on the Global Observatory.
First, could you please give us an update on the extent of the Syrian refugee crisis with a few figures?
Amin Awad: The crisis reached a magnitude of unprecedented proportion. There are about 2.4 million registered refugees in the region, in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt—and some went far beyond. There are another 600-700,000 that are not registered that bring the total number of refugees in the region to about 3 million Syrian refugees as of February 2014.
JL: So, as you mentioned, this crisis is indeed quite unprecedented in scale and it represents a growing and, indeed, a destabilizing burden on neighboring countries hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees. What is the UNHCR and its partners doing to support host countries and communities?
AA: Several measures and programs that are pitched at different levels are in the making to support the host communities and the governments. One, at the very village-town-municipal level, we support services like water, sanitation, education, health, expansion of electric coverage, waste management, income generation, employment. But also at a higher level of the central government we play a catalyst role in making sure that there is bilateral support to the neighboring countries from financial institutions and development actors. We also forge agreements with some of these development actors and financial institutions.
To adjust and tweak the way we provide assistance, we shifted from a material-based assistance to cash-based assistance to many of the refugees. We are hoping that the millions of dollars that are spent on cash programs to the refugees will also trickle down to the host communities and stimulate those economies. And a byproduct of that will be generation of employment, access to services, stimulating the markets—as small as they are in these towns and villages—where the refugees live now.
JL: Could you elaborate a bit on the role of development partners and international financial institutions, which you mentioned. What role are they playing in the response, and do you think they should even play a more central role in your view?
AA: They have—the World Bank is and other institutions are. They have already made payments. An instance in point is Jordan. And they’re working on structural and developmental kinds of strategies with the humanitarian actors in an integrated manner.
JL: The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, known as OCHA, is currently working on a comprehensive regional strategy that aims to support a more holistic and longer-term response, bringing together diverse initiatives and actors, including some that you just mentioned. What is the input of the UNHCR in the development of this strategy?
AA: This is a very important strategy and initiative. “Comprehensive” means [including] the host communities, the refugees themselves, the governments, the national frameworks—the development strategies of these countries but also their well-being, and what they expect from us. And the idea was to have “comprehensive” in the sense that all actors will work in concert. What is the UNHCR contribution to this? We contribute knowledge as far as demographics of refugees, their profiles, their numbers, their whereabouts, and their needs.
JL: And then what is the role of regional actors in this response, including states from the region, civil society organizations, regional intergovernmental organizations, and so on?
AA: The governments of the regions have been participating by the virtue of the fact that the refugees are in their territories. And they’re providing services, most importantly protection and security, law and order, and cooperating with the international community.
Regional institutions: we are looking at, for example, as we discussed earlier, the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] is playing a role, bilateral as it is. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are playing roles—the international humanitarian action plan. Some of these organizations are regional; some are country-specific or global. So there are converging efforts between the humanitarian, the development, and the national institutions in the region.
JL: Are there some established forum—or established fora, I should say—for dialogue between those different actors: UN agencies, international NGOs, but also maybe some organizations coming from the region that might not take part to an established coordination fora of the humanitarian system?
AA: Yes. There are informal settings where coordination and information sharing and dialogue is taking place. But there’re also structured, established platforms for coordination—not necessarily on coordination; they are sectorial. As I said earlier, there are the 35 sectors. When you multiply that by five countries, five chapters, you will have over 200 groups that are working in the surrounding countries and hundreds of people—technicians and managers and coordinators. From the programmatic side, the technical areas are important.
JL: We saw in the Kuwait II fundraising conference that took place a couple of weeks ago that, indeed, states from the region also contribute as donors to the response there. But it seems that there is a preference from the states to privilege bilateral channels as opposed to multilateral or UN channels to give their assistance. Do you think it is a problem? Should it be improved, and is there margin for improvement?
AA: There are always bilateral and multilateral assistance. Here we play the catalyst role to make sure that there is more of the bilateral assistance to these countries because they are really undertaking some of the big[gest] international burden-sharing efforts ever by opening their borders. So, bilateral, multilateral—we’re happy to cooperate with the donors.
JL: Now on a slightly different subject, in recent months, some organizations have expressed some concerns about increasingly restrictive policies of countries neighboring Syria concerning the entry of refugees on their territory. What is the UNHCR position in this respect?
AA: The borders by-and-large are open, and the evidence is that we have an increasing number of refugees. If you look at around this time in 2013 and now, there are almost 2 million refugees who crossed into the neighboring countries. There are restrictions sometimes because of security, because of smuggling, because of infiltration. These are countries that are neighboring territories that have been ravaged by war; 280 groups are taking part in this fighting. However, we’re working now with the governments in making sure that people are entering. We’re cooperating with the border authorities, with the ministers of interior, and the security apparatus, to make sure that there is law and order in the camps, in the host communities, and that these countries are comfortable and supportive to keep their borders open.
JL: Given the number of refugees that you just mentioned—2.4 million—one can understand that concerns of neighboring countries are quite legitimate as their demographic balance could well be changed for good, especially in Lebanon and Jordan that host the highest number of refugees. Are there any measures taken in order to address this particular existential concern?
AA: There are now. As we said in 2014, we see a shift, in investment of human capital, in preparing refugees to face the new life that they’re in, since it’s going to be a protracted situation. By doing that, we hope that that will be contributing to also the development of the municipalities and the communities where they live now. And to contribute to an environment where the states can sustain themselves, [and] offset, through this kind of mechanism, the pressures that they’re under and keep their borders open.
JL: Thank you very much, Amin, for being with us today on the Global Observatory.