Syria’s Refugees: Toward a Policy of Selective Inclusion

A young Syrian refugee break dances on the Mediterranean waterfront promenade in Beirut. Lebanon, March 6, 2016. (Bilal Hussein/AP Photo)

I didn’t experience World War II and the occupation of my native Norway, but my mother did. Though she talked little about it, I grew up with a sense that she was always hungry during those years. Her family also had the uncomfortable experience of hosting a German soldier in their dining room, placed there against their will. Most of all, my mother expressed how that time felt like an eternity—it was five years of her youth.

Now, Syrians have also seen five years of war. Despite a hollowed-out ceasefire and protracted peace negotiation attempts in Geneva, there is no real optimism that what must also feel like an eternity will end soon. For the rest of us observing from afar, after five years it is time to accept that we are past an emergency situation and the usual response this entails. We have to rethink how to better assist the people affected in the long term.

The statistics tell us that there are almost five million Syrian refugees, in addition to the 13.5 million that have been displaced or are in need of humanitarian assistance inside the country. Needless to say, the scale and duration of the crisis have challenged and depleted the traditional means of humanitarian assistance. The international community has established efficient tools to take action and manage quick responses to humanitarian disaster. These responses have alleviated the immediate trauma of displacement, yet after five years there are clear signs that the humanitarian system is beyond its capacity. Funding mechanisms and technical organization of the humanitarian response are both overstretched. It is time for an alternative response towards displaced Syrians.

Since many refugees see a series of movements following the cycles of crises, the duration of displacement can be difficult to measure. Yet the average length of time is said to be 17 years (and for some as much as 70 years). Given this, responses that are efficient in the first phase, such as providing cash and food vouchers, are less suitable in the long term. To avoid creating dependency and pacification among entire refugee populations, there is a need to move away from a focus on providing relief to the immediate needs of humans in distress and toward an approach that is more inclusive of refugees within host societies.

Demanding inclusion of refugees in host countries already overburdened by a massive refugee influx is a sensitive issue and often an unacceptable one, particularly as most of these countries fear it will cause domestic opposition and instability. Lebanon and Jordan already have experience of long-term Palestinian refugees residing within their countries, and many in both consider these refugees a major source of political instability and risk, even as they have handled the question of inclusion and integration very differently. In Jordan, Palestinians are somewhat included and most of them have Jordanian nationality, with full citizen rights. Nevertheless, many claim to be treated like second-class citizens. Palestinians in Lebanon, meanwhile, have few rights and are excluded from large parts of the labor market.

The question of inclusion is at the heart of stability and development in any region. The Arab uprisings from 2010 onward highlighted processes of social and economic exclusion as one of the underlying causes for revolt against authoritarian rulers. These processes were ultimately behind the unemployment, corruption, and dissatisfaction with unaccountable governance typically highlighted as factors leading to protests.

The concept of social exclusion was first used to refer to individuals not included in the social welfare system in Europe. Later, the concept was broadened and understood as an aspect of poverty, dealing with individuals without access to education and employment opportunities. From there it developed to comprehensively focus on the lack of opportunity to full participation in society, in both economic and civic terms. Social exclusion is thus a multi-dimensional process driven by unequal power relationships in economic, political, social, and cultural spheres, in which societies deny people access to resources and the ability to participate in these sectors. Conversely, social inclusion is the ability to fully participate in society.

Inclusion and exclusion are not static, however; they differ in time and space for both individuals and groups. They can be included in one context and excluded in another, even at the same time. For example, Palestinian refugees in Jordan have both economic and political opportunities for participation as Jordanian citizens. However, after the conflict between Palestinian militias and the Jordanian army in 1970, they faced restrictions on political activity. They had access to economic participation, though this was sometimes restricted as a punishment of political activity. Palestinians in Lebanon, on the other hand, have been excluded from both economic and political participation, yet they were included inside the Palestinian camps, where they could find opportunity for both work and political engagement.

Understanding these concepts of inclusion and exclusion could help provide Syrian refugees a viable alternative to an exhausted humanitarian model. Recognizing that inclusion can be separated into economic, political, and cultural elements, a model could be developed to benefit refugees without harming the host country. Although humanitarian relief can be viewed as a basic human right, the reality for refugees fleeing form conflict or disaster is often being caught in an opportunity-free limbo as passive, dependent recipients of aid. We must instead start thinking of ways to rebuild shattered lives as soon as refugees have recovered from the initial shock of displacement, rather than postpone it to a distant future when they can return and rebuild their country. Recognizing that our common obligation towards refugees is to give them the best opportunities possible, we must analyze context-specific opportunities for inclusion in ways that do not generate conflict and economic ruin in host countries.

The humanitarian intervention in Syria soon expanded beyond lifesaving response to providing refugees with healthcare and education, sectors that are often more associated with development policies. This is a step in the right direction, but such investments are futile if not accompanied by a transition plan for finding economic opportunities. Both Jordan and Lebanon have restricted refugees from participating in the labor force, mostly as a measure to limit competition for jobs with local populations. Yet some form of economic inclusion of refuges is necessary to meet declining funding in the humanitarian field as well as provide refugees with a minimum level of dignity. We might call it “selective inclusion.” This might not represent the ideal, but it will still lead to some improvement.

To achieve this selective inclusion, we have to focus on the most feasible actions to implement and clearly state that full inclusion might not be the aim. For example, it is possible to include refugees in the host country’s economy without giving them political rights. It is even possible to give refugees opportunities only in particular sectors of the economy, to protect vulnerable host community groups.

Inclusive thinking of this nature is more in line with sustainable development philosophy, particularly if it emphasizes a global shared responsibility. Host countries should never carry the full burden of neighboring conflicts and the refugees they produce. Instead, the global community should invest in economic development in the affected countries in ways that benefit both host and refugee, regardless of the host’s ranking with the World Bank as low or middle income countries. There are many projects in local communities that can generate jobs as well as improved infrastructure and service institutions. Such projects will potentially leave a host community in better shape than it was before the crisis. Such initiatives will never give refuges full social inclusion, and, in particular, will limit political rights, risking that refugees become a second-class population. But it is important to remember that refugees are not citizens of host countries. Most countries fear instability from influxes of large refugee populations and often limit their rights, at least initially. Nonetheless, selective inclusion will give a sense of dignity and purpose in life while they await a return to stability and hopefully an opportunity to return to their home country. If all parties benefit from such inclusive development projects, it will also reduce tensions in local communities and contribute to peace and security in the country and region.

Mona Christophersen is a researcher at Fafo and a Senior Adviser at the International Peace Institute.