As violence escalates in Syria, so too does the humanitarian crisis. As Syria's economic and social structures continue to destruct, refugees are a major concern for humanitarians addressing the consequences of the conflict. The United States has led in humanitarian response yet assistance barely begins to scratch the surface of needs.
CRS Policy Position
- End the violence: Given the rising violence, the possible use of chemical weapons and growing instability—not only within Syria but in surrounding countries—Syria urgently needs a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians. Pope Francis has called for an end to bloodshed in Syria. He has urged support for "humanitarian assistance" and "a political solution to the crisis … as soon as possible." We ask the United States to work with other governments to contain the violence, restore stability in the region, provide humanitarian assistance and encourage the building of an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including vulnerable populations such as religious minorities and women.
- Long-term strategy: Develop a longer-term strategy to respond to refugee needs, including a contingency plan. The destruction is such that even should the political violence be resolved soon, refugees are unlikely to immediately return to Syria. This plan should include coordination with other donors, especially Gulf States. It should also consider how the United States and other donor governments might respond should significant sectarian violence breakout. A long term strategy was not developed in response to the Iraqi refugee crisis. As a result, significant portions of Iraqis remain in limbo in many of the same countries now receiving Syrians. More urgently, the Christian population was reduced by one-third in the country.
- Humanitarian funding: Support robust funding for the Syria crisis and humanitarian emergencies globally in FY 2014 appropriations. CRS was pleased to see the increase in humanitarian accounts in the continuing resolution for FY 13. But the President's Budget Request makes requests for migration and refugee assistance account and the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at levels comparable to FY 12—before the Syria crisis grew to such large proportions. Needs in Syria will continue to escalate, and so too must our humanitarian commitment to those in need. UNHCR revised its appeal for a fifth time—the largest in history at $5 billion. Yet the appeal remains significantly underfunded, especially in places like Lebanon. A failure to robustly fund these accounts will require the Administration to consider tradeoffs, potentially robbing Peter to pay Paul.
- Humanitarian Access: Ensure access to humanitarian assistance with impartiality in Syria. Humanitarian actors throughout the region are concerned about the politicization of aid in Syria. Cooperation with authorities in neighboring governments to ensure unimpeded access for cross-border assistance from those countries is needed. Often, such cross-border activities are the only way to access rebel-held areas.
- Vulnerable groups: Urban refugees and vulnerable groups require particular attention. The majority of refugees fleeing Syria live in urban areas, not in camps. Access to shelter and the ability to pay for it remain critical problems for many urban refugees, particularly as rent and commodity prices increase for them and the host community. We are pleased to see this emphasized in the revised regional response plan. Vulnerable groups, such as religious minorities, also require particular care to avoid the elimination of entire populations in Syria. Some estimate that as many as 75-80% of refugees are in urban settings.
- Regional Assistance: Bilateral assistance to Jordan has been significant yet it lags significantly in Lebanon, largely for political reasons. Increasing evidence of sectarian violence, particularly with the growth in outside fighters and Hezbollah, exacerbates this concern. Many members of Congress continue to argue for conditionality on aid to Egypt. Policymakers should appreciate that in the medium to longer term, avoiding assistance to countries perceived not to be partners with the United States will only further destabilize the region and exacerbate the refugee crisis.
- Humanitarian Registrations: Pressure the governments and ministries in neighboring countries to facilitate with haste the registration and legal humanitarian mandates of foreign NGOs to operate in their countries.