Syrian refugee relief effort Islamicized
By Alexander Casella
GENEVA - As the Syrian crisis is poised to enter into its third year, it is estimated that 25% of the country's inhabitants have been uprooted, including more than 2 million refugees abroad and about 4.5 million internally displaced people.
With the conflict showing no sign of abating, numbers of those crossing the border to seek refuge in neighboring countries is estimated on average at about 2,000 a day. Conversely, the humanitarian response to the tragedy is proving as chaotic, uncoordinated and politicized as the conflict itself.
During the years of the Cold War, with refugees moving essentially from East to West, the Western bloc, comprising
essentially the industrialized democracies had in effect delegated to the UN system and its executive arm, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the task of managing major refugee crisis.
Thus, the responses to both the Afghan refugee emergency and the Vietnamese boat people crisis were essentially managed by UNHCR and funded by the Western bloc. In practice this meant that the cosmetics of helping refugees benefited mostly the UN system rather than the donor governments providing the funding. Ultimately, funds provided by individual governments were laundered through the UN system, thus acquiring a "humanitarian" label.
The erosion of this process started with the Bosnian conflict in 1992. Coming in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, by the end of the conflict in 1995 a new trend had emerged. While still using the UN system as a channel for assistance, donor governments would increasingly provide their aid either bilaterally or through their own national non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Current figures for the Syrian refugees now in different countries are ballpark, given that a considerable number are not registered; they are estimated as follows: Egypt, 300,000; Iraq, 220,000; Jordan, 600,000; Lebanon, 1 million; and Turkey, 600,000. While the figures in themselves are considerable, the difficulties in managing such a caseload have been compounded by two factors: the dispersal of the refugees and the multiplication of the actors providing assistance.
Traditionally, large-scale refugee movements resulted in the creation of camps that became focal points of the provision of assistance. This is what happened following the exoduses from Afghanistan, Vietnam and Cambodia. In the case of Syria, however, only a minority of the refugees have congregated in camps. In Turkey, only some 200,000 of the 600,000 Syrian refugees are sheltered in the 21 camps set up by the Turkish authorities; the remaining 400,000 are spread throughout the country. Overall, Turkey has addressed the problem with its own resources, and its government-run camps are models of efficiency and organization.
Lebanon has taken another route. Fearful of a repetition of the Palestinian situation, in which camps became armed Palestinian strongholds that fell outside its control, the Lebanese government actually forbade the setting up of any camps where Syrians might be concentrated. The end result is that some one million Syrian refugees are spread out all over the country in an estimated 1,500 locations.
This has stretched local reception facilities as well as schools and health infrastructure often beyond breaking point. It has also had a major impact on the labor market, since Syrian refugees are willing to work for lower wages than local Lebanese.
This fragmentation of the refugee caseload has proved a major challenge to the UNHCR bureaucracy, which traditionally was focused almost exclusively on camp management. Granted, the UN agency was confronted with the same phenomenon of refugee fragmentation during the 1998 exodus of refugees from Kosovo to Albania and reacted by putting in place a major outreach information program that was subcontracted to an international entity. This strategy, however, has not been repeated and Syrian refugees have to rely essentially on local NGOs for guidance and information. Likewise, assistance - either from UN sources or from other origins - is dispensed essentially through NGOs.
Jordan has 600,000 Syrian refugees, of which about 470,000 are spread out in urban areas and 130,000 are housed in the Zaatari refugee camp. While the camp in nominally under UNHCR authority, day-to-day operations are provided by 60 NGOs, often operating independently and outside any coordinating framework.
Of the 220,000 Syrian refugees who have arrived in Iraq, about 95% sought refuge in Kurdish areas, where most are spread out through local communities, and some 40% are sheltered in camps.
Egypt has had long-standing relations with Syria and all the estimated 300,000 refugees are living in urban communities. While the deposed Muslim Brotherhood government looked positively on the refugees, the present military regime has been somewhat less welcoming, a situation compounded by the economic problems Egypt is going through.
This has no doubt contributed to ensuring that some of those with means have enlisted the services of people-smugglers to make their way to Italy through Libya and Lampedusa. While the number is still in the lower thousands, it has become a source of concern for Europeans.
Looking beyond the numbers, and viewed from a global perspective, the Syrian refuge crisis represents a major turning point in the international management of conflict-driven population displacement.
In a traditional Cold War context, multilateral aid stood as the humanitarian component of the East/West confrontation. With the end of the Cold War, this multilateral aid endured - albeit with a much-diminished political impact - and came into competition with aid provided by new actors on the international scene.
There are many examples in the Middle East of political movements that gained a foothold among the population through social welfare activities. Such was the case of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood - all of which had generous welfare programs in societies where governments tended to ignore the needs of the poor. Social welfare thus became a political weapon not only in the hands of those who managed it but even more so in those who provided the funding. The Syrian crisis was to highlight this new humanitarian order.
The total UNHCR appeal for aid to Syrian refugees stands at US$2.98 billion. As of now, donations stand at about $1.4 billion, making for a funding shortfall of 53%. Major donors are the traditional ones, namely the US, Germany and the European Union, Australia and the like, with most of the funding being directed to Jordan and Lebanon.
Based on UNHCR figures, the shortfall appears massive. However, as far as the recipients are concerned, it is of little consequence.
The Syrian rebellion would never have assumed its present dimension without extensive financial support originating essentially from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The same pattern has emerged as regards humanitarian assistance. In February 2013, at the Kuwait funding conference, some $1.5 billion in humanitarian aid was pledged by the Gulf states. However, with the exception of Kuwait, which donated $112 million to UNHCR, all these contributions were channeled through Islamic NGOs rather than through the UN system.
Altogether, by September 2013, it is estimated that Saudi Arabia and Qatar contributed a total of about $2 billion for relief activities, including assistance to internally displaced Syrians in areas controlled by Islamic resistance movements. In additional to this funding, thousands of individual private donors throughout the Gulf states have been contributing small sums both to the rebellion and to various Islamic NGOs.
With the traditional Western relief structures having now taken a back seat to Islamic-inspired assistance efforts, the Syrian conflict has moved one step further away from the order inherited from the Cold War years.