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The welfare of Syrian refugees and the way forward

Paolo Verme's picture
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In Pictures: Syrian Refugees Living in Jordan and Lebanon
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, over 6.5 million of the country’s people have been internally displaced and almost 4.4 million are registered refugees, which amounts to about half of Syria’s pre-crisis population. Nearly 1.7 million people have fled to neighboring Jordan and Lebanon. Prior to becoming refugees, many had suffered repeated shocks within Syria, leading them eventually to abandon their assets, property, and capital to seek safety in the neighboring countries.

The Syrian crisis has now become one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. The numbers are staggering. About half of the Syrian pre-conflict population has been displaced, over 200,000 people have been killed, millions of Syrians have been injured or traumatized and millions more have fled to neighboring countries and elsewhere. Yet, we know surprisingly little about the actual living conditions of those who are suffering from the crisis. For the people who have remained in Syria, information is either very scarce or unavailable. For the people affected by the Syrian crisis who have migrated to Europe, we have mostly anecdotal information that mixes victims of the Syrian crisis with other types of migrants. For those Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries and registered as refugees, we have a substantial amount of information but to date this information has been little exploited to study the welfare of refugees.

A recent report prepared by the World Bank Group (WBG) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) attempted to fill this gap for the Syrian populations we have most information about:  refugees who fled to Jordan and Lebanon.  Leveraging insights from the UNHCR refugee registration database and several household surveys conducted in Jordan and Lebanon, the report provides a first welfare assessment of Syrian refugees. The results point to a complex and difficult situation that exposes the limitations of the current policies and approaches designed to manage refugee situations over the medium to long-term. A brief review of the key findings of the report and some key questions illustrate these points.

Some key findings. The report finds seven in ten refugees to be poor according to the threshold used by the UNHCR for targeting its cash assistance program. This figure rises to nine in ten refugees if one adopts the poverty lines used to measure poverty in Jordan or Lebanon. In the absence of humanitarian assistance programs, poverty is evidently widespread among refugees. In addition, monetary and non-monetary vulnerability are high. If we consider as vulnerable those who are expected to be poor in the near future, only about 12 percent of refugees can be considered not at risk. Refugees also suffer from a multiplicity of vulnerabilities that are not always easily addressed with monetary means.

Is the humanitarian response adequate to existing needs? The two main assistance programs administered to refugees, the UNHCR cash assistance and the World Food Programme (WFP) food voucher are very effective in reducing poverty. Individually, they can potentially halve poverty and together they can reduce poverty below ten percent if administered universally to all refugees. However, funding constraints have significantly reduced this ability and economic insecurity and frequent changes in welfare status make targeting very complex. Therefore, many refugees in need are not reached by the programs either because of insufficient funding or because of incorrect targeting.

Is the approach to the refugee situation sustainable?  This is questionable for two important reasons. The first reason relates to funding and targeting as already explained. Funding for humanitarian aid is not sustainable over the medium to long term and targeting is complex. The second reason relates to the status and prospects of refugees in the medium term. Even if humanitarian organizations were able to provide adequate funding, social assistance alone is not the answer beyond the short-term. If repatriation is not an option in the medium-term, refugees cannot live indefinitely on social assistance. They need to build a livelihood on their own. For this to happen, refugees need to access markets and services, be economically included in hosting countries and become self-reliant.

What is the alternative? The report shows that standard labor supply policies aimed at improving skills, education and employability of refugees will not work if refugees cannot access markets and services. Consequently, the answer to the question above is economic inclusion of refugees. However, economic inclusion cannot come at the expenses of hosting countries and communities who are also impacted by the crisis. Economic inclusion needs to be demand driven and based on economic growth that can benefit refugees and hosting communities alike.

This paradigm shift implies a change in population focus, economic policy and social contract. A change in population focus from refugees to also include vulnerable populations affected by refugee crises; a change in economic policy from social assistance to economic growth and job creation; and a change in social contract between the international community and countries hosting refugees. This social contract should formally recognize the impact on countries that experience massive inflows of refugees and provide the necessary means to support these countries with appropriate resources to support key sectors and boost economic growth. This would allow specialized humanitarian agencies such as the UNHCR and WFP to focus on the short-term and the special protection needs of refugees while the international development community can focus on medium-term economic growth for the benefit of refugees and hosting communities alike.

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