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Basic humanitarian aid is not enough to support Syrian refugees, US official says

Biden administration official says international community needs to focus on long-term solutions, including education and vocational training
A Syrian refugee pushes a wheelbarrow at the Zaatari refugee camp, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the Jordanian capital Amman on 15 February 2021.
A Syrian refugee pushes a wheelbarrow at the Zaatari refugee camp, 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of the Jordanian capital Amman, on 15 February 2021 (AFP)
By MEE staff in Washington

The international community needs to invest in Syrian refugees beyond basic humanitarian aid, with Syrians likely to remain in host countries or in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps for the foreseeable future, a senior US official has said.

Speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council and Wilson Center, Richard Albright, acting deputy assistant secretary for refugees and migration at the State Department, offered an implict rebuke of the Biden administration's Syria policy, and stressed the need for "long-term development solutions" for refugees.

"We can't just look at the response to the needs of these populations as short term interventions to keep people alive," he said.

"After a decade of conflict, we must lay the groundwork for self-reliance and eventual durable solutions. Although economic conditions pose a formidable obstacle in the near term, Syrians deserve the opportunity of being able to provide shelter, food, and clothes for their children and their loved ones."

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The war in Syria, now in its tenth year, has devastated much of the country. More than 388,000 people have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and millions have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries.

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, while Lebanon is home to more than 900,000 people and Jordan hosts more than 600,000.

Louisa Vinton, representative for the UN Development Programme in Turkey, echoed Albright's remarks, saying the agency saw a "protracted future that has some implications of permanence, so the solutions need to be adapted to that outlook".

Vinton said there needed to be better cohesion between host countries and their refugee population, with mechanisms in place to create more education programmes for children and training schemes for working-age Syrians.

She added that, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a real risk of development initiatives "getting left behind" with a focus on simply covering humanitarian needs.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council in March that the need for aid had jumped 20 percent from last year, in part due to the pandemic, with the international body seeking an estimated $4.2bn for Syrians inside the country and another $5.8bn for Syrian refugees in host countries.

Stabilisation aid

Jomana Qaddour, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said it was crucial the Biden administration helped provide support for education and vocational skills, stressing the need for "investing in the future generation of Syrians".

"I think there needs to be an emphasis on [education] and I hope that's something that the Biden administration can focus on," she said.

"We're talking about kids that have not gone to school in 10 years. What that does mean for the future of Syria? Even if the political problems were to go away tomorrow - it actually provides a very scary picture. We have children that cannot read and write."

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The US has been one of the largest donors to the Syrian crisis over the past several years, and announced in March that it would provide $596m in additional funding for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian crisis, increasing the total aid given by Washington since the start of the war to nearly $14bn.

Still, the type of additional funding that has been called for - education, healthcare infrastructure, job creation, economic assistance - falls under the category of "stabilisation assistance" rather than humanitarian aid.

The Trump administration stopped providing stabilisation assistance in 2018, but Biden restored some $50m in stabilisation aid earlier this year.

"Under the Trump administration, stabilisation aid was cut off," Qaddour said. Shortly thereafter, we also saw European governments cut off stabilisation aid as well.

'This has played a detrimental role in areas that exist outside of the Assad regime."

Biden avoiding 'deep involvement' in Syria

Still, James Jeffrey, chair of the Wilson's Center's Middle East programme and former US envoy for Syria engagement, said the Biden administration lacked focus concering Syria.

He said the administration was "focused on the humanitarian issue, but on a narrow issue right now of the crossing", referring to the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria that has a mandate that is set to expire next month.

The US president has largely remained quiet on the issue of Syria. Last month, a State Department delegation travelled to the war-ravaged country where diplomates met with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since coming to office, the administration's main focus in the Middle East has been negotiating a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

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During his summit with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin earlier this week, Biden said he brought up the issue of humanitarian access into Syria, but also appeared to confuse Syria and Libya multiple times during a press conference.

"The administration is trying to avoid getting deeply involved in an overall policy towards Syria, that's understandable given the fate of the earlier policies and the other things on their plate in Asia and elsewhere," Jeffrey said.

Since being elected to office, Biden and his administration have made a quiet foreign policy shift towards focusing on China and Russia, ultimately spending less time, effort and resources on issues in the Middle East.

"But they also tried to ignore the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and look what happened last month with that," Jeffrey said.

Last month, Israel launched an offensive on the besieged Gaza Strip, killing 248 Palestinians in an 11-day bombing campaign.

That offensive had been preceded by violent raids on the al-Aqsa Mosque and the expulsion of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem.

Palestine advocates heavily criticised Biden for his approach to the assault, arguing that the US prolonged the conflict by blocking UN Security Council calls for an immediate ceasefire.

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