E.g., 12/08/2023
E.g., 12/08/2023
Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Conversation with T. Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Responding to the Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Conversation with T. Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees

Editor's Note: During a recent visit to Washington, DC, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff visited the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) to discuss the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and the role of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in assisting countries that have taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees. Two central questions guided his conversation with MPI staff: What are the international community’s top priorities in responding to the protracted refugee crisis, and how will UNHCR and other actors change their refugee crisis-response models and mechanisms to adapt to this and future emergencies? The following article draws from the informal conversation at MPI and is not a verbatim account.

More than two and a half years of violent conflict in Syria have left between one-quarter and one-third of the Syrian population displaced internally or seeking refuge abroad, with perhaps as many as several thousand more leaving the country each day. The international community has stepped in to provide assistance to the millions of people affected by what is now considered the biggest humanitarian emergency since the Rwandan genocide in 1994 — but with great difficulty due to the enormity of the human displacement as well as security and access issues inside Syria.

The Syrian crisis, like the Iraqi refugee crisis that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, differs from other large-scale displacements of the past two decades — notably those resulting from the Rwandan genocide and the Kosovo conflict in 1999 — in that a significant majority of displaced persons do not live in refugee camps, but instead have settled in cities, towns, and villages in neighboring countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq). As a result, one preoccupying challenge for the international community is providing adequate support for host communities whose services, resources, and infrastructure are absorbing the brunt of the displacement, with sometimes destabilizing effects on their own economies and natural environments.

Many observers are also increasingly concerned that the ongoing violence and destruction will undercut the past several decades of socioeconomic development in Syria: Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children are likely to face long-term setbacks because of extended interruption in schooling, and much of the country's infrastructure and services have been destroyed (see Hospitals and Doctors under Attack in Syria: Q&A with the Chair of the Humanitarian Aid Committee for the Syrian Expatriates Organization).

Drawing on an informal conversation with T. Alexander Aleinikoff, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, during his visit to MPI in September, this article provides an update on the Syrian refugee crisis, including present and future challenges. The article also explores how the international community is increasingly recognizing the need to pursue a refugee crisis-response model that prioritizes comprehensive, long-term economic and social intervention.

UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees T. Alexander Aleinikoff

Evolution of the Syrian Crisis

What began in March 2011 as anti-government demonstrations associated with the Arab Spring have evolved into full-blown civil war in Syria. Five million people are believed to be displaced internally within Syria. Nearly 2.2 million Syrians had sought refuge abroad as of late October — with an estimated 1.8 million fleeing the country since the beginning of 2013.

The first UNHCR refugee camps were established in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, including the Altinozu camp in Turkey in mid-2011 (a tent city that currently hosts about 1,300 Syrian refugees), the Domiz camp in northern Iraq in April 2012 (now hosting about 45,000 refugees, mainly Syrian Kurds), and the Za'atari camp in northern Jordan in July 2012 (the second-largest refugee camp in the world, providing refuge to more than 120,000 Syrians).

As of late October, Lebanon had taken in more than 805,000 Syrian refugees (registered as well as awaiting registration) — a larger number than any other country. The Lebanese government has refused, however, to allow refugee camps to be built for a number of reasons, including concern that Syrian refugees will remain indefinitely rather than returning to Syria, which could potentially exacerbate religious and political instability in Lebanon. (Tensions between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel led to a 33-day war in 2006 that displaced nearly 1 million Lebanese, including about 180,000 who sought refuge in Syria).

Jordan, meanwhile, has taken in more than 543,000 Syrian refugees, Turkey more than 506,000, Iraq nearly 198,000, and Egypt about 126,000, according to UNHCR statistics.

A Focus on Emergency Development to Keep Borders Open

The Syrian refugee influx has swelled Lebanon’s population by 18 percent and Jordan’s by 11 percent — placing significant strains on the host countries’ economies and resources — and is also having an effect in Iraq, which even before the Syrian crisis began was contending with its own security problems and internal displacement of about 1 million people.

The main challenge for UNHCR and its humanitarian response partner organizations in the short term, Mr. Aleinikoff said, is to ensure that host countries’ borders remain open. Doing so is largely contingent upon providing the support countries in the region need to absorb Syrian refugees, as well as ensuring that an adequate number of refugee resettlement places and asylum spaces are available elsewhere.

In host communities, inadequate shelter, water supply, health care, education, and trash collection impact the living conditions of both refugees and local populations. For example, Jordan had an overstretched water supply well before Syrian refugees began arriving. Because the relatively poor country relies almost entirely on imported sources of energy, its finances have been further strained. In Lebanon, schools are unable to accommodate the growing number of Syrian children, and in Turkey, those who are able to enroll in classes often struggle with the language barrier. UNHCR estimates that 70 percent of Syrian refugee children in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are not attending school. Such factors could “create a lost generation,” Mr. Aleinikoff warned.

Depleted infrastructure and resources can lead to tensions between local communities and refugees. In Egypt — recently the scene of political unrest that led to a military coup last summer — Syrian refugees have become targets of harassment and discrimination, and are often accused of supporting the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. In July, the Egyptian government began requiring Syrian asylum seekers to obtain an entry visa and security clearance.

A joint statement issued in September by High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and government ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey expressed serious concern about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region and the devastating impact this is having on the countries hosting large Syrian refugee populations. They agreed to jointly seek a major expansion of international help for the region. As of late October, UNHCR estimated there is a $1.58 billion funding gap in the Syria Regional Response Plan.

Amid a greater focus on the need for a new emergency development model, opportunities for cooperation have formed among international institutions such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), international NGOs, local development actors, and other bilateral development agencies to assist in the development of both host and war-torn countries. While such agencies — and others, including CARE, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) — all independently provide relief to refugees, UNHCR aims to foster a greater sense of cohesion among these various stakeholders.

The United Nations in 2008 partnered with the World Bank to establish the UN-World Bank Partnership Framework for Crisis and Post-Crisis Situations, which committed the organizations to finding a more effective and sustainable response to crises, emphasizing an integrated approach that links politics, security, and development. In 2010, these two agencies, with $3 million in support from the Swiss government, set up the UN-World Bank Partnership Trust Fund to support and implement the UN-World Bank Partnership Framework.

The World Bank recently presented a four-track strategy to help Lebanon address the impact of the Syrian refugee inflow: a first track centered on existing projects that can have an immediate impact on communities affected by the crisis, and subsequent tracks focused on mid-size projects needing longer preparation, projects with sustained development potential, and enhancing private-sector engagement in the Lebanese market for the delivery of services such as energy, electricity, water, and transport. The strategy followed release of an economic and social impact assessment, conducted by the World Bank at the request of the Lebanese government, which found that Lebanon faces billions of dollars in lost economic activity as a result of the Syrian conflict, even as the refugee influx is overwhelming public services.

"Lebanon will require ongoing and extensive assistance as they cannot — and should not be expected to — shoulder the costs alone of ensuring that institutions and infrastructure are capable of meeting the demands of the broader population while responding to the unfolding human tragedy," said Inger Andersen, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa region.

International Response to the Syrian Crisis

With Syria's neighbors careworn in the face of large influxes of refugees, there is increasing pressure on Western countries to open their doors to Syrians fleeing the conflict. Concerned that large numbers of refugees will put pressure on infrastructure, increase competition in the labor market, or offset fragile political stability, many countries in the region are not interested in accepting Syrians for permanent settlement. However, several countries beyond Syria’s immediate neighbors have begun opening their doors to small numbers of Syrian refugees and asylees.

Amid difficulty in finding countries willing to accept refugees for resettlement, UNHCR announced that it was seeking 2,000 places for refugee resettlement and 10,000 places for humanitarian admission of Syrians as part of its 2013 Regional Response Plan. As of October, 17 countries had agreed to participate in the Syria Resettlement/Humanitarian Admission Program: Australia, Austria, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. All but the United States have made specific pledges for resettlement admissions, while the United States, as of writing, had not yet provided specific numbers.

Germany pledged to provide 5,000 places for humanitarian admission of Syrian refugees by year’s end, admitting the first group of about 100 in early September. The Syrians are being granted a two-year residence permit (with the possibility of extension if the situation remains unchanged in Syria), allowing them access to social services, housing, and the right to work. In addition, they will be provided with cultural orientation and language courses to help them navigate the German educational and health systems.

In the United States, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in March 2012 designated Syrians for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which allows qualified individuals already present in the United States to stay and work legally for a certain period of time. In June 2013, USCIS extended TPS status for Syrians until March 31, 2015. In addition, Brazil in September became the first country in the Americas to offer humanitarian visas to Syrian refugees and other nationals affected by the Syrian crisis — a status that is valid for two years.

Future Challenges: Revisiting the Relief-to-Development Model and the Need for a Long-Term International Response

Mr. Aleinikoff voiced concern that without a political resolution the conflict in Syria and the displacement of Syrians will persist.

Because of the difficulty involved in generating resources for war-torn societies, UNHCR continues to call for the creation of a new international funding arrangement for post-conflict reconstruction, such as the UN-World Bank Partnership Trust Fund.

And beyond the near-term focus on development designed to assist countries hosting large numbers of refugees, UNHCR is paying new attention to longer-term development goals once the emergency phase in humanitarian crises is over — a stage yet to be reached in the Syrian crisis.

Mr. Aleinikoff voiced concern that the current system of emergency response is not working — refugees continue to live in deprivation with little hope of achieving even minimally acceptable living conditions. Arguing that the only way “to fix this broken system is through self-sufficiency,” he said UNHCR aims to redirect discussions about refugee assistance toward economic development and skills acquisition as a means of progressing beyond the existing pattern of refugees moving from a state of emergency to one of dependency.

Development now operates as a parallel concern for UNHCR, not a secondary outcome after establishing relief, he said: In addition to assuring the development of countries hosting refugees, UNHCR is interested in encouraging refugees’ economic potential even as they live in camps.

Most refugee camp regimes prohibit refugees from working because the host countries assume such work would compete with local labor or that it would discourage the refugees from going home when conditions permit. Keeping refugees from working is “a waste of human capital,” Mr. Aleinikoff noted. Rather than continue to “produce and reproduce” the waste of human capital, UNHCR is taking steps to marry relief with development and foster refugees’ self-sufficiency.

In 2012, UNHCR created a “camp economy” with Somali refugees living in camps in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. Through this pilot project, Somali refugees acquired agricultural skills and are farming on land provided by the host community, dividing profits equally with the community. UNHCR’s goal, Mr. Aleinikoff said, is to reduce refugees’ dependence on humanitarian assistance and provide refugees with skills needed for self-reliance upon return to their home country, while also assisting the host country.

Creating self-sufficiency for refugees and assisting the host countries with development allows for new partnerships to emerge and old partnerships to be redefined, which Mr. Aleinikoff termed “the biggest lesson UNHCR has learned so far.”

The Syrian crisis, alongside the Rwandan genocide, represents the largest humanitarian emergency in a generation, Mr. Aleinikoff noted. History may also remember the humanitarian tragedy as the genesis for new ways of thinking about development and relief.


Dettmer, Jamie. 2013. UN Presses Lebanon to Open Syrian Refugee Camps. Voice of America. June 18, 2013. Available online.

France 24. 2013. Polls Open in Jordan Municipal Election. August 27, 2013. Available online.

Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. 2013. Syria – Country Statistics. Available online.

Johnson, Howard. Syria Crisis: Economy of Jordan's Zaatari Refugee Camp. BBC. August 11, 2013. Available online.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 2013. Egypt: UNHCR Concerned over Detention of Syrian Refugees Amid Anti-Syrian Sentiment. July 26, 2013. Available online.

--. 2013. UNHCR and Syria’s neighbours announce joint push for expanded international support for countries hosting large refugee populations. September 4, 2013. Available online.

--. 2013. First Group of Syrian Refugees Flies to Germany for Temporary Relocation. September 11, 2013. Available online.

--. 2013. UNHCR urges countries to enable safe passage, keep borders open for Syrian refugees. October 18, 2013. Available online.

--. 2013. Syria – Data. Available online.

United Nations. 2013. Peacebuildling Support Office – Partnerships. Available online.

World Bank. 2013. LEBANON : Economic and Social Impact Assessment of the Syrian Conflict. September 20, 2013. Available online.

--. 2013. Lebanon Straining under Multiple Shocks from Syrian Crisis. September 24, 2013. Available online.