By Darim al-Bassam
Complexity of humanitarian issues and challenges in the Arab region does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events that occurred at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions are compounding the crisis and causing a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and cohesion of its people. The uprisings brought hope of profound social change, then disillusion as change proved cosmetic or worse. Conflicts are spiralling into unending cycles of violence, where wars of revenge are fought without regard for the impacts on civilians or civilian structures and their livelihood resources. And in which the seeds of radicalisation and retribution are being sown for future years.
Conflict in the region has forced millions of individuals from their homes. An estimated 40% of the world’s 68mn refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are either in or from the Arab region, even though the region totals 5% of the world’s population. Globally, the scale of the crisis has highlighted the deficiencies of international covenants for addressing the political and humanitarian ramifications of mass population movements. Regionally, it has placed frontline countries under considerable duress as they struggle to care for vulnerable and destitute populations.
For the IDPs and refugees, the crisis has resulted in a systematic decline in their rights, the quality of their lives, and in the educational standards and the future prospects of their children. In Syria millions of offspring of refugees and IDPs have lost eight years since the eruption of armed conflict. A child who was 6 or 7 at the beginning of the conflict today is 14 and without adequate education or without having any opportunity to enter formal schooling. A generation of young people without education and hope will impair post-conflict development and create a breeding ground for radicalisation and create new kind of conflicts
On another front, the dramatic growth in refugee population in the region has fanned preexisting existential fears in host countries. In Lebanon and Jordan, despite international assistance, governments in these two frontline countries have been left grappling with a mass influx of Syrian refugees at a time of diminished resources and depleted capacities.
The social and economic costs of the refugee crisis are overwhelmingly high. Indeed, the economic fallout is no less damaging than the humanitarian costs for the stability of the region and its longer-term development potential. Furthermore, the economic costs are not confined to countries directly affected by conflict. An estimated 10mn refugees originating from the region and registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have stayed mostly in the neighbourhood.
Since before but certainly after 2011, for example, refugees from Iraq and Syria have increased the populations of Lebanon by one-quarter and Jordan by one-tenth, putting major pressure on budgets, public infrastructure, and labour and housing markets.
Impacts also include trade disruptions. Declining investor and consumer confidence have hurt the entire region. These macroeconomic problems are especially acute for a region beset for a long time by severe structural deficiencies, lack of investment and, more recently, the substantial impact of falling oil prices on the oil-producing economies.
Moreover, conflict costs have spilled beyond the Arab region. A stream of more than 1.7mn refugees has reached Europe since July 2014, while 3mn refugees are putting economic pressure on Turkey. These large-scale migrations, as well as attacks linked to groups harboured in the region, are already undermining important achievements in the European integration project, such as the free movement of people across national borders, and are contributing to a growing sense of insecurity.
Countries hosting refugees must make difficult decisions about access to labour markets and social programmes, as well as measures for their own nationals who often struggle with poverty and unemployment. To help prevent future violence, countries across the region should accelerate inclusive growth reforms aimed at reducing inequality. But this is will be a difficult task for conflict torn governments that became failed, fragile and ineffective.
Humanitarian principles in such a chaotic and uncertain situation are coming under threat from all sides. International instruments for managing the refugees and IDPs crisis fall short of current challenges, including protecting vulnerable populations and managing the impact on frontline countries. A transformative vision is needed, backed by a sustained political and financial global commitment, to protect people from the vagaries of their own governments and to ensure dignified lives for those escaping the horrors of conflict.
This requires regional and international systems of solidarity and clear principles for burden sharing, far beyond what has been the case thus far. Such principles would include commitments from governments to support refugees and IDPs in keeping with their capacities. They would also include a clear regional framework of co-operation that allows refugees free movement and access to employment and services throughout the region.
National governments also have a role to play in dealing with the fallout from this crisis. Addressing the burdens placed on them while supporting the fundamental rights of vulnerable — often at risk — populations requires a transformative vision and willingness to undertake the necessary change. For countries hosting large numbers of refugees, this is a difficult but not insurmountable task. Rethinking governance structures to address long-standing bottlenecks, devolve decision-making to the local authorities, and better institutional coordination at all levels are central to this process.
In terms of effective planning and action-oriented policy modalities, it is clearly noticeable for those who work in the field that there still exists a huge gap between humanitarian work and development recovery work and issues remain unsolved. Humanitarian actors are active in emergency situations – particularly in preparing for and responding to emerging human sufferings from the armed conflicts. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be aware of what comes after the emergency phase is over. At least since the mid-1980s there has been talk about the need for a better transition from relief to development.
Countless papers have been written, conferences organised, recommendations formulated, but we still haven’t gotten it right. There is still a gap when humanitarian actors leave and development actors move in.
Concerns about a better comprehensive paradigm that ensures effectiveness, accountability and quality of humanitarian responses have moved centre-stage in different circles in the last 20 years. The vision of a radically improved humanitarian system, which inspired and motivated so many in the wake of its most widely reported failures, is yet to be fully realised.
Seldom have change and reform efforts attempted to change the fundamental rules and incentives that underpin humanitarian aid effectiveness. While many of these rules and incentives are increasingly understood, few reforms have tried – or been allowed – to tackle them directly.
Instead, there has been a tendency to focus on technical issues such as standards, methods and processes, while accepting the system as a given. This has left many reforms with the feel of a ‘bolt-on’ to an existing and imperfect system.
Operationally, many of us who worked in the humanitarian sector in the region realise that what works for humanitarian action in one setting – in terms of assumptions, processes, mechanisms, structures and relationships – is increasingly unlikely to be suitable elsewhere. International agencies and subsidiaries working in the region usually reflect the general agenda and modalities of the centre.
What we need urgently is regional co-ordination organisations that advocate Arab socio cultural-specific and country-specific demand-driven humanitarian work model capable of reversing international agencies, donors, and subsidiaries tendencies. We need regional structures to determine our own contextually-specific agendas and modalities. International agencies and major donors remain primarily a source of services for those individual regional organisations.
A continuing blind spot in the world of traditional humanitarian policymakers is reflected not only in the ways that they identify potential risks and solutions, but also in the assumptions they make about the context in which such risks and solutions might occur.
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