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Sustainable Solutions for Global Refugee Policy

As the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide rises sharply, current systems for resettlement and repatriation are increasingly showing their limits. But two examples of new types of aid for Syrian refugees could provide models for donor nations in the future.

The global population of forcibly displaced people is expanding as  failed states, civil wars, genocides, and climate change proliferate.

According to a 2020 global trends report from the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, the number of forcibly displaced people has risen to 79.5 million, up from 70 million in 2019. This staggering number is notable not only for its size but also for the rapidity of its development — the number is double what it was in 2010.

Further, the report notes a decline in the relative successes of traditional durable solutions of repatriation and resettlement. For donor nations and international organizations using those solutions, this dismal report clearly indicates the failures of the current system.

Donor nations and international partners must manage an organized response to mitigate not only humanitarian needs but also economic, health, and security concerns. By developing programming and policy linking a variety of sectors, such as economic development, humanitarian support services, and trade, the United States and other donor nations can promote their own international interests and domestic economies while providing a targeted humanitarian response.

New Models for Aid

Turkey and Jordan host the largest numbers of refugees from Syria, and their compacts with the European Union lie outside the traditional litany of durable solutions for refugees. These compacts, though differing in structure and goals, have ushered in a new era for traditional humanitarian aid models, intermingling humanitarian support with development aid goals. Initial results from this innovative programming offer insights for donor nations on an alternative post-COVID way to provide aid  that promotes local resettlement through the development of local economies.

The EU-Jordan Compact (2016-2018) and the London Initiative (2019) present a new approach to the management of the refugee crisis. In contrast to existing solutions, this series of initiatives considers local context, international relations, socio-economic options, security, and stability to strengthen mutual cooperation between Jordan and the European Union and to improve the living conditions and self-reliance of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

The goal of this approach was to systematically improve the local economy, security, and stability while giving refugees greater economic opportunity and access to services. In exchange for the development of refugee-friendly policies, the European Union provided Jordan with 747 million euros ($842 million) for humanitarian aid and macro-financial assistance and promoted trade between the bloc and various economic and industrial zones in Jordan. After-action reporting assessing the compact showed significant successes and provided recommendations for improvements. A major shortfall of this programming is that it does not provide a pathway to citizenship, although there are significant benefits for all involved, and it provides a blueprint for future programming.

The EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey (also known as the FRIT), implemented in March 2016, provides support in the form of 6 billion euros to be delivered over several years. The program funds health and educational programming for Syrian refugees in Turkey, enhances border security into EU nations, and provides direct financial and vocational support to refugees. This agreement also focuses on systematizing the entrance of migrants from Turkey into the European Union, so that only those in the official asylum pipeline would be able to migrate.

While refugees in Turkey have benefited from the FRIT by being able to access a range of health and social services, the program has its limitations. The cost of hosting refugee populations in Turkey is estimated at more than 31 billion euros and growing, far more than the 6 billion euros provided by the deal. Turkey also has expressed frustration at the plan’s implementation, including concerns about the slow pace of EU payment and the slow processing of asylees through the EU system, particularly in the Greek islands. In a show of his displeasure at these issues, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan briefly opened borders with the European Union to refugees in February 2020, resulting in border riots as refugees surged toward points of access. 

Though EU nations view the agreement as a relative success, Turkey continues to struggle with the ever-growing numbers of refugees as the conflict in Syria continues unabated. The result has been an increasing politicization of the refugee population, both domestically and with neighboring nations. Despite the lingering issues with the FRIT, this innovative programming has provided significant support for Turkey’s Syrian population.

Nations should consider using the FRIT model in other locations, in support of other refugee populations and development goals. When considered in the context of the greater plight of refugees, the underlying principles of this model — using a holistic, nation-based approach, with the engagement of international organizations — can serve as a base for policy programming.

As noted in the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees’s Global Trends report, Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Myanmar account for the great majority of global refugees. Approximately 6 million Venezuelans have been displaced, the majority of whom are living in dire conditions in Colombia, but no nation has engaged with Colombia for the development of an integrated policy solution. The same is true for the million Rohingya of Myanmar, currently residing in camps in Bangladesh, and the over 2 million people fleeing across borders from South Sudan into various neighboring nations. The multifaceted programs developed by the European Union with partners in Jordan and Turkey provide a framework for new programming for other global crises, and the reviews that assess the successes of these programs allow for the development of more robust programming.

Recommendations for Donor Nations

As the numbers of refugees and internally displaced people continue to proliferate at unprecedented levels, and the existing durable solutions of resettlement and repatriation cannot meet massive needs of these populations, the United States and donor nations should consider alternative programming to provide relief. This is particularly critical in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it crucial for programming to include development of public health infrastructure. Specifically, the United States should consider:

The implementation of novel, nation-based programming that links humanitarian and development-based models can be an alternative to existing solutions, which are showing their stark limitations as the refugee population increases dramatically. These types of solutions are particularly important in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, which has underlined the need for national level engagement to promote health and well-being for all citizens.

Dina Dajani is the Deputy Director for the Displacement & Migration program at the Center for Global Policy. Ms. Dajani is an expert in international refugee and immigrant policy specializing in humanitarian and public health response and the development and translation of evidence-based policy research. Dajani has been a consultant with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants and has served as a Middle East and Humanitarian Response expert for the Office of Global Health Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also provided policy analysis and technical expertise to the Office of Refugee Resettlement on refugee health issues.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not an official policy or position of the Center for Global Policy.