DAVOS – Never in the 64-year history of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has it had to address so much human misery. At the beginning of 2014, more than 51 million people were displaced from their homes, uprooted by conflict and persecution. Many more have had to flee in the past twelve months.
Protracted wars, environmental disasters, and state failure have stretched the international humanitarian-aid system passed its breaking point. If the UNHCR and other relief agencies are to address the unprecedented amount of human need, they will have to broaden their base of support. Without a massive scaling up of private-sector involvement, both in terms of shared expertise and funding support, we will fail to provide for millions of people who have lost almost everything.
Syria is the canary in the coalmine. The conflict is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our era and a harbinger of potentially far worse to come. The flow of refugees to neighboring countries has taken on a dimension beyond any that I have previously encountered. In Lebanon – a small country beset by its own internal difficulties – Syrians now make up more than a quarter of the population. There, as well as in Jordan and Turkey, local residents are facing financial ruin as rents and prices soar, unemployment rises, and salaries fall.
Finding the funds to address the crisis is proving to be a challenge. In mid-December, the UN launched an appeal for $8.4 billion to assist 18 million people in and around Syria. The appeal is part of a strategic shift, in which the UN aims to supplement humanitarian assistance with long-term programs that will boost the region’s economies.
Even if the appeal is fully funded, the money will be barely enough to enable people to survive, pick up the pieces of their lives, and start to rebuild. And yet, judging by the response to previous appeals, this one is likely to be substantially underfunded. Last year, an appeal for aid for Syrian refugees raised only 54% of its goal. Appeals for resources to address other international crises fared even worse. According to UN figures, no appeal achieved more than 75% of its target. Several struggled to raise even a third of what was needed.
Meanwhile, the asylum system – another traditional method of assisting the needy – is coming under strain. As crises multiply around the world, rich countries are raising new barriers for those seeking safety. As a result, countries neighboring the crises – which are often struggling themselves – have been left to shoulder an increasing share of the burden. Today, almost 90% of refugees are living in developing countries, up from 70% ten years ago.
With legal migration channels choked off, desperate refugees have been forced to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous smugglers. The number of people traveling in unsafe, overcrowded boats across the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Gulf of Aden has grown enormously. More than 4,200 died in 2014 alone.
Addressing the challenge will require overhauling our current system and rethinking how we can help refugees. The humanitarian aid system was constructed on the premise that, when disaster struck, a temporary helping hand would be enough for people to regain control of their lives. Instead, millions of people are caught in semi-permanent crises, becoming less able to break free with each passing year.
Emergency relief to refugees must be accompanied with far greater support for the communities that host them. Long-term development aid – which, globally, amounts to eight times the amount allocated to humanitarian interventions – must be available to countries confronting large refugee inflows, including middle-income countries like Lebanon and Jordan that are normally not considered eligible.
In a world of tightening public budgets and growing private wealth, governments cannot provide the required volume of aid on their own. In addition to funding, there is a need for private-sector involvement in training, education, technology, and logistics. Where possible, local jobs must be created, for refugees and local populations. Providing refugees with the opportunity to earn a livelihood would help break the vicious cycle of underfunded humanitarian appeals and help create and maintain the skills needed for eventual rebuilding back home.
We clearly have the technology, resources, and know-how to make a massive difference to living standards everywhere, including for refugees. And if an app can sell for billions of dollars, we must be able to find the resources to provide for those caught in conflict. The crisis in Syria has exposed the failure of the old approach to humanitarian aid. It is time to get serious about establishing a new one.