The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

Event Information

The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis: What Is To Be Done?
Experts look at humanitarian concerns in the context of ongoing need for a political solution

WASHINGTON, April 21, 2015 – The Middle East Policy Council’s 80th Capitol Hill Conference took an in-depth look at the complex interaction of political, legal and humanitarian factors related to the ongoing conflict in Syria. As the volume and stress of refugees continues to balloon — exerting pressure on Syria’s neighbors — the panelists ultimately returned to the need for a political solution to the conflict as the only hope for meaningful relief from the refugee crisis.

The panelists included Karen AbuZayd (Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic), Denis Sullivan (Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies), Susan Akram (Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law, and Sara Roy (Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University). Ford Fraker, president of the Middle East Policy Council, introduced the event. Thomas Mattair, executive director, was the moderator. More specific remarks from the panelists:

Karen AbuZayd summarized the work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council. She highlighted some of the commission’s recommendations, including enforcing international law; referring the situation to the ICC; reforming the national justice system; halting child recruitment; increasing foreign assistance; and establishing regional tribunals closer to the problem.

Denis Sullivan noted the nuanced designation between “registered” and other refugees in surrounding countries. Despite the inability of refugees to get business licenses or work legally, some economies in refugee camps can be relatively vital. He also discussed municipal actors, suggesting greater international focus on how donors build capacity through these local points of aid delivery, with an eye towards longer-term institutional development.

Susan Akram presented the varying legal frameworks in place in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees. Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon all lack a comprehensive framework, creating moral hazard: refugees are deterred from officially registering. Turkey does have a policy of granting temporary protection to registered refugees. She also stressed the need to consider the crisis from an international point of view, in order to relieve pressure on Syria’s neighbors.

Sara Roy explored whether the humanitarian crisis in Gaza offered lessons for Syria, arguing the importance of the political dimension to refugee crises. In the case of Gaza, the humanitarian focus of the crisis has been used to obscure political and economic progress, leaving Gaza further from its ultimate development goals and generally “aid-dependent.” By changing how the international community interacts with certain populations, humanitarianism can impede progress in these other realms.

An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. The full video from the event is already available on the Middle East Policy Council website.

Contacts:  For interviews or other content associated with this event, please contact Grace Elliott – (202) 296 6767 –

Event Speakers

Karen AbuZayd

Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, Mandated by the UN Human Rights Council
Former UN Under Secretary-General; Former Commissioner-General, UNRWA


Denis J. Sullivan

Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies
Co-Director, Middle East Center, Northeastern University
Professor, Political Science & International Affairs, Northeastern University


Susan M. Akram

Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law
Supervising Attorney, Boston University Civil Litigation Program


Sara Roy

Senior Research Scholar, Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University


Introductory Remarks:

Ford Fraker

President, Middle East Policy Council


Thomas R. Mattair

Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council

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