Karen AbuZayd, Denis J. Sullivan, Susan M. Akram and Sara Roy
The following is an edited transcript of the eightieth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on April 21, 2015, at the Washington Court Hotel in Washington, D.C., with Thomas R. Mattair moderating. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
FORD FRAKER, President, Middle East Policy Council
In the spring of 2012, I came to Washington for two specific meetings. One was with Senator John Kerry, at the time the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Kerry had also chaired the Senate committee that held my confirmation hearing, and he'd come to Saudi Arabia to visit me on a number of occasions, so I knew him well. That night, I had a private dinner with General David Petraeus, who at the time was head of the CIA. When I was ambassador in Saudi, he was coalition commander in Iraq, and we worked on a number of programs together. My message to both of them was simple and straightforward. Number one, Syria was of critical strategic importance to the United States, and if we wanted to be serious about pushing back the spread of Iranian influence in the region, Syria was key. If we wanted to send a message to Hezbollah, it was through Syria. Finally, from a moral standpoint, this was a true people's revolution. These were common people coming out onto the streets, peacefully protesting, initially, against a repressive regime. If we were going to support any revolution in the Middle East, this should be the one we stand behind.
Timing in life is important. The message I got back from both of them was that, even if the United States was prepared to do something, we were just months away from a presidential election, so nobody in Washington was going to climb onboard to do anything. With the benefit of historical hindsight, we now know that, following the election, Secretary Clinton and Secretary Panetta and Director Petraeus went to the White House with a fairly muscular plan on Syria that was basically shot down by the president's domestic advisers. In effect, they said, this president is getting us out of two wars in the Middle East. We're not about to get involved in another one.
Fast-forward to 2015, and we have over 3 million refugees outside of Syria and between 6 and 7 million displaced people inside the country.
THOMAS MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
About 10 days ago, on April 12, there was an article in The Washington Post, written by Valerie Amos, the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs: "Does Anyone Care about Syria?" Her conclusion was that not enough people care and that Americans are talking about our narrow national interests and why they don't require us to do anything — ignoring our shared international responsibility. Yet even President Obama, who turned down the muscular recommendations of his cabinet members, said the Syrian crisis was in the national interest of the United States because of the impact it had on our partners and friends in the region, Syria's neighbors.
So we're doing this conference, and we thank Denis Sullivan for bringing the idea to us. We care; Chatham House in the UK cares. They have an entire program on this, and they're advocating that more refugees be brought to the UK, which has until now only accepted a few hundred.
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
My task this morning is to focus on the work of the UN Human Rights Council's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. It was created in September 2011 and was recently renewed for another year, through March 2016. These commissions usually last for six months to a year at the longest, so we're the longest-standing commission ever, and there's a reason for that, of course.
The commission presented its ninth official report in March 2015 to the Human Rights Council and will table another informal report in June. Our mandate is to investigate and document human-rights abuses and violations by all parties to the conflict in Syria and, where possible, to identify those responsible. Our purpose is to pursue accountability and justice on behalf of the victims, who are mainly civilians — innocent men, women and children who, along with almost all Syrians now, are subject to an increasingly inhuman existence.
Over 220,000 Syrians have been killed, 6.5 million are internally displaced and at least 9 million more inside Syria are in need. Tens of thousands have been forcibly disappeared or tortured in detention, and 4 million refugees are hosted in neighboring countries. In describing the work of our commission, I'll mention recommendations we've been making repeatedly, to little avail, since 2011. But I hope to benefit more seriously, along with all of you, from my colleagues on the panel regarding what can be done. I understand they have plans, and I'm eager to hear them.
The commission has been chaired since its inception by Professor Paulo Pinheiro, a Brazilian human-rights expert. Two more commissioners joined us in 2013 — Vitit Muntarbhorn, a well-known Thai professor of international law, and a Swiss prosecutor, also well-known, Carla del Ponte. We have a team of 25 full-time professionals, half of them investigators who spend most of their time in the countries hosting Syrian refugees — Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraqi Kurdistan. Our commission has not been permitted to enter Syria, on the instructions of the Syrian government, as much as we've tried and think it would even be to their benefit to let us go in.
Other colleagues who work for the most part from Geneva at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights are analysts or experts on particular subjects: the military, law, children, genocide, gender-based violence, et cetera. Two of them are in full-time touch with victims and witnesses inside Syria, mainly by Skype. This is our effort to balance the majority of our investigations, which are carried out in the refugee camps.
Our investigators base their reports on corroborated testimonies that meet the reasonable-grounds-to-believe standard. Our reports are based only on material gathered by our own investigators, although we meet with and read reports from many sources — activists, NGOs, UN agencies, specialists, ambassadors and journalists. These help us craft our own plan of investigations.
Given our unusual longevity as a commission, we've tabled conference room papers on particularly egregious violations, such as assaults on medical care, on hospitals, patients and medical workers, and forced disappearances, as well as a sample of witness testimonies and our last one, this past November, on ISIS. The acronym we chose to use, among many, is ISIL-Daesh. That's the Arabic acronym, which I prefer. Their own terminology, the Islamic State, is how they have described themselves since they proclaimed the creation of a caliphate in June last year.
Already in our first report in November 2011, we warned that the conflict was likely to be a long one with no possibility of a military solution — against the tide of predictions that the president would step down soon. We called for inclusive political negotiations rather than military intervention. We also cautioned about the divisions and lack of cohesion and military capability among the proliferating anti-Government armed groups. Some individuals among them were already committing war crimes such as unlawful attacks and killings. These individual instances in no way compared, and still do not, in type or number to the war crimes of the government, which was additionally committing crimes against humanity at this early stage in a conflict that had begun with civil unrest only nine months earlier, in March 2011. Within a year, it would be designated a non-international armed conflict, or a civil war.
Our first eight reports follow the standard commission pattern of listing violations and abuses, among which are massacres, hostage taking, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearances, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, violation of children's rights, unlawful attacks on specifically protected persons and object seizures, denial of humanitarian access and arbitrary enforced displacement. We presented examples for each one as they related to a responsible party — again, the government being responsible for many more crimes than the opposition and many more types of crimes, particularly given its monopoly on air power and heavy use of indiscriminate weapons, including barrel bombs.
For the political and humanitarian context, we depend on the expertise of other agencies or individuals with the mandates to deal with them, insisting however that the relationship overlap with human-rights infringements. We end each of our reports with a series of recommendations to all parties — those in conflict, the government of Syria, the Human Rights Council, the Security Council, the General Assembly and the international community generally.
A sample of both generic and specific recommendations among the 24 made in our last report are as follows:
• External actors have the responsibility to ensure that international humanitarian law and human-rights law be respected by those parties to the conflict they support.
• The situation in Syria should be referred to the ICC or to an ad hoc international or regional tribunal.
• The Syrian national justice system should be reformed.
• All parties to the conflict must take adequate measures to halt child recruitment.
• Assistance to refugees and internally displaced persons should be increased and their safety ensured.
The UN appeals have garnered pledges for under half of the money requested, and of those pledges, only half have been paid.
The principle of non-refoulement (not forcing refugees to go back to the place they fled) must be respected by countries bordering Syria. This is a reference to the difficulties faced by Palestine refugees from Syria seeking refuge in neighboring countries. I've been blamed by my colleagues for not having anything in my paper on Yarmouk — I've left that to our colleague Sara Roy. We particularly remind those states and individuals that resource the various parties, at the same time as they are proclaiming support for negotiations, that they too could be indicted for war crimes committed by those they are arming and training. This warning has not appeared to moderate anyone's behavior.
With the number of armed actors fighting for a variety of objectives and in particular since the appearance of the Islamic State, we replaced a phrase we'd been using, "anti-government armed groups," with the more general categorization "two types of non-government armed groups." One covers the original armed groups self-identified as part of the Free Syrian Army and the multiple, now predominately Islamist, offshoots or partners. The other is for the radical extremist or terrorist groups such as the al-Nusra Front, with their use of car bombs and improvised explosive devices, and ISIS. The latter has from the beginning not really fought against the Syrian government, but rather for land on which to establish its own territory — eventually the so-called caliphate, declared last year.
The 2012 trickle of extremist foreign fighters into the non-state armed groups has become a flood. There are now, at a conservative estimate, 15,000 to 20,000 extremists from outside Syria, 6,000 from Europe alone according to the EU statistics. Add to these the estimated 15,000 foreigners from Hezbollah, Iran and the Shiite militias from Iraq, who are aiding the government of Syria. In our last report, we moved the list of violations and violators to an annex and used our 10,000-word limit to describe the evolution of the conflict from civil unrest to a brutal civil war of savagery and unthinkable cruelty, as our chairman termed it in a recent speech.
We described the patterns that had been established, such as surrounding and besieging villages or neighborhoods, followed by heavy ground and aerial bombardments — Idlib being the most recent example of a town being targeted. We also opened a window to external use of the confidential lists of serious perpetrators we'd been compiling during each mandate, as well as access to our large database, which contains information from the 3,800 interviews registered by our investigators to date.
We offered to share our information about specific alleged perpetrators or incidents with state prosecuting or governmental authorities who are preparing cases to be heard before a competent and impartial judiciary. This is a process that respects human-rights, the fair-trial rights of the accused, and especially the victims' right to truth. Without abandoning the recommendations to use the ICC — since it is an existing resource body that could entertain cases immediately, if it were asked to — because of Security Council vetoes, we've advocated for the formation of ad hoc or regional tribunals instead — for example, the Arab League or a group of like-minded states among them or from elsewhere.
Regional tribunals have the geographic advantage of being located close to the problem, therefore making it easier to summon both suspects and witnesses, allowing them to try many more persons than would be the case with the ICC. Rwanda and Sierra Leone are good examples; they've been described to us by the prosecutor member of our commission, Carla Del Ponte, the prosecutor in both. We also urged countries to consider exercising individual or universal jurisdiction, particularly over their own foreign fighters, or universal jurisdiction over non-nationals in those cases where national laws permit.
All of our recommendations are made in the interest of the victims and the accountability they deserve. Our plea to not arm the parties is our soft way of suggesting an arms embargo be considered.
While maintaining our independence and a separate track, we are in communication and exchange information with other actors in the system, such as the secretary-general, the Security Council — which we've briefed five times under the Arrias Formula, a closed interactive dialogue with sitting members of the council only — UN special rapporteurs, the UN humanitarian agencies and political departments, human-rights think tanks and NGOs. We follow the work of the UN special envoys and representatives for Syria, appreciating their attempts with their Arab League counterpart, Nabil al-Arabi, to bring the parties to the negotiating table, beginning with and subsequently based upon the June 2012 communiqué from Geneva I under Kofi Annan. However, Geneva II in 2013 under Lakhdar Brahimi and the 2014 and '15 Moscow and Cairo talks with Staffan de Mistura have been unable to move the parties even to talk to one another, let alone agree on a way forward.
To give credit to the Security Council, aside from the vetoes by Russia and China in 2012 and '14 on referral to the ICC, there's been a flow of resolutions, all of them unanimous. Among them were [Resolution] 2118 in 2013 on the destruction of chemical weapons, something we should be pleased about, I think; three in 2014 demanding the observation of international humanitarian law and ending impunity, another condemning extremist and terrorist acts and noting the need for humanitarian aid, both cross-border and cross-line. The cross-border has been much more successful than the cross-line, not surprisingly, and two this year, so far: [Resolution] 2199, condemning the destruction of Syria's cultural heritage, and [Resolution] 2209, condemning the use of chlorine gas. This past Friday there was a closed session of the council for a briefing on the alleged recent use of airborne chlorine bombs, the method indicating government culpability.
Before closing, I wish to acknowledge first the generosity of neighboring countries that have welcomed the refugees. Turkey's 22 refugee camps on the border with Syria are second to none. Lebanon — without camps and with a quarter of its population refugees, including Palestinian refugees — has passed legislation to open a third shift in its schools for refugees to use. Last week a decree was issued regarding the opening of facilities for Syrian preschool children. With thousands of children out of school, some for four years now, nothing could be more welcomed by Syrian families — except ending the war.
Syrians inside their country have behaved heroically in providing assistance and sharing their shelters and other necessary goods with their displaced neighbors, and creating makeshift facilities such as schools and clinics. Groups have also formed to try to protect the rich and valuable historical and architectural heritage of Syria.
We commissioners will travel to the region again next month to make one of our periodic visits to governments and refugees. We'll then return to Geneva in June to present a mandated informal report. Our investigators have begun to sharpen their focus on individual perpetrators, as well as attacks on minorities, ethnic groups, human-rights defenders, journalists and aid workers. Work on the use of indiscriminate weapons, massacres and sieges continues to receive concerted attention.
Meanwhile, along with many others, we also continue to advocate for the end of violence, for accountability, and an end to impunity; failing this, those responsible for human-rights violations and crimes are emboldened. The war will go on, leaving more destruction — destroyed lives, a destroyed society, destroyed institutions, including education — and a destroyed culture and heritage in its wake.
For these reasons, we persist in our targeted human-rights reporting while continuing to urge the international community to unite in the interest of inclusive, comprehensive negotiations. These, we hope, are paths to bringing about the end of impunity and an agreed diplomatic solution, and, we hope, one day peace and justice to the Syrian people.
After four years of destructive conflict, it is clear this war has consequences beyond the country and the region. It must be considered along with neighboring conflicts, particularly in Iraq and Yemen. It is time for the international community to combine diplomatic efforts with appropriate and effective coercive measures to impose a political solution.
DENIS J. SULLIVAN, Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies; Co-Director, Middle East Center, Northeastern University; Professor, Political Science & International Affairs, Northeastern University
This is really an ugly picture, as we move from the core of the ugliness and the savagery — I'll now start using that word — to the impact beyond the borders of Syria. We've heard about the savagery of the Syrian civil war, a war that has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. This war fuels the crisis beyond the borders, but also, as Karen pointed out, produces a huge number of internally displaced as well. It's probably the largest proxy war of our time as well, given all of the different players: state actors, non-state actors, et cetera.
We're going to throw a lot of statistics your way, and some of them will be inconsistent. But what is consistent is the depth of this problem.
If you go to the UNHCR website, we are days away from hitting 4 million registered Syrian refugees outside of Syria. Let's add another 1 million Syrians resident in neighboring states who are not registered with UNHCR as refugees for various reasons, either personal, political or logistical.
Let's break down these four million refugees. One-point-seven million are registered in Turkey — and as Karen mentioned, in these 22 beyond state-of-the-art camps, world-class camps if you can have such a thing. One-point-two million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, plus another 300,000-500,000 who are not registered. As Karen pointed out, it's about one in four of the population when you include the Palestinian refugees. In Jordan, the numbers seem a little better, but they're not: 630,000 registered refugees, but the Jordanian government also claims that there are at least another 700,000 Syrians who were in the country before the crisis began. So they also claim about 1.5 million Syrians in their country, out of a population of about 6.2 million, about one in six, so slightly better than Lebanon. You know it's bad in Syria if you go to Iraq for refuge, but there are 250,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq. Egypt, not a contiguous state, also has 135,000 registered refugees, plus thousands more Syrians who were resident there before the crisis. The United States has accepted maybe 500 Syrian refugees. Europe, by contrast, hosts about 5 percent of all of the Syrian refugees.
Beyond the 4 million, there are 1 million other Syrians not registered as refugees: 8 million internally displaced Syrians. So now we're talking about 13 million Syrians out of a population of, let's say, 22 million, well above 50 percent. Of course, the big number is smaller than all of these: 220,000 dead, at least. That approaches a quarter of a million people killed in this civil war.
Where do we begin to help? We come up with reports. We all have our recommendations. We browse other people's recommendations. We talk to ourselves about this. We're trying to make some impact because this is a global crisis with global impact. Yes, it begins inside Syria, but it bleeds across the border into the neighboring states, and then it continues throughout the region and into the Mediterranean and into Europe. We only hear a little about it here, so it's not our problem, we think.
In terms of moving ahead, we have to recognize this as a protracted refugee situation. Think of the Palestinians: over 67 years of refugee status. This refugee crisis is not going away, even if the civil war ends sometime soon.
I agree with Karen that Lebanon has done a lot of great things simply by being a host and by not establishing camps. And 83 percent of the Syrians are paying rent. It's hard to say this is a benefit, but they're not just freeloaders. They are refugees in crisis, yet they're finding means to pay rent, 83 percent of them. But Lebanon has yet to recognize that this crisis isn't going to end soon. They don't call it a protracted refugee situation.
However, if you recognize it as a protracted situation, you have to then move beyond the emergency response, the humanitarian-aid response, and move toward what we call a "development-aid model." This would also bring in — another of our recommendations — the host communities, who are generous in their hosting, but the situation raises tensions among the different players. The aid-development approach will bring the local communities and the refugees into partnership, working together. That's what a lot of the host countries are moving toward.
But it's the international community's support to host communities that we're focused on. As Karen mentioned, if you go to the UNHCR website, there's a $4.5 billion request for funding. They say less than 10 percent of that has been received. It's pledged, yes; committed, yes; funded, not so much, and definitely not received.
We're also calling for fine-tuning. Lebanon has 1.5 million refugees, and Turkey a little over 1.5 million. But Turkey has a population of about 75 million people, while Lebanon has about 5 million. So the impact is greatly different. We have to help Lebanon a lot more at the moment than we have to help Turkey, even though Turkey seems to have many more refugees.
Jordan has five principal UNHCR-managed camps, but that still only accounts for 20 percent of the Syrian refugees. The other 80 percent are scattered around the country, mostly in the north, both the registered and the non-registered, taking over large land plots or buildings, most of them paying rent. But there is a huge impact on the school system, the health care system, municipal services. The need for aid targeted to the Jordanian government is great. But Jordan's cities and towns and sometimes villages are actually the ones footing the bill. It's great that we do government-to-government aid, but we have to start thinking, also, about government-to-municipality aid, government-to-city aid — from the U.S. or EU or Kuwait — a very generous contributor to this effort. There's no question that the international community, of which we are a fundamental part, is contributing. We are just not contributing anywhere near what we need to be contributing.
Our report tries to make very specific recommendations, as international donors start targeting their aid country by country, looking to municipalities as key players in delivering it. This is a very important function of the public administrators, the people who actually run towns and cities. These people are overwhelmed. These are the people who have to manage the schools, the health facilities, the clinics. So there's a double benefit here. By targeting international aid as close to the ground as possible, you're helping the refugees, but you're also helping the people of those cities and towns, as well as fostering long-term institutional development. We talk about building nations; well, this is a way to build the infrastructure of nations. And, in decades to come, when they are no longer hosts to these refugees, the investments will still be there for local community development.
There's a major debate going on in Lebanon right now about whether to build camps or not. As Karen points out, there are no UNHCR camps in Lebanon. Turkey has them; they run them and have paid the bills themselves for the most part. Now, however, Turkey needs help; this protracted refugee situation is not going away. Jordan has UNHCR camps, but, as I said, only about 20 percent of the refugees live in them. Yet those camps tend to be the first stopping place for every refugee. They come across the border and are usually sent to Zaatari Refugee Camp. Now increasingly they've being sent to Azraq Camp. And then they are "bailed out" — that's the term they use. But in Lebanon, they are taking over the country. So there's a huge debate about camps. I don't think there's an easy answer, but it is a debate that the international community and aid donors can contribute to.
A big issue concerns work. The Syrians, once they become refugees, cannot work legally in these countries, for the most part. They can't obtain work permits. There are ways around that, but only for a few. This needs to be ramped up. Providing work permits to Syrian refugees is fundamentally important, as are business licenses. The horrors that we're starting to see on a small scale in South Africa — attacks on migrants because they're taking away jobs — are misleading. In fact, even when immigrants come in and set up a business, they tend to employ more of the local nationals than the immigrants. So I suggest that host countries enable refugees to obtain work permits and business licenses.
If you ever read about Zaatari Refugee Camp, you hear it's the Champs-Elysees; its economy is enormous. This reflects the ingenuity of the Syrian refugees themselves. This is the kind of ingenuity and social entrepreneurship that can be fueled across the region, country by country, town by town, governorate by governorate, and then nation by nation.
Karen pointed out that the Lebanese have added a third shift to the school system. There are at least two school shifts every day in Jordanian schools, too, though not yet a third as far as I know. This puts pressure on the local Jordanian host communities to find the teachers for two separate shifts, when they have all these Syrian refugees, many of whom are licensed teachers back at home but are not permitted to teach. Ways need to be found to enable teachers, plumbers, licensed doctors and other licensed professionals to provide services to their own people.
We should open our borders more widely. This is one of our recommendations, but I will leave it to Susan Akram to discuss that. Jumping back to a political, not a humanitarian, recommendation, I think the United States needs to mobilize our diplomatic, intelligence, economic and military might toward ceasefires, safety zones, humanitarian corridors and other means to find a resolution to the civil war. It won't stop by itself. I'm not sure what we're waiting for — a better time? We need to mobilize all our resources and move on it now. That means dealing with the EU, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but that's what we need.
We also can bring in some of our closest friends in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. We can bring in the Arab League. Despite its dysfunction, it is a legitimating organization. And James Baker comes to mind. The recent PBS Frontline documentary was a reminder of the international coalition he put together. Maybe we can call in his resources, at least for advice. Until a determined United States can work with all or most of these competing powers to moderate the savagery in Syria, we can still pursue humanitarian action to help the victims of this evil war.
We each might have a particular group that we want to help — whether it's children, or women, or the disabled, or the elderly, or single-headed households, or survivors of rape or chemical attacks, or adolescent boys. Whatever the particular group that we care about, it's there. Children are among the most vulnerable and the most in need. UNICEF states that there are close to 2 million Syrian refugee children in what they call "great" need. Add another 5.5 million children inside Syria. They need everything imaginable: polio vaccinations, overall health care, psycho-social support, hygiene, clean water and, of course, access to proper education, in general.
UNHCR just issued a report called "Strategic Key Messages." They say that some 50 percent of Syrian refugee children and adolescents are not in school. Lebanon's putting in a third shift, Jordan has two shifts, and yet you have hundreds of thousands of children not in school. They're not going to be in school for the next 10 years. What will happen then?
Beyond the international organizations, which are critical — especially UNHCR, UNICEF and UNRWA — we can also target our support more locally through host governments; local and international NGOs are doing great work. One of my personal favorites is called Questscope. It is an international NGO, begun in Jordan 25 years ago but had its roots in Beirut in 1982. The founder, Curt Rhodes, was a professor of public health at the American University of Beirut when the massacre happened at Sabra and Shatila. He quit academia and has done a great job ever since. Questscope now works in Jordan and inside Syria, as well as in Lebanon, northern Iraq, Yemen, Egypt and beyond. It focuses on school dropouts, on working kids, on juvenile offenders, on low-income young women. It runs mentoring programs and vocational training and provides alternative education to these at-risk groups.
The point is to find these success stories and support them on the ground, as they get to the most vulnerable groups, as well as to support the big international organizations, without which we cannot accomplish anything. We need to support both the refugees and the host communities; tailor our support country by country; target our aid to municipalities as well as national governments; and target our aid to refugee children as much as possible. Let's find the Questscopes and the other grassroots organizations country by country. And, for God's sake, let's mobilize our foreign-policy establishment to end this evil, evolving and expanding civil war.
SUSAN M. AKRAM, Clinical Professor, Boston University School of Law; Supervising Attorney, Boston University Civil Litigation Program
I'm going to share the research conducted by the Boston University International Human Rights Clinic. We have a very dense report available on our website [https://www.bu.edu/law/central/jd/programs/clinics/international-human-…]. As all of you here know, the Syrian refugee crisis has brought tremendous challenges to the region. Our research attempted to map out one aspect of the crisis that has received very little attention so far and to provide a concrete proposal for addressing the human beings who are its victims. Our aim with this study, which we completed in July 2014, was to map the interplay of laws and policies at the domestic and regional levels, affecting the refugees in four main host states — Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — and then to address the key protection gaps between existing legal obligations and implementation on the ground. Our second focus links those findings to international legal obligations of responsibility-sharing and then to assess the concrete legal mechanisms that require third states outside the region to offer refugee and humanitarian status in their territories.
The primary recommendation in our report is for a comprehensive plan of action (CPA) for the Syrian refugee crisis. Our focus has been to identify legal obligations in the European and American regions and in key third states to grant refugees and other displaced persons a combination of short- and long-term status through immigration and the humanitarian mechanisms of temporary protection, subsidiary protection and family unification.
As you heard from Denis, no more than 20,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum outside of the region to date, and very few have been granted it so far. The U.S. and Canada together have recorded asylum seekers in the hundreds, and that's not likely to grow under current reception policies. Visas to Syrians from Europe and the U.S. fell dramatically, primarily as a result of the closing of embassies in Syria and restrictions placed on them in other embassies in the region.
Other restrictive policies in Europe and America that have been penalizing illegal border crossers and preventing access to refugee status are creating enormous barriers to Syrian asylum seekers. All actors agree that resettlement under current policies will not address more than a few thousand Syrian refugees from outside the Middle East region. The yearly U.S. quota of 70,000 resettlement slots has not even been met over the last decade — let alone has there been any serious discussion of expanding that number to meaningfully respond to this crisis.
Although Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon have insisted on resettlement as a condition for processing of Syrian refugees, they have grave concerns. If they are the gateway to resettlement in the West, they will draw more refugees into their territories.
All the nongovernmental organizations that we met across the region in the two years of this work expressed concern about the huge backlog of applications from other pre-existing refugee populations in those states — Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians — some of whom have been waiting for years for resettlement. One Egyptian NGO staff member said bitterly to us: "Our backlogged refugees now have to make way for the flavor of the month."
Finally, a major concern is the Palestinians who have been trapped in a region that has opted out of the international refugee regime; they have no protection agency or access to a durable solution. Each wave of Palestinian refugees has exacerbated their unique protection gap. As you've heard, there are now close to 4 million refugees from Syria in the neighboring states. In each host country, the refugees face different laws and policies and different reception conditions and barriers to protection.
I want to give a quick overview of the situation in each of the four countries we focused on in our two years of research — Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Since its 1954 agreement with UNHCR, Egypt has turned all responsibility for registration, documentation and refugee-status determination over to UNHCR. The Egyptian government gives residence permits to those deemed refugees by UNHCR. And Egypt, uniquely in the region, is a party to both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 OAU — the African regional — Convention on Refugees. These two treaties together expand the definition of refugee to a far larger category of persons than the 1951 Refugee Convention alone. Because UNHCR in Egypt recognizes refugees on the basis of both of these treaty definitions, the number of registered refugees has soared. Unfortunately, resettlement countries with which UNHCR negotiates do not accept the 1969 OAU Convention definition. Thus, there is little or no access to a durable solution for the vast majority of refugees in Egypt, or the thousands waiting for years for resettlement prior to the Syrian crisis until today.
Syrian refugees arrive in Egypt in the wake of these large numbers of other forcibly displaced persons who have flooded the country — Palestinians, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Iraqis and Somalis. All of them have faced significant hardships. If they entered illegally through the Sinai and are caught trying to enter Israel, they're detained and removed immediately. Since 2008, thousands of Eritreans, Ethiopians and Sudanese have been detained and deported.
At the start of the crisis, Syrians could enter for three months on a tourist visa and did not have to go to UNHCR for registration. But these entry requirements changed in July of 2013, when the government began to require procurement of a visa prior to arrival in Egypt, along with security clearance, which, of course, Syrians could not get. Once their visas expire, Syrians are expected to register with the government, so refugee status determination in Egypt has increased dramatically, to about 125,000 as of last year.
Egyptian policies have changed over time towards both Palestinians and Syrians. Palestinians from Syria have very distinct challenges in Egypt. They can enter if they have Syrian travel documents, but most do not. UNHCR is ostensibly responsible for Palestinians from Syria, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not allowed UNHCR to register Palestinians, and they have had difficulty renewing their visas. UNRWA has no formal mandate in Egypt, and the Egyptian government gives UNRWA no role in dealing with the Palestinian population there, though UNRWA does have an office in Cairo with a tiny staff. Palestinian refugees in Egypt comprise one of the largest pre-existing refugee populations in the country, but since Egypt excludes Palestinians from protection or assistance from both UNRWA and UNHCR and does not recognize them as refugees under either of the two treaties that I mentioned, the Refugee Convention or the African Convention of 1969, Palestinians are entirely without UN protection and intervention.
For the Palestinians from Syria, the situation in Egypt has become desperate. Many are being detained and arrested for illegal presence. Over a thousand Palestinians from Syria have been detained, and the government has made their release conditional on obtaining airline tickets out of Egypt. Since there's nowhere most Palestinians can go, they've been trying to leave Egypt illegally by boat, heading to Italy or getting out of Egypt any way they can, by means of smugglers. They have lost among the highest number of victims in the drownings in the Mediterranean.
Moving on to Jordan, it also has no established refugee law, but over 2 million registered refugees live there. As many as 450,000 Iraqi refugees are residing in Jordan, and the official government figure for Palestinians is 2 million — on top of the 1-1.3 million Syrians, both registered and unregistered. Again, Jordan is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Refugee Protocol. The primary reference to refugees under Jordanian law is its constitution, which refers only to political refugees. That is only applied in exceptional cases, however; no provisions exist for defining asylum eligibility.
UNHCR has been operating in Jordan since 1991 under a Memorandum of Understanding that was just amended this past year. It allows asylum seekers to remain in Jordan pending their status determination. UNHCR-recognized refugees can remain for six months after recognition. But Jordan, like Lebanon and Egypt, claims it is not an asylum country. An asylum-seeker is someone who is registered in that country but is seeking asylum elsewhere.
Jordan accepted the agreement of the six-month stay on the condition that the refugees would be resettled or repatriated within the six months. Despite this limit on permits, Jordan was, as a matter of practice, renewing the permits and service cards of Syrian refugees until late last year, when Jordan closed its borders to new Syrian refugee arrivals entirely. The major protection and status problems in Jordan have been the conditions in the camps, the reluctance of many refugees now to register because of the six-month limitation, the inability to work and the situation of Palestinians. Palestinian refugees from Syria are registered as Palestinians ex-Syria, not as new Palestinian refugee registrants into Jordan. And the Jordanian government early on put a policy in place of not-one-more-Palestinian-in-Jordan. That was early in 2014.
There is detention and removal now of Palestinians back to Syria. Neither UNRWA nor any of the NGOs we spoke to in Egypt has been successful at intervening in the detention and deportation of Palestinians. Hundreds have been deported, and mixed Palestinian-Syrian and Palestinian-Jordanian families have been separated. The non-Palestinian spouse has been able to remain but not the Palestinian spouse. At the same time, Syria has put an unofficial policy in place that any Palestinian who was able to register before the policy changed and who leaves the country cannot return.
Lebanon is very similar to Jordan except there are no camps. As of January 2014, an estimated 1 million Syrian refugees were in Lebanon, 25 percent of the population. And Lebanon, like Jordan, is not a party to the refugee treaty or the protocol. As in Jordan, UNHCR and UNRWA are the two main agencies dealing with refugees from Syria and Palestinian refugees from Syria. UNHCR makes all the refugee-status determinations for non-Palestinian refugees.
Aside from Syrian and Palestinian refugees, there are pre-existing refugee populations from Iraq and Sudan in Lebanon and, of course, the refugee community of Palestinians, which began arriving in 1948. Lebanon is very similar to Jordan in that it does not have a comprehensive legal framework on the treatment of refugees. All refugees, like foreigners, fall under the single 1962 law regulating entry, stay and exit of foreigners; it has a very narrow definition of refugee, very limited provisions on refugees and no asylum process.
UNHCR's agreement with the government allows a refugee to obtain a temporary circulation permit for 12 months. During that time, UNHCR is supposed to resettle the individual somewhere else. The Memorandum of Understanding allows these circulation permits to be given to non-Palestinian refugees. They can be renewed for six months and then for three-month periods. Removal is taking place, and the government doesn't typically inform UNHCR in advance about the removal or deportation of refugees.
The major protection problems in Lebanon involve the informal camp settlements. Most of these unofficial settlements are on private land in rural areas outside cities. Many landowners are requiring the refugees, in addition to paying rent, to work in their fields.
Lack of registration is a problem for refugees in the cities; they have difficulties obtaining services, and often lose status because as time goes on permits are not renewed. People are falling out of status, and a new phenomenon of statelessness has developed: refugee children born in Lebanon are not able to get birth certificates or registration in any country. The refugees face risk of arbitrary detention and, as I mentioned, forced returns.
Ten percent of the Syrian refugee population, probably higher now, lives in tented settlements that are not recognized by the government. Palestinians have primarily gone to reside in the pre-existing Palestinian camps, exacerbating an already severe problem; the poorest people in Lebanon live in the Palestinian refugee camps. So Syrian Palestinians who have been used to quite a high standard of living are now living in the most impoverished of conditions.
Even before the Syrian crisis, Lebanon was thought to be detaining hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees, including those who were registered, and authorities continue to arrest refugees for illegal entry. Between the time we completed our report in July 2014 and when I returned to the region in March of this year, as I mentioned, both Jordan and Lebanon had closed their borders to any new refugees coming from Syria.
I'll end with Turkey, which presents a completely different picture from the other countries. Before 2014, Turkey's refugees were regulated by its 1994 Regulation of Procedures on Movements of Aliens. Under that regulation, non-Europeans could obtain something called "temporary asylum" in Turkey. Only Europeans can get asylum in Turkey, under the terms of its ratification of the Refugee Convention. But non-Europeans could not get refugee recognition or permanent asylum. As the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict started growing in 2011, the Turkish government put in place a policy to grant them temporary-protection status. The Turkish government informed us that their temporary protection procedures were modeled on the EU Qualification Directive on Temporary Protection passed during the Balkan crisis.
Under this policy, Syrian nationals arriving in Turkey and entering one of the 22 camps run by the Turkish government have immediate access to an application for temporary protection, and a very minimal registration process. They are immediately granted essentials — shelter, food, health care, housing — in state-of-the-art camps. Syrian nationals living in urban areas in Turkey are now getting registered with UNHCR, and all registered refugees are guaranteed non-refoulement (protection against being sent back), as part of the essential-service provision.
The most significant development in the entire region is the passage of Turkey's new 2014 Law on Foreigners and International Protection, the LFIP. This law has created a new migration agency, the DGMA, which removes the management of refugees and other protection seekers from the ad hoc policies of the local police and centralizes all the procedures related to foreigners, asylum seekers, refugees and other entrants into Turkey.
The LFIP institutionalizes the temporary protection program that Turkey has put in place to provide both temporary protection and to authorize asylum and refugee processes for the different groups qualifying for the statuses under the law. It also contains a provision that tracks both Article 1(D) of the 1951 convention and another, Article 12(1) of the European Union's 2004 directive. These together extend recognition to Palestinians as beneficiaries of refugee or subsidiary protection status. Turkey is the only country that makes no distinction between Syrian nationals and Palestinians from Syria in the granting of protection.
This leads me to the relationship between policies in the region and policies in other regions of the world that affect the Syrian refugees. You'll notice in reading the European and Regional Response Plans that they all focus on money. Billions of dollars have already been spent on the crisis. Turkey alone has spent over $4 billion of its own money, exceeding the entire donation of the EU so far to the crisis.
These plans, however, all work in a paradigm of containment of the refugee crisis in the region. Our goal is to push back against this paradigm and refocus the refugee-advocacy dialogue on a shared protection program that identifies status mechanisms to allow refugees to move out of the region and lift the crisis from the Middle East to a shared responsibility towards the refugees themselves.
Our recommendations are for a Comprehensive Plan of Action, focusing first on a temporary-protection plan in the region that is modeled on Turkey's program, which is working incredibly well. We've proposed an extension of this plan for Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, grounded in the Casablanca Protocol of 1965, to which every Arab state is party, and the Arab League Charter, but closely modeled on the Turkey-EU temporary-protection directive. The regional temporary-protection plan would allow for basic rights to be afforded uniformly in each of the host states with the assistance of the aid funding flowing into the region to make this feasible.
Second, a European Regional Protection Plan, much like the one after the Balkan crisis, would put in place a temporary-protection program that would allow Syrians to enter on a two-to-three year status, hosted by refugee agencies and Arab communities in each state, to guarantee short-term integration while the crisis plays itself out.
Third, for the U.S., Canada and the EU, there needs to be expedited resettlement and expanded resettlement slots for the backlogged non-Syrian refugees throughout the region. Other refugees should not have to pay for the Syrian crisis either. There's a way to provide protection to both groups, one short-term and one long-term, under existing laws.
Fourth, a temporary-protection plan for Syrians and Palestinians in the United States, Canada and Latin America, processed directly through the consulates in the Middle East region, and an admission plan with three- to five-year statuses in key states in Latin America under the Mexico Plan of Action, modeled on a similar program after the Iraq War.
The refugee crisis in Syria is now four years old. Gaza's is 67 years old. I was asked to speak about humanitarian action in Gaza as an example of what the international community should avoid in its approach to the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Despite the differences in the two situations, Gaza's experience with humanitarianism, broadly defined as the capacity to alleviate suffering and help those in need, may hold some vital lessons.
During my first research trip to Gaza, in 1985, and in one of my first interviews about the occupation with the late Dr. Hatem Abu Ghazaleh, he told me, "Nothing is more permanent than the temporary. As you proceed in your work, never forget this." The condition of Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, where the majority are refugees, powerfully evokes Dr. Abu Ghazaleh's admonition.
As Professor Ilana Feldman, who has written extensively on humanitarianism in Gaza, observes, "Humanitarianism, most often pursued under UN auspices, could be said to be one of the most consistent aspects of Palestinian life since the displacement and dispossession of most of the population in the 1948 war."
As a former student of mine who worked for years in the humanitarian community in the West Bank and Gaza wrote in her exceptional master's thesis on the subject, "Despite the temporary nature of the humanitarian mandate, humanitarianism has progressed in parallel with the durability of the Israeli occupation of Gaza, creating a permanent aid infrastructure to meet the needs of the local population."
For purposes of this discussion, I argue that humanitarianism in Gaza has two principal dimensions that are vital to address, especially in light of the Syrian crisis — the consistently profound and expanding need of the population, on the one hand, and the deliberate use of humanitarian aid to frustrate or achieve specific political ends, including the prolongation of conflict and suffering, on the other.
The situation in Gaza, as elsewhere in the world, speaks to a larger and extremely important debate in the field. Should humanitarian action, which can include a variety of interventions, confront the political causes of the crises it is there to address, or merely confine itself to the impact of those crises? Indeed, despite more than $25 billion of assistance given to Palestinians over the last two decades, they are no closer to their political goals than they were in 1948; arguably they are further from them. In this regard, there is no such thing as neutral aid, humanitarian or otherwise.
Now for a bit of historical context about the humanitarian imperative in Gaza. In the near three decades that I have been involved with Gaza and her people, I have never seen the kind of human, physical and economic destruction that I see in Gaza today. This has given rise to certain dynamics never before seen in that society. I am going to assume that everyone here has some knowledge of conditions in Gaza and I shall not describe them in any detail. But I will say this: At present Gaza is characterized by unprecedented levels of unemployment and impoverishment, with a population that is largely, and according to some accounts almost entirely, aid-dependent. These are talented, resourceful and energetic people, able and desperate to work. But they are denied that right and forced instead to rely on handouts. What is happening to Gaza is catastrophic. It is also deliberate, considered and purposeful. The international community, particularly Western donor governments, has directly contributed to creating and maintaining this terrible situation.
According to a recently released report by the Association of International Development Agencies, despite pledges of $3.5 billion for Gaza's reconstruction after last summer's military assault, reconstruction has "barely begun," 100,000 people are still homeless and not one of the 19,000 homes totally destroyed out of 160,000 damaged in the war has been rebuilt. The report further charges that there has been "no accountability to address violations of international law," what OCHA in a separate report referred to as "a pervasive crisis of accountability," underscoring the total failure of the international community to challenge Israel's damaging closure on Gaza, which has long undermined any form of economic activity, let alone economic recovery.
How did we arrive at this point? From the beginning of my work in the territory, prior to the first Intifada, humanitarianism had a prominent place in Israeli policy. In the mid-1980s, I was there conducting research for my doctoral dissertation. I spent a good deal of time with Israeli government officials, all of whom made one point clear almost immediately, some more explicitly than others: There would be no economic development in the Palestinian territories. I was told there were two reasons for this. The first, and relatively less important, was the need to eliminate any source of competition with the Israeli economy. The second and far more crucial reason was to preclude the establishment, in any form, of a Palestinian state.
I have never forgotten what one highly placed official in the Ministry of Defense told me almost 30 years ago. He said, I am paraphrasing, real economic development in the West Bank and Gaza could produce a viable economic infrastructure that, in turn, could provide the foundation for the establishment of a Palestinian state. This will never be allowed to happen. Instead, I was told, Israel provides for the social needs of the Palestinians — education, health and welfare — and for a certain level of employment in unskilled and semi-skilled jobs inside Israel and in their own under-developed economy. Hence, humanitarianism was couched in the language of social services, an improved standard of living and benign occupation, whose aim was explicitly political and directed to extinguishing any and all Palestinian political claims.
The struggle between political claims and humanitarian needs assumed a somewhat different form with the first Palestinian uprising, when people struggled to end the occupation, insisting that their problem was primarily political rather than humanitarian. Israel ultimately extinguished the uprising through massive economic pressure and restriction, a top priority for the Israeli economy at that time, imposing a long-term closure for the first time in 1991, a closure now in its 24th year.
With the 1993 Oslo peace process and the expectation of a brokered settlement to the conflict, the role of the donor community increased dramatically, as did the level of assistance to the Palestinian population. The Oslo process enabled Israel to claim that it was mitigating, if not ending, the occupation, when in fact it was doing the exact opposite: deepening its control of the territories through a variety of policies, including the growing isolation of Gaza from the West Bank and Israel, the territorial fragmentation of the West Bank and the large-scale expropriation of Arab land and other resources, largely for the building and expansion of Israeli settlements, all of which were meant to ensure Israel's continued presence and preclude the establishment of a Palestinian state.
But now Israel was pursuing its political agenda with the tacit if not explicit support of key donor countries, which in effect were, intentionally or not, providing cover for, if not actively facilitating, this agenda. To the contrary, the political and economic illusions created by Oslo and the Oslo negotiation framework and supported by a compliant Palestinian Authority and donor community, led to a range of economic programs and initiatives promoting economic peace under occupation. Economic peace argues that economic change, however defined, must precede political change, creating a context conducive to future political compromise.
In effect, this policy sees any form of economic improvement, no matter how insubstantial and meaningless, as a substitute for a just political resolution, in this case for ending occupation and the dispossession and denial that accompanies it. This approach, which still obtains, is fundamentally no different from Israeli policies in the early years of occupation, which similarly aimed to extinguish Palestinian political demands through limited economic gains, under an occupation that continued to extract resources and negate Palestinian rights.
Over the last 15 years, conditions for Palestinians have eroded dramatically and humanitarianism has assumed a dominant and defining place in Israel's relationship with Gaza. Key events include the second Palestinian uprising in 2000 and its militarization, Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005 and the accompanying argument that it no longer occupies Gaza, the election of Hamas in 2006 and its takeover of Gaza in 2007, and three massive assaults on Gaza in the last six years.
While a detailed analysis of the changing relationship between Israel and Gaza is beyond the scope of this talk, I would like to highlight certain points that have had a profound impact on humanitarian action in the territory. A critical feature of the last 15 years is that Gaza's status as an occupied territory has ceased to be a matter of international concern, the focus of attention having shifted after Hamas's 2006 election and 2007 takeover to Gaza's enforced isolation, containment and punishment.
As i have written elsewhere, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was reshaped to center on Gaza and on Israel's hostile relationship with Hamas. Consequently, the occupation was transformed from a political and legal issue with international legitimacy into a simple border dispute, where the rules of war, not of occupation, apply. The West has largely come to accept Israel's recasting of its relationship with Gaza from one between occupier and occupied to one between warring parties. This has facilitated Israeli attacks on Gaza, rendering as illegitimate any notion of freedom or democracy for Palestinians.
A key part of this transformation has been the imposition by Israel of an intensified closure, more commonly referred to as a blockade, which has devastated Gaza's economy and produced a man-made humanitarian crisis. The Israeli government has referred to the blockade as a form of economic warfare. According to the Israeli NGO Gisha, "Damaging the enemy's economy is, in and of itself, a legitimate means in warfare and a relevant consideration, even while deciding to allow the entry of relief consignments."
Such measures are intentionally designed to undermine and deplete Gaza's economy and productive capacity as part of Israel's policy to bring down the Hamas regime and punish Gazans for supporting Hamas, and promote the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. In this regard, not only have major donors participated in the draconian sanctions regime imposed on Gaza; they have privileged the West Bank over Gaza in their programmatic work. Consequently, donors have reinforced the division of Palestinians into two distinct and isolated entities, offering economic peace to one side and impoverishment to the other.
The recasting of Israel's relationship with Gaza from occupied territory to entity governed by the rules of war has consequences in terms of Israeli policies towards the Palestinian economy and the role of humanitarian action. Whereas prior to the first Intifada, Israel sought to control and dominate the Palestinian economy, shaping it to serve its own interests, current policy attacks Gaza's economic structure with the aim of permanently disabling it. In the process, it transforms the population from a people with national, political and economic rights into a humanitarian problem, charity cases in need of relief, which is a more extreme version of humanitarianism as it was understood during the first two decades of occupation.
A senior official at Gisha captured the essence of Israel's approach to Gaza: "In the rest of the world, we try to bring people up to the humanitarian standard. Gaza is the only place where we are trying to push them down, to keep them at the lowest possible indicators." In this way, Israel creates and uses a humanitarian problem to manage a political one. Given the policy of economic warfare against Gaza, it is but a short step from the goal of isolation and disablement to that of abstraction and deletion.
Israeli policy has also shifted from addressing the economy in some manner — whether positively or negatively — to dispensing with the concept of an economy altogether. That is, rather than weaken Gaza's economy through punishing closures and other restrictions, as has long been the case, the Israeli government, through its intensified closure or blockade, treats the economy as totally irrelevant, a dispensable luxury where market forces no longer play any role. Humanitarianism has been a vital policy instrument in this effort, shaping the way the international community interacts with Gaza.
Within this construct, where Israel, with the support of the U.S., the EU and Egypt, especially, creates and maintains a continuous humanitarian problem, Palestinians are not only reduced to a humanitarian issue, a demographic presence in an impoverished enclave deprived of their economic and political rights and dependent on the goodwill of the international community for food, shelter and other services; they are rendered disposable and irrelevant, making no difference except as charity cases and terrorists.
Consequently, as Ilana Feldman makes clear, because Gaza's humanitarian space is restricted to military actors, recipients and humanitarian workers: "It is not only Gaza as a space, but Gazans as a people that can be further isolated by the humanitarian frame." My former student writes, "What happens when humanitarian actors who are meant to work under short-term circumstances that are immediate and life-threatening, are intentionally stripped of political agency and made to work in a highly politicized and restrictive environment that is long-term in nature and that perpetuates the conditions that create and maintain the ruin?" This is a question that aid providers must consider with regard to the Syrian humanitarian crisis.
Hence, argues my student, Gaza and the humanitarian community currently must confront a very distorted reality, whose principal features include: (1) the depoliticization of Gaza and its transformation into a humanitarian problem under conditions of continued belligerent occupation; (2) the derogation by the occupier of its responsibilities to the international community, where humanitarian actors are used as a political tool; and (3) the implementation of policies by the occupier, notably the blockade, and restrictions on access that severely restrict the humanitarian community from fully carrying out its work, often forcing it to do what is possible rather than what is needed. Gaza's humanitarian crisis is a result of occupation, and any discussion of humanitarian aid must confront and engage this political fact directly.
Now I would like to turn briefly to some recommendations based on the Gazan experience. A colleague and friend with 30 years of experience working as a humanitarian and development actor in different parts of the world, including a considerable amount of time in Gaza, recently wrote me the following: "In Gaza, it's difficult to escape the profound mismatch between the tools of humanitarian aid — temporary, minimalist, needs-based — and the demands of the situation, which are political, enduring, aspirational and economic. Humanitarianism is not the appropriate response to a nation in man-made limbo."
Gaza's long experience with humanitarianism holds some lessons for Syria's humanitarian crisis. Here, I draw on the work of former students and other humanitarian actors I have known. First, if the separation of the humanitarian and political realms is necessary in the short term, it is dysfunctional and harmful in the long term. Quoting a colleague, "Gaza's chronic humanitarian need is very real, but has been artificially created and intentionally maintained. Over time, a complex humanitarian infrastructure has developed to respond to these needs and by its continued presence helps sustain them. The humanitarian community remains, while the political community is largely obstructive and complicit in maintaining these damaging conditions, opting for a policy of managing conflict through containment and impoverishment, rather than resolving conflict through political action." Without a political resolution, this approach is as unsustainable as it is volatile.
Second, assistance and those actors responsible for delivering it cannot replace a political solution, but must engage it. Professor Larissa Fast, a scholar of conflict resolution who has focused on aid and humanitarianism, states that in an ideal situation, humanitarian aid would not need to address root causes of conflict, since other parties would have the will and the capacities to do so, trying to address the problem politically while humanitarians address the suffering. But in Gaza, this is not the case. Hence, donor agencies need to hold Israel and their own host governments accountable for the very real and high cost of occupation. The humanitarian community should insist that donor agencies engage politically. Third, while humanitarian action cannot substitute for political intervention or compensate for the absence of a political process, it should not allow itself to become instrumentalized or weaponized by that process.
Now I would like to turn very briefly to a few recommendations that speak to more programmatic concerns of a long-term crisis that exceed the provision of immediate relief. First, in Gaza's case, the separation of the political and humanitarian spheres has produced considerable internal confusion, with little protest of the restrictions to which humanitarians are subject. As constraints on movement and service delivery increase, the humanitarian community often accedes, for fear of losing access and funding, rather than contests.
Thus, it is imperative that humanitarian actors act as a coordinated collective, with a common, clearly articulated understanding of its objectives, purpose and resources, insisting on and publicizing needed reforms without fear of retribution. In Gaza, for example, say my informants, the humanitarian community should maintain a collective position toward Israel and lobby strongly on issues like the free movement of humanitarian personnel, especially local staff wishing to enter and exit Gaza, on obtaining permits for local and international staff, on lifting access restrictions and lifting restrictions on contact with the Hamas authorities.
Second, humanitarian actors must serve as a source of information for donor agencies and donor governments concerning day-to-day conditions and the damaging impact of the policies donors are supporting. Third, Ilana Feldman has powerfully argued that "degraded expectations are part of a process and practice of isolating Gaza." Humanitarian action, therefore, must focus on empowering, not disempowering people, as has happened in Gaza, addressing and strengthening human agency before it is diminished. In this regard, it is essential to acknowledge the refugees' role in decision making, engaging people and their political representatives as agents in their own betterment and in shaping a reality where they can imagine a future for themselves and their children.
Fourth, in Gaza's highly restricted environment, humanitarian actors will seek projects for which they can obtain approval, which can include a range of contributions, from food and shelter, teacher training and mental-health rehabilitation, to certain kinds of economic activity, such as infrastructural works, water desalination and sewage-treatment projects. Whether by design or default, and despite the importance of the services provided, humanitarian action over the long term runs the risk of further weakening, if not supplanting, an already diminished local economy, effectively acting as a vital if not principal source of economic activity. It is essential, therefore, that humanitarian action, to the degree possible, become integrated with, not a replacement for, the local economies in which they work.
In conclusion, what is a humanitarian actor to do when donors use aid in lieu of political solutions, a looming possibility in the Syrian case? My colleague responds, "In Gaza, we are beyond this. Now relief is the politics of choice. At present, it is very difficult to find any development funds for Gaza. Unlike the past, donors won't invest because they don't want their assets bombed. While this is understandable, the net result is that Gaza is condemned to relief, not progress. There is no investment in civil society or in imagining alternatives or futures."
In fact, for too long the approach of foreign-assistance providers has not been about moving Gaza forward into the future but, at best, about restoring Gaza to a less-compromised position of the past. Will Syria's displaced be similarly condemned to this approach, to relief instead of progress? Again, quoting my colleague, "When that happens," she says, "and when the relief is massively inadequate, as it is in Gaza today, then at some point one has to ask whether it is ethical for an actor to agree to be used to keep this tatty, threadbare lid on the place. Is it ethical to consent to implement the fairness of such scarcity?"
In the world of aid, there have been certain milestones of change. At one point, my friend says, "We believed the recipients of humanitarian aid should be innocent. We acknowledged the distorting potential of aid in a place of scarcity and we decided that aid should do no harm, a thoroughly different ethical standard from the one we see today. We evaluated impacts other than need. Then we began to proactively wield the power of the commodity of aid.
"We came away with categories of the deserving and less-deserving displaced, and I feel as though humanitarianism has increasingly become the management of troublesome populations at the edge of perpetual conflicts. It seems to me that with Palestinians, we've reached a policy of not solving, a policy of agreeing not to envision solutions. This does not feel like an oversight; it seems like a choice. The management of inconvenient populations with no vision of anything but further management, no vision even of reconstructing the homes lost last summer."
The question I leave you with is this: Will Syria's displaced be the next iteration of this truly unacceptable choice?
DR. MATTAIR: Anyone who watches television or reads the newspaper already knows this, but for the record for our event, why are there refugees and internally displaced and why do we need a political solution in addition to a humanitarian solution? Let me just go through the list in Karen's report. On the side of the Syrian government, we have mass killings, encirclement and siege of population centers, bombardment and shelling — some indiscriminate, some apparently quite deliberate — of people waiting in bread lines and in schools; arrests, torture, disappearances, systematic rape, denial of humanitarian aid, deliberate attacks on humanitarian aid workers. That's on the Syrian government side.
On the side of the non-state actors we have executions, amputations, lashings, stonings, torture, rape, sex slavery, indiscriminate shelling and deliberate shelling, hostage-taking for ransom, more sieges of population centers, car bombings, suicide bombings, mass killings and enlistment of child soldiers. This is why we have refugees and internally displaced, and why a political solution is important.
A lot of the questions from the floor are about a political solution. What do you believe the United States can do but hasn't done to resolve this civil war? Do you believe that if the United States had acted militarily when chemical-weapons use was first discovered in 2013, we would be looking at a different picture today?
Even earlier than that, if no-fly zones and safe havens had been established, would we be in a different situation today? And if they were established now, would it be better for the refugees to be in camps inside those zones? On the question of humanitarian assistance, given the mix of groups fighting in Syria, how is it possible to know if we're providing aid to the right people?
DR. SULLIVAN: On the political solution, what can the United States do? Two-and-a-half years ago, there was movement to have a Geneva discussion with Russia and the United States. That's the first thing we should do. Yes, we're having lots of problems with our dear friend Vlad, Vladimir Putin, but we need to be in discussion with him. President Obama has invited the Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emirates, Omanis — the GCC leadership — to Camp David. This should be on top of the agenda. I know Iran is at the top of the agenda, but all of these things, of course, play into one another. I do think the United States — it doesn't have to be James Baker, but it can be Bakeresque — needs to put together an international coalition to figure this out. Without the United States and Russia inviting the players, it ain't gonna happen. That's the first thing that should be done.
Had we bombed Syria, how would Syria be different today? I can only imagine it would be far worse, with hundreds of thousands more dead, on top of the 220,000 dead that we already know of. I don't believe that bombing Syria was going to be the solution.
This gets to a third question, about the issue of safety zones, humanitarian corridors. This is something I've been trying to promote. Turkey, I believe, has instituted very small-scale safety zones inside the Syrian border. They're still in effect. If the United States were to do this, it would require Russia's participation.
So, again, getting back to my first point, we have to plant the flag. We have to hold our talks, whether it's in Geneva or somewhere else. We've got to get this going.
MS. ABUZAYD: When we were talking inclusively from the point of view of the commission, and I think other parts of the international community, we mean, yes of course, Russia. We also mean Iran. It has to be part of this solution or they will still continue to do what they do with Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militia and so on. Unless the whole international community is united, we're still not going to get anywhere.
PROF. AKRAM: I would differ slightly from Denis regarding Turkey on the no-fly zones. I think safety zones and humanitarian corridors are not the same thing. In terms of no-fly or safety zones, I think the experience of the international community with those has been extremely negative. Zepa and Srebrenica are very much in my mind. We don't have a successful precedent for no-fly or safety zones. But humanitarian corridors are very much needed. Turkey is doing some of that. Turkey is actually supporting refugee camps inside Syria and humanitarian assistance is going inside Syria from Turkey. But humanitarian corridors allow for people to leave; safety and no-fly zones trap people. So I think those are quite different.
And I guess I am just flummoxed about why we don't have an international arms embargo on any company selling arms that are going in the direction of Syria. That's another piece of an international coalition. It is something that the U.S. has successfully done against Iran and other countries for decades and knows how to do. That was the final straw that ended Apartheid in South Africa, the complicity of corporations, including arms corporations.
DR. MATTAIR: What is the level of willingness of anyone in the conflict to enter into negotiations toward peace? Is there any consensus among anti-Assad forces on what they want to establish if and when Assad is gone? Would a UN peace-keeping force be feasible or necessary?
MS. ABUZAYD: It one day could be necessary. Whether it's feasible? No. It's all those other divisions among the various parties to the conflict and the parties that are supporting them, so you're just sort of stuck at the beginning. You can't even get to first base.
DR. MATTAIR: Here is a question for Karen from a friend. Evidently you helped him and another Karen to visit seven regional refugee camps in 2009. While they were doing that, in Damascus, Senator Kerry and President Assad were having dinner a few blocks away. Is there any chance that their relationship is being used? Maybe Ford can talk about that as well.
AMB. FRAKER: If you look at the history of conflicts throughout the world — not just in the Middle East — it's the parties who have a political interest in the region who in the end come together to effect some kind of result. If you look at Syria, the political actors are well-known. You have the Iranians, the Russians, the Americans, the EU. There's been very little movement on a political solution in Syria because of other activities, principally the U.S.-Iranian engagement on the nuclear matter, which I feel very strongly has prevented any useful dialogue happening between the United States and Iran on any kind of Syrian solution.
I think the issues to track are the political ones. Until you see certain events having occurred that will allow the principal actors to turn their attention to Syria, you won't see any progress there. In terms of the specific question about Secretary Kerry using his relationship with Assad to move things forward privately, that is definitely not happening.
MS. ABUZAYD: As to this question Denis mentioned of why would people go to Iraq? It must be really bad for a refugee. The people who've gone to Iraqi Kurdistan are all Kurds. A few Arabs are among them, but they're still treated like Kurds. So they're the best-off refugees anywhere. Their kids are in school. They can get jobs. They're free to act as Kurds among Kurds. After 30 years of refugee work, this is the first time I've ever been with refugees who say to me, we have no problems.
One other small thing concerns the third shift in Lebanese schools. The space has been opened up for a third shift to allow the Syrians to provide the education for the school kids.
DR. ROY: I'd just like to say that obviously the political is vital, it's essential. And nothing meaningful can truly occur in my view, when we're talking about Syria or Gaza or Palestine as a whole, without a political resolution. Among some of my friends and colleagues in Gaza, people I've known for many years who are very astute analysts are questions that I've never heard before. The main question is, have we reached a point of no return politically? Has the situation deteriorated to such a degree that at least in the short- to medium-term it is unsalvageable politically? One can certainly make arguments supporting that. One of the big concerns among people I talk to is that the continual marginalization, demonization and criminalization of Hamas — whether we like them or not — has created a vacuum. And that vacuum is being filled by forces that will become far more difficult to deal with and will further compromise the situation in a way that will prove extremely damaging.
The reasons for this are many, but we need to think about how far along this political continuum we have come, and what it means? I'm hearing these kinds of questions asked by people who are certainly not Hamas supporters, who are nationalists and understand the situation, people who have lived it for their whole lives. The response of some of them has been to say to me, we are leaving. We see no future here. We see no solution that's acceptable. We see no end point other than further deterioration. I don't know if we've actually reached that point in the Palestinian situation, but I think it's clearly a question worth thinking about. It's a question that we need to think about with regard to the Syrian situation as well.
MS. ABUZAYD: That's a question already being asked by Syrians, because they see this going on and on and on. They don't see an end to it, and they don't see how we're ever going to get everybody together to get some agreement and move forward. We have, for example, six-point plans going around the international community that include things like "end the violence," "have a political process for transition that is led by Syrians." Are any of these reasonable? Of course, increase humanitarian aid, which leads back to what we've done in Gaza.
There should be freedom of movement and freedom of action, and people should be allowed to demonstrate. Are these reasonable? Is that what is needed at the moment or not? And then some specific things, like "let's release all those who are arbitrarily arrested," but then, what about all those others? What about all those people who are tortured in detention and so on? We're at such a stage we can't even think clearly about a plan. That's what I would like to hear, a plan on resettlement, at least.
DR. MATTAIR: Among the grave concerns raised by the crisis is the fate of school-age children, who will become a lost generation educationally and morally. The possibility of recruitment by extremist groups is already apparent. What more can be done to improve educational opportunities? Should an international organization such as UNRWA be created to deal with that?
MS. ABUZAYD: UNRWA, at least, has access to the people that it's serving. I don't think we want to create another UNRWA to do this. I would think that some of the NGOs and others that are interested in education might think about a way to deal with the educational loss of refugees. But even worse is what's happening inside Syria in terms of the loss of educational opportunities. There will be a real problem as to who can go in, who could help.
DR. SULLIVAN: I'll use Jordan as my primary example, but what I'm hearing from Karen increasingly is that this third shift inside Lebanon is the model: using Lebanese school facilities in the system but bringing in Syrian teachers to teach Syrian children. This has been denied in Jordan; hundreds of thousands of children in Jordan, and tens of thousands of them are not even in school.
Again, Zaatari Refugee Camp, which used to be considered the fourth-largest city in Jordan, is now the third-largest. It's anywhere from 90,000 upwards of 100,000 people at any one time. People go in and out. When I was there last summer, the last quote I heard was that something like 30,000 children are eligible for school but not able to go. There are another 10,000 or 15,000 children going to school so part of it is getting the facilities.
I'm really eager to hear more about this Lebanese third-shift model; that helps the local communities as well as the Syrian refugees. Their destinies will be bound together for a good many years. If we can find a solution for one that also benefits the other, that's exactly where I think the aid community needs to go. There's a great need for education and there are great solutions available. It does require a trigger from the Jordanian government, in this case, to do what the Lebanese are about to do: to allow Syrian teachers to teach Syrian children. It's not the total solution, but it's a great start.
Q: Is it time for some international actors who haven't done so in years to start talking to the Assad regime?
DR. SULLIVAN: My answer is yes.
MR. ABUZAYD: I think it's increasingly the answer of other actors — not that we have to talk to Assad, but that Assad has to be part of the solution. Of course, everyone who says that gets in big trouble with the opposition, but that's what we're going to say. Who else are you going to negotiate with? Some of his nominees would be all right, too. But let's understand that, otherwise we just keep going in different directions.
DR. MATTAIR: Neither Saudi Arabia nor Turkey immediately turned on Assad. Both of them tried for six or eight months to convince him to deal with the resistance in a moderate way. Only when he didn't did they reluctantly give up the relationship with him that they had worked so hard to develop. There may be some personal reluctance to talk to him as an individual, but certainly everybody thinks that in a political transition some people from the regime will have a role.
Q: We were partners many times in Palestine when we had to go to the Israeli authorities to keep our permits. So, Sara, the ethical issue is a burning issue. And I'm wondering, is there a possibility that you and we or a team could go to the Association of NGOs and really say it's time — we cannot any longer — I'm thinking of Jerusalem, because that's as close as we're going to get to Damascus right now — we are really doing what you said, in undergirding the occupation by our humanitarian efforts, it increasingly becomes relief rather than development.
And we want to keep our permits, but I'm at the point of saying to hell with the permits. Let's say the truth and see what happens. We tried that with individuals, but we never got our association, even when we were the chairpersons, to be willing to risk the access.
DR. ROY: When we're just individuals or individual organizations, it won't work, because you can be denied access, you can be penalized. The Israeli authorities have punished different local and foreign NGOs for speaking out or engaging in certain kinds of complaints. There is strength in numbers. The question is, at what point do humanitarian actors and the donor agencies to which they're accountable, and the donor governments to which some of those agencies are accountable, speak out?
I think it's very important, at this point in time particularly, for this community to come together as a collective and be willing to bear the potential costs, and to speak out about issues at the program level involving access, free movement, et cetera, and then to push donor agencies and host governments to understand the real impact of their policies and to speak out against it. For me, that's essential. There are potential costs, but I think if it's done collectively and persistently and these agencies are willing to publicize and stick with their complaints and their demands, it might force some kind of opening.
I'm not here to criticize people on the ground. They do very important work; they're very courageous; they're trying to do the best job they can under very, very difficult circumstances. But we are at a point — and have long been at a point, in my view — where that community is being used politically to sustain the crisis they are there to address, while the occupation authorities impede them from addressing it. At what point do these actors come together and say, enough is enough? I think Palestinians would be the first to say, do it.
Q: It's what happened in South Africa.
Q: Chlorine gas was used as a weapon of mass destruction in World War I. Why is the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime being ignored?
MS. ABUZAYD: There are some problems about the question of using chlorine gas and whether it's prohibited, especially from the Syrian side. What they haven't signed up for is to not use chlorine gas, and that's what they're doing. I don't know what you mean by "ignored" or what we mean when we say that there are Security Council resolutions about the chlorine gas. As to the chlorine gas, as I mentioned, since it comes from the air, it's the government that's responsible. The problem with some of the earlier chemical weapons, like sarin gas, is that at least our commission and some others have not been able to determine who really used these chemical weapons. But the recent use of chlorine bombs is by the government. There are Security Council resolutions, but what does that mean if you don't act on them?
Q: How can we determine whether aid is going to people opposed to Assad? How can the United States or anyone else determine that military aid is going to the right people? We talked about the Free Syrian Army but now there are all these other players. How do you determine who to negotiate with or to aid?
DR. SULLIVAN: I have no clue.
MS. ABUZAYD: That's an enormous problem. It's one reason, I think, that the U.S. government didn't get involved in the earlier stages of arming the Free Syrian Army. You didn't know who you were arming.
The other thing about these groups is that they're constantly transferrable. They keep joining one another. Most of the ones that were originally related to the Free Syrian Army have become more and more Islamist. The two powerful groups on the ground are Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. So who are going to be your boots on the ground? Are you going to support these people who eventually may go and join Jabhat al-Nusra or ISIS because they're winning? It's an attractive proposition to go fight with the winning side.
That's what we're finding. And it's not only people who are marginalized. Yes, there are marginalized youth around the world who see this as a chance to be part of something that's Islamic and so on in that sense. But a lot of other people have a great education, have families, are middle-aged and are joining this for ideological reasons.
A recent article in Der Spiegel talks about the evolution of ISIS. It has nothing to do with religion at all. Iraqis formed it. When they've gone into Syria, they've gone into every village and co-opted the most important people. If they couldn't co-opt them, they killed them. It's been a really successful tactic, and it makes everyone hesitate to arm anybody.
AMB. FRAKER: One of the arguments three or four years ago for trying to impose safe havens and no-fly zones was to try and allow a legitimate opposition political entity to have the time and space to become a credible, legitimate political opposition in the eyes of the West and everyone else. It's hard to become that entity if you're spending all your time running around trying to survive. What we see now are the chaotic events that have taken place with so many different groups opting for power and position. There is no logical person or group that you can look at and say: These are the people we're going to support. It's a huge problem.
DR. MATTAIR: I think initially the regional partners thought that their intelligence services were able to identify who they were willing to give weapons to. We also had our own intelligence assets there trying to vet recipients of weapons. And, as Karen said, people move from one organization to another, and people seize warehouses of arms that then fall into the wrong hands. Now, as part of the coalition established in September 2014 at meetings in Jeddah and other places, it's been agreed that a new force, organized by us and our partners, is to be established and trained in Saudi Arabia and other places so that we will have more control over them. It was supposed to start in April, but I don't think they're on schedule.
Q: Why did Lebanon decide not to build more camps; what are the political reasons behind it?
PROF. AKRAM: It's because of the Palestinians. The Palestinians are the reason that Jordan and Lebanon and Egypt don't have a refugee policy and Jordan and Lebanon are not parties to the Refugee Convention or '67 protocol. It's all about the Palestinians. I've argued elsewhere for many years that the Palestinian refugee problem is the key to normalizing refugee processing in the entire region. Until the Palestinian issue is resolved, the region will be dysfunctional as far as refugees and migrants are concerned.
MS. ABUZAYD: Many of us have worked for the refugees for many years in UNHCR. Don't think it's an entirely bad thing not to have camps. There are advantages for the people being able to move around and find places to work. It's pretty awful when there are too many of them and the situation is bad, but in a way, the refugees would rather be free than be inside the camps.
Q: But politically speaking, internal Lebanese politics are also forcing a certain look at the Syrian refugees in Lebanon and whether to build camps or not. Hezbollah is against that, specifically because most of the refugees, if not all of them, are Sunni Syrians and that will distort the sectarian balance in the country. And they are afraid that in the future there may be resettlement, and the Sunnis would be higher in number than the Shiites, and that would have political repercussions.
Q: At the Geneva talks last year, there was broad unity, and even today there's a general consensus about what the opposition wants out of a political process. The big problem was how to get the regime to the table and willing to make political concessions that at least create enough of a compromise to get the forces on the ground that are close with the moderate opposition to assent to an agreement. You don't have to get all of the opposition on board right away, but if you create a critical mass with the opposition and the regime and there are political concessions on the regime side, you can move forward at least. How do you bring the regime to the table? I think that's what "train and equip" is really designed to do.
AMB. FRAKER: My own belief is that's not going to happen until the other issues in the region, particularly the nuclear issue and the conversation between the U.S. and Iran on that happens. If you're the Assad government today, why on earth would you ever talk to anybody in the opposition? You're essentially winning, or at least you're not losing the whole country. And you've got Iran and Russia supporting you. Those dynamics have to change somehow at the senior political level. For me, the nexus point is the U.S.-Iranian relationship and these nuclear talks. Either they're going to happen or they're not, and whichever direction that goes will spur certain actions. But I think we have to get through that. Until we do, a sensible political conversation with regard to Syria is not going to happen, in my view.
Q: Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University. When you talk to people who've looked at the reconstruction costs for Syria, nobody really knows, but educated guesses are $180 billion to $200 billion to restore infrastructure. Where is that money going to come from? In the climate with which we're familiar, these sorts of donations are never going to come. That means you're looking forward to a kind of dystopic Syria, something out of a horrible science fiction fantasy. I wonder if it might not be helpful for a number of think tanks in Washington to try and put together a task force on Syria, not just to look at these urgent, problems — refugees, for example — but to think about the big picture. What happens if there is no solution? Why should this be a burning concern for U.S. policy, for European policy? When I think back to the Lebanese civil war, which I experienced firsthand, I can imagine Syria will make that civil war look like a playground for years to come.
I think there needs to be a focus on this, but we're not hearing it at the official policy level. The policy people are talking about the contemptible use of chlorine, whether Assad must go or whatever. There needs to be a bigger-picture effort.