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Saving the World's Refugees: Syria and Beyond

Keynote address by Prof the Hon Gareth Evans, President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, Former Foreign Minister of Australia and Aurora Prize Selection Committee Member, to Aurora Dialogues, Yerevan, Armenia, 23 April 2016

Recognizing the Scale of the Problem. The alarming reality is that there are now more displaced men, women and children around the world than at any time since World War II.  As at the end of 2015, there were some 60 million spread around 52 countries: over 38 million IDPs, 20 million refugees and nearly 2 million asylum seekers waiting evaluation of their claims for refugee status. More than a quarter of all these displacements are due to the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and South Sudan, while more than half of the world's 20 million refugees come from just three conflict-ravaged countries – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The conflict in Syria, going on for five years now – killing over 260,000 and reducing national life expectancy from 75 to 55 – has been the biggest single contributor to this tide of human misery. The total of some 4.8 million Syrian refugees and at least 6.6 million IDPs is currently the largest number of people displaced by any conflict in the world, and there are, overall, assessed to be 13.5 million Syrians now in need of protection and humanitarian assistance.

While, in recent months, Western attention has focused on the flood of Syrian refugees into Europe, the overwhelming majority of them – some 95 per cent - have not been taken in by the West but by Syria's neighbours: Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, creating enormous problems for those states. Lebanon, with a population of around 4 million, hosts over one million, with more than half of school-aged children in Lebanon now being Syrian. Turkey, much bigger but hardly rich, now has some 2 million refugees, living primarily in the turbulent south. And Jordan, with a population of 6.6 million, hosts some 685,000 refugees.  This reflects the situation elsewhere, with states immediately adjacent to problem-source countries like Burundi and Somalia invariably bearing the biggest burden: the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, for example, is the largest in the world, hosting some 330,000 Somalis. Overall, around 86 per cent of the global total of displaced, including refugees, are in developing countries.

In the case of Syria, while no doubt some of those who have left Syria have been economically motivated by the country's crumbling economy, it is clear that by far the greater motivation has been raw, physical, fear – of the brutality of the Assad regime, the barbarity of Daesh (or the Islamic State, or ISIL), or simply of being caught in the three-way crossfire between the regime, its militant political opponents, and Daesh. Mass atrocity crimes – whether they be legally defined as genocide, other crimes against humanity or war crimes – have been the currency of this conflict from the outset.

Those occupying and commanding particular swathes of territory – the Syrian state itself, many of its militia opponents, and certainly Daesh – have conspicuously failed to meet their responsibility to protect those under their control from such atrocities, as demanded of them under the principles unanimously embraced by the UN General Assembly in 2005.

So too has the wider international community conspicuously failed to meet its own R2P responsibilities in the face of the unfolding catastrophe in Syria, with the Security Council almost completely paralysed since 2011. While it has never been clear that coercive military intervention by external powers would do more good than harm, the UN Security Council's unwillingness to even just condemn and sanction the Assad regime at a time when the violence was one-sided and manageably small scale, was disastrous. It created a sense of impunity in the government leadership which led it to go on behaving ruthlessly, leading to its opponents taking up arms and the situation morphing into full-scale, externally supported civil war, and Daesh then taking advantage of the subsequent chaos with its own primeval brand of savagery.

So that, unhappily, is where we now are.  What can possibly be done to redress the situation? In saving Syria's, and the world's, refugees two kinds of constructive, coordinated international response are always necessary – first, to try to resolve the problem at source by removing the fears that are driving people from their homes; and second, to treat with humanity, dignity and decency those who have fled their homes because of a well-founded fear of direct persecution or general exposure to violence – recognizing how long and difficult will be the path in restoring normality to any country as devastated as Syria now is.

Tackling the Problems at Source. As to removing these problems at source, the main game always has to be political negotiation. The reality is that it only quite rarely that a major conflict is resolved by outright military victory by one side or other, rather than political negotiation. And of course if it is the bad guys who do win outright, that is not likely to guarantee any kind of long-lasting peace, and certainly won't do much to help refugee returns.

But good political solutions can be incredibly difficult to construct. Every conflict situation – as I well know from my years as foreign minister and heading the International Crisis Group – has its own dynamic, and there are no cookie-cutter solutions. Successful peacemaking requires many things to come together: including at least a modicum of political will to find a solution on the part of key actors; high quality diplomatic resources; creativity, stamina, and a willingness to work with some very ugly actors (including in my own case Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, a negotiating experience I won't easily forget); the resources and commitment to deal with spoilers; and a capacity to get the balance right between peace and justice (giving amnesty to war criminals is not good for one's moral digestion, but can sometimes be the only way of stopping even more large-scale bloodshed).

In the case of Syria, although Russia's recent military intervention on the side of the Assad regime obviously did a great deal to restore the government side's deteriorating fortunes, it has long been clear to most observers that neither the government nor the Sunni rebels are likely to win outright, and it is only a political negotiation that can contain and ultimately eliminate the violence between them and enable a successful common front to be constructed against Daesh.

Any such political negotiation would always have been difficult given the intensity of the emotions on both sides, but for a long time it was made impossible by the US, and wider Western, insistence that President Bashar al-Assad himself was so much the problem that he could never be part of the solution. 

Now, with the US  (if not the Syrian opposition) having quietly modified its position, some political progress has been made, with the UN Security Council in December unanimously endorsing Resolution 2254, a road map for a peace process that outlined a blueprint for a national ceasefire, and set out a timetable for UN-facilitated talks between the Government and opposition members.

The cessation of hostilities agreed by the US and Russia, in effect since late February, has not stopped completely government military action (under the guise, or pretence, of attacking extremist groups excluded from the ceasefire), nor now some opposition offensives claimed to be in response to government excesses. But it does seem, at least until very recently, to have lowered overall levels of violence while creating the conditions for some military progress to be made against Daesh, allowed increasing flows of humanitarian aid to meet those in need, and seemed to be beginning to create a somewhat more conducive environment for a political process.

That said, one would have to be a supreme optimist to think that those talks, mediated by UN Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura, are going to produce results any time soon. Having restarted in Geneva on 13 April, they have been suspended again with the opposition refusing to talk (if not to leave Geneva) following the regime's alleged ceasefire breaches around Aleppo and Idlib. But this process remains the only game in town, and we can only hope that it will eventually bear fruit.

Meeting the Humanitarian Challenge. In addition to trying to solve refugee outflow problems at source, the other huge need is for an effective international response to the gigantic problem of meeting the human needs of those tens of millions who are now displaced, particularly outside national borders as refugees or asylum seekers, and for whom there may be no realistic possibility of return home for the foreseeable future, if ever.

On any view the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency entrusted with wrestling this problem, faces a nightmarishly difficult task, and it is being made even more difficult by the behaviour of many governments who seem to have lost all sight of our common humanity in a bid to pander political favour with electorates spooked by anti-Islamist extremist sentiment, economic anxiety about losing jobs or – less defensibly – by general nationalist/racist anti-outsider sentiment.

I should say in this respect that, despite the praise it has been winning from some governments in Europe, I have nothing to be proud of with the behaviour of successive recent Australian governments, from both sides of politics, who in the name of "stopping the boats" in order to stop drownings at sea (of which we did experience, tragically, some 1,100 before policy was hardened) have introduced a regime of indefensible harshness for dealing not just with so-called queue-jumping "economic migrants" but also unquestionably genuine asylum seekers, and at the same time have done little or nothing to advance regional processing solutions, with major increases in settlement quotas, which could quickly and fairly move people out of limbo.

So what are we to say about how the European refugee crisis has been, and should be, handled?
For the moment, and it may be this will only be for the moment, the crisis does seem to have been defused by last month's agreement between the EU and Turkey, brokered by Germany's Angela Merkel. Under this agreement all new arrivals arriving in Greece across the Aegean Sea are to be sent back to Turkey and supported there, with a process then of orderly settlement of equal numbers back into Europe, with quotas established for EU member states, and Turkey generously financially reimbursed for the costs it incurs and given some other political concessions. 

This has all been criticized as, among other things "illegal, impractical and immoral" and certainly has massive downsides: Greece is under massive strain as the transit location tasked with assessing the origins and asylum eligibility of those already there and still arriving; serious doubts are being expressed about Turkey's bona fides; too many EU member states are being totally uncooperative, or insufficiently generous, about resettlement; and the whole scheme seems manifestly underfunded.
It is difficult to be too purist about an agreement which has at least some visible  moral foundation – i.e. stopping irregular migrant and asylum seeker flows in order to make way for regular ones – and which, for the time being anyway, seems to have worked, at least in dramatically reducing arrival numbers into Greece.   But that said, it is an agreement built on very fragile foundations and could fall apart at any time, not least when it comes to EU members honouring their resettlement obligations.

What is manifestly necessary is the kind of comprehensive program advocated by George Soros, writing in the New York Review of Books this month: "providing Turkey and other 'frontline' countries with adequate funding to maintain their very large refugee populations, creating a common EU asylum agency and security force for the EU's external borders, addressing the humanitarian chaos in Greece, and establishing common standards across the Union for receiving and integrating refugees". At the heart of his argument is the need for adequate funding, particularly to give enough financial support to refugees and the countries containing them in the Middle East to make their lives there viable, allowing them to work and send their children to school. Soros argues that this would help keep the inflow to levels which the EU, even in the current unfavourable political environment, can absorb and should target: between 300,000 and 500, 000 arrivals a year.

The costs involved in doing all this properly are estimated by Soros at a mind-boggling Euros 30 billion (US$34 billion) a year, which he argues can nonetheless be financed by debt in the first instance, recouped ultimately by new Europe-wide taxes. He argues that E30 billion a year is less than ¼ of 1 per cent of the EU's combined annual GDP, less than ½ of 1 percent of combined EU governments' spending –  and less than the at least E47 billion a year it would cost the EU if  the Schengen system of open internal borders were to collapse, which may well be the price of inaction.

Whatever the force of Soros's arguments, the costs involved here, for this European solution alone, are breathtakingly large, and the prospects of this package being politically saleable are obviously slight.  And, of course, if a similar approach were to be taken to addressing the refugee problem everywhere else in the world, the costs involved would be even more astronomical, and the prospects of political implementation even more remote.

For all that, saving the world's refugees is not an impossible task. It is one perfectly achievable by cooperative burden-sharing, provided the political will can be generated to deliver that, by a combination of top-down leadership and bottom up civil society-driven political pressure.

The motivation to do so should be not only the moral imperative to alleviate the suffering and misery of immense numbers of our fellow human beings, but – in the case of Europe – the realist recognition that the scale of the present crisis is putting many individual countries at immense risk of security and economic breakdown, and the EU itself at existential risk.

Energising that leadership and pressure should now be the advocacy task for all of us who have any voice at all. And I hope very much that task will now be made a little easier by the kind of individual voices and stories the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity is now bringing to global public attention.