Syrian crisis is getting more complex, warns UN envoy

Syrian crisis is getting more complex, warns UN envoy

A lot of the credit must goes to Turkish citizens, said Kamal Malhotra, the U.N.’s envoy to Ankara regarding Turkey’s hosting of at least 1.6 million Syrian refugees.

“There has been low tension. It is growing but it is still at a very low level. It is very sporadic, not systematic … I think this is consistent with Turks’ reputation as very good hosts,” Malhotra told me when we met for an interview.

The Syrian humanitarian crisis is one of Malhotra’s most important dossiers, among many others. The U.N. is now adding a new dimension to its regional refugee response plans: Resilience.

“What we are looking at is the resilience of both host communities and refugees, particularly those outside of the camps,” explained Malhotra.

“We are not just looking at immediate needs, but medium and long-term needs. When they go back, hopefully they will be in a better position to pick up their lives. But [the emphasis is] not just on the refugees themselves, but also the communities that are bearing the burden. This includes livelihoods, support for income generation, and support for public services,” he added.

Does strengthening resilience mean recognizing that Syrian refugees are here to stay?

“It’s a recognition not of the fact they are here to stay forever, but that it is a medium to long-term crisis, not a short-term crisis. Even if there was a political solution tomorrow, it would still be a while before they could go back. Everyone recognizes that this is medium to long-term crisis and that we have to find new strategies,” Malhotra said.

I asked directly whether Turkey had reached its limit to receiving new refugees.

“If there was a significant increase, Turkey would be tested,” said Malhotra. “Turkey is aware of that and is concerned about that. It has raised the issue with the international community and with us; 1.6 million is not a small number, even for a country of the size and with the resources of Turkey.” Malhotra admits that the fall of Aleppo would mean a new flood of refugees and a huge additional burden. “Turkey is concerned and we also are concerned about that,” he said.

The Syrian crisis remains a big humanitarian challenge to the limited resources of the host countries, as well as to U.N. agencies. What’s worse, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

“It has obviously been further complicated by recent developments in the region. Rather than getting simpler to address, it is getting more complicated. There does not seem to be any big political solution in sight,” said Malhotra.

The U.N. is prioritizing bottom up solutions, small political freezes such as the proposed Aleppo freeze. “If we can get enough of those going, at least on the local level, then there is some space for humanitarian action, and Turkey’s role in helping to facilitate all of that will be crucial. Take Aleppo:

Gaziantep is the closest large center to it, and we value Turkey’s continuing role,” Malhotra added.
He said he was satisfied overall with the U.N.’s level of cooperation with Turkey, adding that the U.N. “welcomes” Turkey’s leadership on the refugee situation.

“We are not in a normal situation where the U.N. is running refugee camps, or the U.N. is leading the humanitarian response, which is often the case with some other countries,” he said.

This is important because in the past, especially the European Union and some member countries hesitated to provide support to Turkey, saying that the U.N. agencies should have the upper hand in the response to humanitarian crisis.

However, Malhotra believes that they have got the ideal model in Turkey.

“The ideal scenario, in my view, is that leadership should be provided by the country, and the U.N.’s role is to support it. This is the case in Turkey. Overall, this is the right relationship. There may be some differences and tensions, but they can be worked out,” he said.

So, could this be a new model in the U.N. system?

“It is not that this has never happened before, but it is rare. We are certainly highlighting it as the right model,” Malhotra replied.