Syria’s refugee crisis: Addressing the defining challenge of the 21st century

Syria’s refugee crisis: Addressing the defining challenge of the 21st century

A recent United Nations report noted a “staggering” funding gap between what the international community has pledged to the Syrian refugee crisis and the $3.47 billion that is needed to meet the basic food, healthcare and education needs of this population. These findings come in the wake of U.N. data reporting the number of refugees fleeing conflict and persecution at a record high in 2014, with 59.5 million people forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide. Of these, four million are Syrian refugees who have flooded into neighboring countries, five of which – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt – are hosting 95 percent of these populations. These statistics highlight the urgent need for the international community to develop a comprehensive strategy for solving this problem to ensure that this – a “defining challenge of the 21st century” – does not go unanswered and unresolved.

One country that has long been pushing for a widespread response to the refugee crisis is Turkey. The country has already spent $6 billion to host the 1.7 million Syrians who have fled the ongoing security crisis developing across its shared border, and this number is expected to swell to 2.5 million by the end of the year. Over the past two weeks alone, more than 200,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey, fleeing airstrikes and a flare in fighting in key border towns. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has called on the international community to do its part, imploring countries to share the burden of hosting these refugee populations with Syria’s neighbors.

World leaders are beginning to take notice. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, commemorating World Refugee Day in refugee camps in southeastern Turkey, called on the international community to follow Turkey’s example and open its borders to this population. Additionally, Anne Brasseur, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), has said she was hugely impressed with the “warm welcome that Turkey has given” to refugees from Syria and Iraq and called on Europe to do more to help. There’s a reason Turkey is standing out: it is the world’s largest refugee host and has welcomed more Syrian refugees than all 28 European Union member countries combined.

Not only does Turkey open its borders to a large number of refugees, but it has worked to ensure that they arrive in a welcoming and supportive environment. Turkey is a leader in providing refugee populations with what the New York Times called “perfect” refugee camps, as well as addressing basic needs such as education, health, social and cultural assistance. In contrast, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called Europe’s reaction to this emergency a “modest effort,” characterized by foot-dragging and verbal sniping rather than the sense of solidarity needed to address the problem head-on. The international community would do well to emulate Turkey’s generosity and reproduce its successes by establishing a comprehensive plan to care for and support refugees the world over.

However, this comprehensive approach does not come without a hefty price tag and promises to provide humanitarian aid have so far fallen short of the vast quantities required to adequately address the needs of refugee populations. While the U.S., EU and Kuwait have so far pledged some humanitarian relief, this falls well short of the U.N.’s call for funding, further increasing the strain on Syria’s neighbors to make up the difference. As a direct result of Syria’s humanitarian crisis, Turkey is now the third-largest contributor of humanitarian aid given across the world. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has praised countries like Turkey for “generosity that is often well beyond their means,” but if a sustainable solution is to be achieved, each member of the international community must renew its commitment to shouldering a part of the burden.

While it is critical that the needs and rights of refugee populations continue to be attended to as best as possible, world leaders must also initiate political solutions to the security crises affecting conflict-torn parts of the world to prevent this challenge from becoming worse. The numbers and what they represent cannot be ignored: With 60 million lives and livelihoods upended by conflict and persecution, now is the time for the international community to come together and create a framework for achieving stability and peace in Syria and beyond.

*Ali Çınar is the executive vice president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that promotes discussion and dialogue around issues of importance in the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship and Turkey’s role in the international community.