Syria aid conference 'test' for world say host countries

Syria aid conference 'test' for world say host countries
Lebanon and Jordan, host to millions of Syrians, want the international community to share the burden they believe they have borne almost alone, ahead of a donor conference in London.
8 min read
03 February, 2016
Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan live in poverty and require substantial assistance [AFP]
The annual Syria pledging conference that will convene on Thursday is a "test for the international community" Jordanian and Lebanese officials have claimed. 

Jordan and Lebanon - as well as Turkey - host the vast number of Syrian refugees, but this is placing increasing strains on their fragile economies and social stability.

"The international community will be put to the test over how much it can help Lebanon to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis," said Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said ahead of the London Donors Conference.

The Lebanese minister, in remarks published in Al-Akhbar newspaper on Wednesday, warned that his government will not tolerate the passing of new statements which will encourage Syrian refugees "to stay in Lebanon".

Bassil reiterated that Lebanon will be revealing at the conference a new project that his ministry has drafted, aimed at enabling Syrian refugees to return to their country once the conflict is over.

"This project is aimed at directly helping the Lebanese people through the initiation of projects and will allow Syrians to work in the agriculture and construction sectors," Bassil added.

Lebanon will ask an $11 billion assistance to cope with the refugee burden

Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who will be leading the Lebanese delegation, headed off to London one day before the conference.

Salam said earlier this week that he will be asking for around $11 billion to help the country deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, but did not specify the timeframe for this sum's delivery.

Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas said in an interview with local radio that the paper, which will be presented at the conference, will prove that "Lebanon's economic losses as a result of Syrian displacement stand at $13 billion".

Lebanon is home to about 1.1 million Syrians registered with the UN. The real figure is thought to be much higher.

'Political event'

Jordan views the London aid conference slated for Thursday as a "political conference" a senior Jordanian official on said on Tuesday.

Government spokesman Mohammad Momani urged the international community not only to offer more help to those affected by the war raging in Syria for the past five years, but also to find other approaches to do so.

"The world should make more commitments and help regarding the Syrian crisis," Momani said at a meeting with foreign correspondents.

Momani stressed that the support offered to Jordan, which is hosting around 1.3 million Syrians, should be through grants rather than loans, and advised the EU to ease its "rules of origin" regulations to allow more Jordanian exports to Europe.

He noted that this would help create new job opportunities for both Jordanians and Syrians.

Jordan is open to allowing Syrian refugees to work, provided this is not at the expense of Jordanians

Jordan's plan to be presented at the London donors' conference is a three-year resilience plan to respond to the impact of the Syrian crisis on Jordan.

Funding required for the 2016-2018 Jordan Response Plan is estimated at around $8 billion, covering financial support to host communities and "compensations" for the Jordanian treasury for the burdens it will bear, according to the Jordan Times.

The plan will also propose the employment of Syrian refugees in Jordan, a measure that hinges on incoming investments into the kingdom with the help of global partners, according to the government.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said his country is prepared to allow tens of thousands of Syrians to work in the kingdom, if the international community agrees to extend billions of dollars worth of aid for its economy, which is "buckling under the burden of hosting more than a million refugees".

The employment of the Syrians, however, should not be at the expense of Jordanians, the government insisted, given high unemployment among Jordanians.

Record aid sought

International aid to the victims of Syria's five-year war, including millions forced to flee their homes, has persistently fallen short, but organizers of Thursday's annual Syria pledging conference hope for greater generosity this time around, despite a record request of close to $9 billion for 2016.

The expectations are partly based on the reframing of the aid debate over the past year, following the chaotic migration of hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians to Europe.

Donor countries trying to slow the influx would arguably serve their own interests as much as lofty principles of international solidarity if they give more and spend in smarter ways to improve refugees' lives and ease the burden on Middle Eastern host countries.

"I do think the European experience will have sharpened minds," Guy Ryder, head of the International Labor Organisation, told AP while visiting Jordan, one of the struggling host countries. "And I don't think that's a bad thing if it leads to action (on Thursday), as I hope it will."

The stark reality of a drawn-out conflict requiring more ambitious long-term aid plans has also sunk in.

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Thursday's donor conference, to be held in London, is co-hosted by Britain, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the United Nations. World leaders and representatives of dozens of countries have been invited, along with officials from international organisations, aid agencies and civic groups.

The total aid requirement to be presented in London amounts to nearly $9 billion, including a UN-coordinated appeal by dozens of aid agencies for $7.73 billion and a $1.23 billion request by regional host governments. The latter is a small portion of the massive economic support sought in the coming years by countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which host nearly 4.6 million Syrian refugees.

"We hope and expect to raise significant new funding," said Jens Laerke, spokesman of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which assembled the UN-led appeal.

Such optimism comes despite widening funding gaps. Last year's appeal of more than $7 billion was just over half-funded, forcing painful cuts in programs such as refugee food aid.

"Long-term planning"

Beyond the basics, donors are also being asked to support longer-term plans, with a focus on education and jobs.

"We think we need to make a step change now from simply the traditional model of passing the hat around the international donor community," British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in Jordan this week.

Donors would work more closely with countries like Lebanon and Jorden to boost fragile economies plagued by high unemployment and help create jobs for both citizens and refugees.

Currently, the vast majority of refugees are banned from legal work, making them dependent on scarce aid or forcing them into poorly paid informal jobs. The influx of Syrians has also pushed down wages of Jordanian and Lebanese labourers, driven up rents in poor neighbourhoods and overwhelmed local schools and health centers.

Jordan's King Abdullah II told the BBC ahead of the donor conference that "the psyche of the Jordanian people, I think it's gotten to boiling point".

New ideas also include encouraging large-scale private foreign investment in the region and Europe granting easier access to products made there. The ILO envisions labor-intensive infrastructure projects, such building water cisterns, schools and roads. Germany has proposed a donor-funded programme to create 500,000 short-term jobs for refugees in the region.

The UN children's agency said that $1.4 billion would be needed to rescue what could become a "lost generation".

The World Bank is meanwhile helping to set up cheap loans for host countries, with donors covering interest payments. Jordan has balked at the idea of having to borrow for anything linked to the refugee crisis, but has welcomed zero-interest financing for development programs it had to put on hold in recent years.

One of the most specific goals of the conference deals with education - to get all refugee children back to school by the end of the 2016/17 school year. Currently, more than 700,000 school-age refugees are out of school, more than half the total.

The UN children's agency said Tuesday that $1.4 billion would be needed to rescue what could become a "lost generation", both in Syria and in exile.

But despite goodwill and new ideas, donors face a grim truth - millions of Syrians are worse off now than they were even a year ago.

Most refugees in Jordan and Lebanon live in poverty. More refugee children have had to quit school for jobs to help families survive, as savings run out and adults are barred from legal work.

Host countries have tightened entry restrictions for Syrians trying to escape fighting, including Jordan, where 20,000 are stranded in a remote desert area on the border and thousands more arrive each month.

A new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council says hundreds of thousands of refugees are at risk or have already lost their right to legal stay in host countries.

A string of diplomatic failures has meanwhile worsened conditions inside Syria, where aid groups say 13.5 million people are now in need of assistance. Millions struggle to survive in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, and several dozen have starved to death.

"What we are witnessing now is a collective failure to deliver the necessary support to the region," said Jan Egeland, a former Norwegian diplomat who heads the Norwegian Refugee Council, which has called for aid on the scale of the Marshall Plan.

"We are witnessing a total collapse of international solidarity with millions of war victims."