Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen J. Hadley joined U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg, a U.K. foreign secretary-turned humanitarian advocate and other experts in calling for U.S., European and other world leaders to accelerate assistance to refugees in the Middle East and reinvigorate efforts to end the conflicts that drive them out of their homes in the first place.

hadley, albright, lindborg, miliband, frem

Speaking at a forum co-sponsored by the Atlantic Council and USIP, they lamented what they called political failures internationally and in the region that have led to protracted wars in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere and generated floods of refugees, first into already-vulnerable neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan, and now to Europe.

“Recent events have proven once and for all that the destruction of whole societies in the Middle East is not a regional problem, but a global crisis,” Albright told an overflow audience at the Sept. 18 discussion at USIP. “And it is a crisis that is not only a humanitarian emergency, but also a political emergency. It is a series of political failures that have led to the grave situation that we find today.”

The discussion was the third public hearing of the Middle East Strategy Task Force, a bipartisan Atlantic Council initiative that includes USIP and other institutions and was established earlier this year, before the current refugee exodus to Europe. The task force aims to develop a long-term framework for U.S. policy in the broader Middle East to foster a stable, prosperous order based on resilient, legitimate and well-governed states. Albright and Hadley co-chair the task force, and Lindborg is a senior advisor to the panel.

Syrians make up the largest proportion—34 percent in the first half of this year, according to United Nations figures—of refugees who are literally washing up on Europe’s shores, many in Greece, wobbling in rickety rafts across the Mediterranean from Turkey. Others come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea and elsewhere. Frontex, the European border-control agency, estimates that more than 500,000 people have made the desperate journey to Europe this year.

The Syrians are fleeing a war that has dragged into its fifth year and killed almost 250,000 people. Millions of families have been forced to move multiple times, with 7.6 million displaced within Syria. Four million refugees have fled the country, 3.6 million of them to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Yet the humanitarian aid made available hasn’t begun to meet their needs. The U.N. says it has received only 38 percent of the $7.4 billion needed this year to care for Syrians fleeing the fighting.

Lindborg cited U.N. figures that show 60 million people are displaced worldwide due to wars, conflict and persecution. The U.N. refugee agency ranks it as the greatest displacement of people since World War II. And the roots of the current crisis in Europe run back to the conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. About 19 million people are uprooted across the Middle East and North Africa.

Ripped Apart by Conflict

“Today, we watch as refugees, internally displaced people and those who remain in their communities are ripped apart by conflict, and this has become the norm in the region,” said USIP Acting Vice President for Middle East and Africa Programs Manal Omar, who is convener for one of the task force working groups and hails from a family of refugees. “Their desperation is a reflection of the failure of the international community to address violent conflict in a sustainable way.”

Hadley, the chairman of USIP’s board, said he and others have appealed since the early days of the war in 2011 and 2012 for military action that would curb the ability of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Air Force to conduct operations such as the barrel bombings of civilian areas that have devastated swaths of his country.

“It’s been four years and it hasn’t happened,” said Hadley, who moderated the discussion. “While we pursue a way to try to solve the crisis, is there also a way that we can make progress on the refugee issues and the humanitarian issues?”

In Lebanon, which has taken in 1.2 million Syrian refugees, fully a quarter of the population now is from Syria. The comparable burden for the United States would be 90 million refugees, noted Antoine Frem, mayor of Jounieh, just north of Beirut. While Lebanese have sympathized with the plight of Syrians and provided shelter in camps and urban areas, the pressure is extreme on the country’s already unstable political structure and economy and its strained infrastructure, including health care and education.

“The most critical is the education sector,” Frem said. “Our public schools cannot handle the amount of refugees. We barely can service our local people.”

Omar, an American with Palestinian roots, told of her parents’ journey through five countries “in search of a better life” and of growing up in an environment “where displacement and a thirst for return was part of our daily life.” Omar, who convenes the working group on Rebuilding Societies: Refugees, Recovery, and Reconciliation in Times of Conflict with USIP Middle East Director Elie Abouaoun, outlined some of the group’s conclusions, which will be presented in a final report by lead author and independent consultant Beatrice Pouligny. The complete task force report, including findings from all five working groups, is to be issued in December.

Omar particularly highlighted “the danger of assuming that a brighter post-conflict future may be coming.”

“This assumption has the potential to distract the international community from introducing programs that are needed now, even in the midst of violent conflict,” Omar said.

17 Years in Limbo

Lindborg noted that the average period of time for displacements globally has grown to 17 years. Having returned from Iraq two days earlier, she told of meeting with women who fled last year’s onslaught of the self-styled “Islamic State” extremist group. Since then, the womenhave been living in camps or depleting their savings on rent in urban areas. The country’s Kurdish region has been overwhelmed by fully half of the 3 million Iraqis who fled their homes. Displaced Iraqis now make up a quarter of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region struggling with economic crisis spurred by the war and the past year’s plunge in oil prices.

Families “are swallowing those daily indignities of being displaced,” said Lindborg, who before joining USIP in February helped lead humanitarian assistance, including for the Syria crisis, at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Often they live in substandard conditions and are unable to find employment or education for their children. Tensions sometimes escalate into domestic abuse or other violence.

“They have terrible trauma,” Lindborg said. “They really illustrate why so many are taking that terrible risk of going to Europe.”

The European conundrum over how to deal with the flood of some half million refugees arriving at their borders should help “refocus attention, resources and energy to address these critical issues in the region that is really at the roots of the crisis,” Lindborg said.

Donor fatigue is “jeopardizing entire existing aid programs to the region,” Omar said.

“It’s time for the donor community – and we’d like to also include the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, the European Union and the United States – to make courageous political decisions,” Omar  said. “One is by making the clear commitment to refugee burden-sharing, making a long-term commitment to supporting people’s resilience, with an acknowledgement that humanitarian aid in the short-term alone will not [suffice].”

Miliband, the son of refugees who now serves as president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and also is a senior advisor to the task force, just returned from the Greek island of Lesbos, which is receiving about half the refugees coming to Europe, or about 2,000 to 3,000 people a day.

“Lesbos has more refugees in a day than the United States has admitted from the Syrian conflict in the last 4 ½ years,” Miliband said. The U.S. government recently has announced increases in the number of refugees it would accept, with Secretary of State John Kerry saying on Sept. 20 that the U.S. will increase the numbers by 15,000 each of the next two years, to a  total of 100,000 by 2017. He didn’t specify how many would be from Syria.

'Feeble' Response

The response of the European Union, the world’s richest and largest single market, also has been “uncoordinated, haphazard, feeble,” and threatens the union’s fundamental values, Miliband said. “The politics is going in the wrong direction,” he said, with a “race to the bottom” to reject refugees or shove them off on others. He said 85 percent of the world’s refugees are in poor countries, not rich countries.

As with Omar, Miliband and Lindborg advocated longer-term approaches to addressing what clearly have become longer-term displacements by adjusting aid programs for those displaced and their host communities. That might involve cash, jobs and education for refugees to help them become more self-sufficient, and development programs for the communities providing havens for them.

Turkey’s ambassador to the U.S., Serdar Kilic, said his country opened its border to Syrians in 2011, when the war started, and has “taken all the people that would like to take refuge in Turkey.” Sheltering those 2.2 million refugees has cost Turkey $7.5 billion, Kilic told the audience. International aid to the country for the refugees has totaled just $350 million.

But solutions also have to go beyond humanitarian and development aid, the speakers said, to address the conflicts themselves.

“Humanitarian aid can staunch the dying, but it takes politics to stop the killing,” Miliband said.

Some European leaders are indicating a growing awareness of the need for greater action in the Middle East. “We know that what we’ve done so far is not adequate,” said Peter Westmacott, the U.K. ambassador to the United States. “We have to get the political track going again,” he told the forum.

On Sept. 22, the Dutch government pledged some $28 million in assistance for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed for fellow European leaders to embrace constructive rather than punitive or exclusionary measures, according to the Associated Press.

“We are learning in this refugee situation that we are all connected to each other and our lives are affected if terrible things happen elsewhere,” Merkel said. “We will not be able to change that by building fences ... only by fighting the causes.”

Related Publications

Can Syrians Who Left ISIS Be Reintegrated into Their Communities?

Can Syrians Who Left ISIS Be Reintegrated into Their Communities?

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

By: Mona Yacoubian ; Chris Bosley; Leanne Erdberg Steadman

More than a year since the territorial defeat of ISIS, the region is still reeling in the wake of the self-styled caliphate’s destruction. Kurdish authorities operate two dozen detention facilities in northeast Syria holding thousands of former ISIS fighters. On October 5, Kurdish authorities in charge of al-Hol said they would free the 24,000 Syrians in the camp, where conditions have become increasingly unsustainable. USIP’s Mona Yacoubian, Chris Bosley, and Leanne Erdberg Steadman look at what led to the decision to release these Syrians and the challenges ahead for reintegrating them into their communities.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Reconciliation; Violent Extremism

The Current Situation in Syria

The Current Situation in Syria

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Now in its 10th year, the Syrian conflict has led to more than 500,000 deaths and displaced an estimated 13 million—over half of Syria’s pre-war population. Over 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced, and 5.6 million are refugees, predominantly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Type: Fact Sheet

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

ISIS Determined to Make a Comeback—How Can it Be Stopped?

Thursday, August 13, 2020

By: Ashish Kumar Sen

The Islamic State (ISIS), which was driven from its strongholds in Syria and Iraq over a year ago, is determined to regain territory in the region. It will take a combination of military and financial pressure, attention to public grievances, and the repatriation and rehabilitation of people who lived or fought with ISIS—as well as those who were subjugated by them—to foil the militant group’s ambitions, according to senior U.S. officials. This already tall ask has been made even more challenging by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

COVID Will Lead to More Child Marriage—What Can Be Done?

COVID Will Lead to More Child Marriage—What Can Be Done?

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

By: Joud Monla-Hassan; Mona Yacoubian

The impact of the COVID pandemic continues to be felt around the world, with economies shuttered and political systems increasingly strained. Another of the downwind effects of the pandemic—one that has not been leading the headlines—is that it is expected to lead to a sharp increase in early child marriage. In many countries, when crisis hits, early child marriage increases exponentially.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Human Rights; Gender

View All Publications