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Risks of exploitation increase as conditions deteriorate for Syrian refugees

a photo of a refugee camp in Iraq

The tragedy unfolding in Syria could result in the displacement of three million more refugees (including thousands of al Qaeda-linked militants) into Turkey and Europe.

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has brutalized the people of Syria for the last decade with unlawful and indiscriminate attacks on civilians while the international community has been incapable of effectively stopping the tragic genocide and migration. Those who haven’t been killed or displaced have joined rebel forces for a cause that’s nearly lost. For many of the rebels whose families are gone, and homes are destroyed – fighting is all they have left.

Geir Pedersen, under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations special envoy in Syria, claims there’s no military solution for the clashes between Syrian and Turkish forces in Idlib. Pedersen has implored the UN Security Council members for a ceasefire to stop the mounting human tragedy. The diplomatic levers of the UN Security Council have failed in Syria because of competing national interests. Russian-backed forces of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime will ensure the rebels are driven out of Idlib — the last rebel holdout.

Survivors of the conflict could join 11 million other Syrians (according to the 2019 UNHCR report). The vulnerability of these refugees is profound. Exploitive organizations are poised to take advantage of the most severely disenfranchised of these people.

Recent insights on Syrian refugees reveal unique vulnerabilities — most notably, exploitation by terrorist or other violent extremist organizations (VEOs) who can easily exploit, recruit and mobilize downtrodden people whose countries seem indifferent to their exodus and when the international community seems incapable of helping. Most Syrian refugee camps in the Middle East are exclusively managed by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and host-nation access for security or census purposes is commonly restricted. Recently on assignment in Beirut, I heard from Lebanese officials about incidents of terrorism in at least one of Lebanon’s Syrian refugee settlements. Additionally, representatives of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed concerns that terrorists are leveraging the refugee settlements to recruit and train.

In the last decade, the UN has taken the most prominent role in easing tensions and human suffering in the Middle East. But, unfortunately, the UN Security Council is often limited by the consent of oppressive governments or vulnerable to superpower veto. The Security Council is most effective when no major state is blocking its ability to function.

In the face of Syria’s ensuing chaos, the international community has an opportunity to reinvent collective efforts for addressing humanitarian tragedies that result in massive displacements of people.

Working towards effective policy levers now will contribute to future needs. Human migration is increasing globally. From historic numbers of refugees exiting countries riddled with war and violence, to migrants leaving economically stagnant or corrupt governments, to the extinction rebellion born of climate change — people are protesting for change, migrating or fleeing for safety.

Every displaced group of people forms a unique community with varying levels of the following six domains: Infrastructure reliability, medical care, education or youth programs, governance, employment or economic opportunity, and rehabilitation or other community programs.

Better understanding the community composition could predict outcomes such as susceptibility to radicalization or gang association. But with little analysis available on displaced communities, it’s nearly impossible to effectively direct aid and resources.

While the focus has typically been on diplomacy among international leaders, the core of the problem is seemingly out of alignment with the focus of many government leaders. But there are organizations besides the UN that are arguably better positioned to partner in these efforts. NATO members could all benefit from keeping the threat of terrorism out of vulnerable refugee populations. A policy solution that places less reliance on diplomatic levers (such as the UN) or military intervention, and more reliance on alternative coalitions – such as among academics, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government institutions – might offer better-targeted approaches.  

Now is the time to reinvent our approach to human migration before it’s beyond the international community’s ability to mitigate. Conditions for displaced people will continue to deteriorate, increasing their risk of exploitation, until we can adequately identify key vulnerabilities and employ effective countermeasures.  

Marcella Huber, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, recently served as a subject matter expert of national security and refugee populations at the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime / Terrorism Prevention Branch workshop in Beirut. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Tags al Qaeda Bashar al-Assad European migrant crisis Forced migration refugee camp Refugees of the Syrian Civil War Right of asylum Syria Syrian refugee camps Turkey United Nations

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