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Brussels Conference on Syria: four issues donors must prioritise next week

Written by Susan Nicolai, Maria Stavropoulou, Kerrie Holloway, Sarah Adamczyk


The conflict in Syria has generated the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 6.2 million people internally displaced and over 5.6 million refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

The ‘Supporting the future of Syria and the region’ pledging conference in Brussels on 12–14 March comes at a critical time. As the crisis enters its ninth year, up to 250,000 refugees could return to Syria, with the government now having reclaimed the vast majority of the country's territory.

At least $5.5 billion will be required to support the response. Donors should prioritise education, the rights of women and girls, work opportunities and reconstruction.

Frequently asked questions

Susan Nicolai: ensure better access to quality education

The Syria crisis has had a disastrous impact on the lives of the country’s children and their future. Over a third of Syrian children and young people are outside of formal and non-formal education across the region.

Within Syria, a staggering 5.8 million, from pre-school to secondary age, need education assistance. One in three 13-year-olds can’t read a 60-word story and nearly half are unable to solve a basic subtraction problem.

The number of children out of school for more than five years is continuing to rise, with child labour a significant factor and girls staying at home for fear of being kidnapped or suffering sexual assault. For Syria, as for many crisis-affected countries, achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on quality education is effectively out of reach.

In 2018, an estimated $1.1 billion was needed for education programming in Syria and host countries, but by September just $460 million had been secured, under half of what’s required.

To address the dire needs in the education sector, donors should:

  • Move towards longer-term investments in Syria’s education system. Efforts such as the No Lost Generation Initiative and a planned multi-year resilience programme by Education Cannot Wait, a global fund ODI helped establish, should align with the Transitional Education Plan being developed by the Ministry of Education to support medium-term priorities within a longer-term vision towards SDG4.
  • Deepen collaboration between education, social protection and livelihoods actors. The breadth of issues facing children and their families highlights the importance of integrated approaches. Our research on cash assistance to refugees in Jordan has shown its potential to support education outcomes for Syrian children, with most parents surveyed reporting that their children’s academic performance had improved.
  • Scale up efforts to assist children missing out on schooling. Multiple flexible learning pathways are needed, including provision for recognition, accreditation and certification. Innovative initiatives such as the Whole of Syria Self Learning Programme show promise, especially in besieged and hard-to-reach areas.

Frequently asked questions

Maria Stavropoulou: support and promote the rights of Syrian women and girls

Women and girls account for nearly half of displaced Syrians. Protracted displacement and hardship erode their resilience, and interacting gender inequalities increase their vulnerability to practices that undermine their rights and well-being.

The data is truly alarming: 79% of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon are unable to meet their basic needs, and 63% identify sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) as a problem. Child marriage occurs in 45% of communities in Syria, while in Jordan (pdf) most Syrian refugee women marry before their 18th birthday and three-quarters have experienced sexual harassment at work.

Fears for their safety and norms around family honour confine many women and girls to their homes. In ODI research with Syrian refugee women and adolescent girls, 51% in Jordan said they were prohibited from leaving home alone. In Lebanon we found high levels of stress due to displacement, poverty, household tensions and isolation; one 23-year-old confided that ‘I feel tired of life’.

There has been progress in gender-responsive programming and promising practices have been identified, including cash assistance. But just 5% of humanitarian aid from OECD-DAC members in Lebanon, 6.5% in Jordan and 11.8% in Syria had women’s empowerment as a primary objective. In Syria, for example, 59% of communities report needing centres for women and girls.

Ahead of the Brussels conference and International Women’s Day on 8 March, we urge donors and governments to honour their stated commitments by:

  • Explicitly acknowledging the rights and needs of Syrian women and girls and providing sufficient and sustainable funding to support and empower them.
  • Earmarking funds for gender mainstreaming in all humanitarian sectors and regularly monitoring and publishing data for transparency and accountability.
  • Enhancing Syrian women and girls’ resilience through investing in safe spaces where they can meet, socialise and access information, training and psychosocial support; programming to tackle SGBV, including work with men and boys; and promoting the meaningful engagement of women and girls in actions and processes that shape their lives and futures.

Frequently asked questions

Kerrie Holloway: push for work opportunities in host countries

Access to employment is a key challenge facing Syrian refugees in neighbouring states. In Jordan, the government has introduced a work permit scheme, but this only allows legal employment in selected sectors. Syrians in Turkey have access to a similar scheme, though it is harder to navigate than the one in Jordan.

In Lebanon displaced Syrians are restricted to three sectors – agriculture, construction and cleaning – and require a Lebanese sponsor, usually their employer, whom they must pay to obtain a residency permit. In 2013, more than 90% of Syrians in Lebanon worked without employment contracts, and more than half worked on a seasonal, weekly or even daily basis. Less than 1% of working-age Syrians have work permits.

Allowing refugees to work is not just about earning a wage: it is also a vital component of their sense of dignity. ODI research with Syrians in Lebanon shows how dignity is linked to rights, respect and independence – all of which are linked in turn to the ability to work.

In their view, receiving respect from neighbours and achieving economic independence required the right to work. Without these rights, Syrians are limited to informal labour and vulnerable to harassment, exploitation and abuse, working long hours for low (or no) wages.

As one Syrian man in Tripoli put it: ‘The economic situation is also extremely important for dignity. I hate asking my friends and family for support. It has a negative impact on my dignity. I always privilege work above anything else to protect my dignity’.

Donors should prioritise work opportunities in host countries, allocating resources to incentivise governments to create work permit schemes like Jordan’s. They should advocate with them to give refugees the right to work beyond the occupations currently available to them.

Frequently asked questions

Sarah Adamczyk: press for housing, land and property rights for displaced Syrians

Reconstruction in Syria has been conspicuously absent from the agenda of previous years’ Brussels conferences. The official position of Western donors, as reiterated during the 2018 conference, stresses that reconstruction must be conditional on a political solution to the conflict and consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

As the Syrian government has regained territory from its opponents, prospects for a UN-led political resolution are increasingly uncertain. Against this backdrop, the refusal of Western governments to discuss reconstruction is no longer tenable, particularly as humanitarian organisations are already undertaking stabilisation and rehabilitation projects that look very much like reconstruction.

The Syrian government has certainly not been waiting for a political resolution and is already undertaking reconstruction in ways that may reward loyalists and penalise opponents. The clearest example of this, though by no means the only one, is Law No. 10, introduced last April, which could legitimise and enable the large-scale expropriation of property of displaced Syrians.

While this year’s conference has prioritised political support to the UN-led peace process, broader discussions regarding housing, land and property (HLP) rights for displaced Syrians must be higher on the agenda.

The lack of adequate housing in Syria has been cited as one of the main barriers to refugee returns. According to the World Bank, housing has been the worst-hit sector, with more than a quarter of the country’s housing stock damaged and estimates of reconstruction costs ranging anywhere from $250 billion to $400 billion.

Failing to prepare for reconstruction needs and principled approaches to HLP at this stage allows the Assad government to change facts on the ground in ways which could hinder refugee return, exacerbate historical land grievances which contributed to the conflict in the first place and undermine the fairness and effectiveness of property restitution and dispute mechanisms.