Head to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) website and you will find a distinctive tab dedicated to the ‘Syria emergency’. The numbers are staggering: 5.6 million people have been forced to flee Syria since 2011, while an additional 6.6 million have been internally displaced. Now, click on the ‘Figures at a Glance’ tab and you will see that Syria is the country in the world with the most UNHCR refugees. The scale of the conflict would certainly seem to render an appropriate use of the term ‘emergency’. This is often conflated with the word ‘crisis’, both within the UN and beyond.
Nine years after the war in the country unfolded, are we still right to call the Syrian refugee situation a ‘crisis’ or a ‘humanitarian emergency’? Let’s examine some official definitions. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an emergency is “something dangerous or serious, such as an accident, that happens suddenly or unexpectedly and needs fast action in order to avoid harmful results”. A crisis on the other hand, is roughly defined as “a time of great disagreement, confusion, or suffering” and “an extremely difficult or dangerous point in a situation.” Based on these definitions – and we can look to other sources that would more or less say the same – we can agree that the Syrian refugee situation is still a crisis. Calling it a humanitarian emergency is harder to swallow.
The Syrian refugee situation was a humanitarian emergency at first – particularly in the early years when people had to relocate to safer parts of Syria, while neighbouring countries, especially Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, started welcoming thousands and then millions of people. Managing sudden displacement certainly required fast action by agencies like the UNHCR. But nine years on – and five years after thousands of people migrated to Europe – we are dealing with a very different set of issues. The living conditions in camps, informal tented settlements (ITSs) and other informal accommodation – including garages and shared apartments in major cities – continues to be extremely poor. Such housing units are often unable to withstand extreme weather shocks like storms and floods. It is difficult to find employment that pays a fair wage, both in the countryside and in the main cities. Discrimination based on nationality and gender is strife. Children are often unable to go to school and complete their education. Many of them are sent to the streets to beg. Child marriage is on the rise, increasing gender-based violence and reducing girls’ chances of going to school.
These are developmental failures. We see similar problems in countries where poverty and inequality abound. Yet, here we call them problems of ‘underdevelopment’, not ‘humanitarian emergencies’. These development failures have more to do with host countries’ inability – or lack of interest – to integrate their refugee population and provide them with basic goods and services to lead a dignified life until they can return home. However, they are also concerned with international institutions’ and donors’ responses to these conditions. By treating the problems faced by the Syrian refugee population as a collective ‘humanitarian emergency’ they are latching onto the immediacy of a crisis waiting to be solved, while missing the wider dynamics that feed and compound long-term development failures with lasting implications. Furthermore, this discourse relieves host states of their responsibilities in development, cooperation and their commitments to international human rights.
Words matter. How we choose to talk about the world – and what definitions we employ to describe it – have great implications on how we address the most pressing issues. What do these words imply and what do they conceal? Are they true reflections of what is happening on the ground? The sudden and unexpected components of this crisis have long been assimilated, albeit poorly. It is no longer an ‘emergency’, given the time scale we have been dealing with. The Syrian refugee situation must be described, and therefore treated in a new way. Only when we move away from a ‘humanitarian emergency’ towards a ‘development failure’ discourse can we remove unhelpful narratives that feed the status quo – and strive towards real solutions to a very real set of problems.