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Talk of Refugee Returns, Reconstruction at Brussels Meeting on Syria

Discussions at this year’s U.N.-sponsored donor conference for Syria failed to meet the already low expectations in terms of supporting the future of the country, writes OXFAM’s Syria policy adviser Alexandra Saieh.

Written by Alexandra Saieh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Belgium syria conference demo
Activists from the Syrian Campaign hold protests in Brussels during a conference on Syria on April 5, 2017.

BRUSSELS – This year’s United Nations-sponsored conference aimed at supporting the future of Syria opened to news of another horrifying suspected chemical attack and images of children choking for air in Idlib. The news shone a spotlight on the international donors meeting in Brussels but was divorced from the reality on the ground. The conference ended on Wednesday with a $6 billion pledge to support Syria, but shifting donor priorities signal that it will have a limited impact on those who need it most.

Despite Oxfam strongly advocating for the inclusion of Syrian organizations and civil society representatives – even giving up a seat at the table in favor of this – the people most affected by the conflict were not given the space they deserve to state their needs and goals. It is unfathomable that their voices were not at the center of discussions when it is they who deliver the bulk of the aid to Syria and whose workers risk their lives to help communities.

On Tuesday, only 10 Syrians were present in the room as European and other Western governments and Gulf states discussed humanitarian priorities inside Syria. One Syrian doctor stood up and, shaking with grief, told participants about a friend who had been killed in the alleged chemical attack in Idlib that morning. No Syrians were present the following day at the ministerial plenary, where world powers met with countries neighboring Syria.

This was all the more disappointing because the E.U.’s new Syria strategy claims to recognize the importance of an increasingly threatened Syrian civil society for the country’s future. However, the E.U.’s member states failed to translate this policy into reality in Brussels.

Even in terms of substance, this year’s conference fell short. The necessary funds to meet the basic needs of those affected by the crisis inside Syria and refugees in the region have barely been mobilized.

Last year’s London conference represented a breakthrough – with many rich countries pledging multiyear funding commitments to ensure refugees have access to education, food and decent work opportunities.

Countries such as Jordan and Lebanon took important steps to make legal work opportunities more accessible to millions of refugees and to facilitate the process for obtaining residency permits until they can safely return home. Last year, discussions focused on supporting refugees to live safely in the countries hosting them or resettling them in rich countries abroad. But this year we heard for the first time talk of returning people to Syria, a dangerous shift that could put millions of people at risk.

Finally, discussions around the reconstruction of Syria have been shown to be painfully premature. There’s no doubt that, after years of deadly clashes and heavy bombardment that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed hospitals and schools, Syria will need massive support for reconstruction. However, in the absence of a political solution that ensures those in control have respect for human rights and allows for the existence of an independent civil society that can hold the state to account, a move by the international community toward reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good.

Many refugees in Jordan and Lebanon I’ve met over the years have told me they want to go back to their homes in Syria, but, even with reconstruction, that won’t happen if the current status quo continues. For future international meetings on Syria to be meaningful, world leaders must ensure that members of Syrian civil society are at the table, that actions are taken to hold to account those responsible for the violence and that an inclusive and meaningful political process is underway.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.

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