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Candid Discussions: Jan Egeland on the Plight of Syrian Refugees

Jan Egeland

Jan Egeland is the Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Oslo, Norway. Before joining the NRC, Mr. Egeland was European Director for Human Rights Watch and also served as Executive Director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (2007– 10). As U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Egeland initiated major reforms of the global humanitarian response system and coordinated the international response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami and other crises from Darfur to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon. From 1999 to 2002, he was the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for Colombia.

In his post as State Secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Egeland co-initiated and co-organized the Oslo agreement between Israel and PLO and Norwegian peace diplomacy from Guatemala to Sri Lanka and Sudan. He recently sat down with Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss the plight of Syrian refugees, which has been reflected in a newly released report jointly produced by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).


How many Syrian refugees have been relocated to the EU, U.S. and Canada?

As of November 2014 less than two percent of the registered refugee population has been able to secure resettlement places, which is infinitesimal. It gets even worse when you see that two percent out of 3 million is only 60,000. But many of those Western countries that have agreed to give space have hardly let anybody inside their country. The actual number of refugees that have been resettled under this scheme is 166. Many of the biggest countries have taken only a handful of them. So when you look at the real numbers, we are talking about much less than one percent of refugees that have left the region and that’s why we launched this report called “No Escape,” the purpose of which was to show the gloomy and brutal reality that Syrian refugees are facing on a daily basis.

The situation of refugees is even worse inside Syria. As an aid organization we are getting inadequate assistance into the country. Those who now flee Syria are increasingly faced with closed borders. We have been warned for years that if the Europeans, the North Americans, Asian as well as other Arab countries continue to receive virtually no refugees, the countries neighboring Syria (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) will in the end close their borders, because there is a limit and that was the argument when in October Jordan said “that’s enough, we are a tiny country with more than a million refugee and we’re closing our border.”

In the report you point out that the capacity of the host-communities have been stretched to the limit and argued for better international burden-sharing: “We are witnessing a total collapse of international solidarity with millions of Syrian civilians.” I think a key question here is what makes Western countries so reluctant to take in Syrian refugees? What are the factors that influence their decision-making?

Well, certainly there are a number of factors. There is a lack of compassion on the part of Western countries with those Syrian refugees that are standing on the edge of the abyss. There is not a common feeling of identity in part because in the West we are mistakenly seeing this situation as bad guys against bad guys, not as it correctly should be portrayed bad guys against very good civilians.

We need to stand with compassion with the good civilians. Also, it has not really sunk in for us that we have no alternative to helping them. Assisting the refugees is in conformity with our ideals and legal obligations; there are conventions for refugees and the right to seek asylum.

We as Europeans as well as others took it for granted that during the Second World War we were able to flee and now we can’t see the same for Syrian refugees. it’s also in conformity with our interests if we are not willing to stand together with a generation of young refugees that have been internally displaced, it will come back to haunt us forever. These people will not go away; they will flee across the Mediterranean in increasing numbers; they may recourse to extremism if they have no hope; we need to give them hope. We need to get more help inside Syria and into the neighboring countries so that they can sustain this burden and we need to bring more of them into our countries. This is in our interests and in line with our ideals.

So could the reluctance of many Western countries to take in Syrian refugees have to do with prejudice against Muslim immigrants and refugees in general?

Yes, for some the growing religious and cultural prejudices are a real factor, for others it is the general growth of xenophobic attitudes in an age that is cold to refugees.

Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have generously received more than three million Syrian refugees. How many more Syrian refugees can these countries take and what type of support are they receiving from the international community?

Well, they can’t get more. They argue that they have received enough. The emergency appeals for those internally displaced in Syria are half funded; they need to be fully funded. Also, there is a need for a big Marshall Plan for each of the neighboring countries particularly for Lebanon and Jordan that have received so many refugees, have enormous needs, and are small.

Developmental investment in parallel to refugee relief can help them open their borders. What we recommend in the Report, which is jointly published with the IRC, is that the world should sit down with neighboring countries and ask them the following questions: What does it take for you to have open borders as proscribed by international law? How many refugees can you take, what is the minimum we can do for you? and what types of groups should be taken first? The disabled, the sick, families with children, and what are the minimum of your needs that you must have to keep your economy afloat and therefore to be able to receive more? These are serious questions that need to be contemplated and discussed with the host neighboring countries.

So these discussions have not taken place yet?

No, not in the way that I described above. There have been some conferences in this regard with less than satisfactory results. There are many announcements of pledges, but no one has sat down and said “this is the biggest generational challenge we have and we need to meet together what we can do to help neighbors of Syria?” So this conversation has not happened in this way.

I assume you don’t want to get into a discussion on geopolitics and geopolitical rivalries, but do you think it would help to establish a no-fly zone or a safe zone inside the Syrian territory with the support of allied forces fighting ISIS? So by keeping Syrian refugees inside their country the burden on neighboring countries could be significantly mitigated.

I would not exclude any action that would help the Syrian refugees. Desperate times call for desperate measures, but I would warn against such ideas like buffer zones and safe zones as I have seen too many times that the safe areas become everything but safe for the people who go into them in kind of crossfire situations. Let’s remember that Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia was declared a safe zone until everybody was massacred. Often such desperate temporary measures become bad permanent solutions. It’s a much better alternative to work towards making local and national ceasefires; in the absence of such ceasefires we can work toward getting assistance coming into the country and keeping the borders open. That would be a better solution.

As we all know, Canada has an international reputation for having open arms to refugees. Why do you think Canada has remained so reluctant to accept Syrian refugees?

There has been this race to the bottom now. My own country, Norway, repeatedly tell the public that Norway is the least bad country, which is taking a thousand refugees; and we are a country of five million inhabitants so a thousand is much better than other countries. So in a way we are competing to be the least bad instead of competing to meet the needs of a desperate people.

We have become oriented toward looking at what the problems of Canada and Norway are rather than looking at the problem in Syria and how Syrian refugees are suffering. So we shouldn’t be looking at our problems here, rather we should be looking at Syria’s problem. Also, I should point out that in countries like Canada neither the political nor the public mood is good. We need to change that.

This is not our finest hour and this is not when we rose to the challenge. For example, there was a much better response in Bosnia and the Balkans in the 1990’s than today and it was really interesting to see that after the Balkans and Rwanda we really promised that it would never happen again; and it is happening again and with even less compassion.

The report calls for the creation of alternative programs that accommodate many more refugees. What are some of the alternative programs?

What we say in that part of the report is that we need to look at how we can help populations in the host countries to receive more refugees. For example, we have a successful program both in Jordan and Lebanon, where we have physically extended the private homes of thousands and thousands of Lebanese and Jordanian families with two more rooms that are given to host families. We have told them that “this extension is yours provided that you host a Syrian refugee family for minimum of one year.” We’ve come to see that it’s a win-win for both sides. The refugee family gets off the street and even bonds with the local family. We’ve seen that after a year the refugee family often earns enough to pay rent to the host family. We have to think creatively to see how we can integrate such large populations of refugees who will not be able to return to their homes for quite some time.

Are there any specific measures that you are planning to take at the NRC and the IRC that could lead to the adoption and settlement of more Syrian refugees to safe countries outside the Middle East?

Well, this report has already been covered by more than a thousand media outlets around the world. So the more it is publicized, the better. We have the policy and responsibility to get this reality across to others. We have the responsibility to explain how much is at stake. Since the aftermath of the Second World War, this is the biggest refugee and displacement crisis in a generation and in our time. Therefore, we have to meet this challenge. As an aid organization, we have to get across the message of hope; our job is to save lives. We are putting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to school. The Syrian refugees do not want to become terrorists, soldiers, and militants; they want to become doctors, nurses, engineers, farmers and traders. We can realize this goal, so help us help them. Help them come to our countries, where they want to work, produce, and contribute. We have not been good at conveying the message of hope.