The Syrian refugee crisis calls for a new Marshall plan
As world leaders meet in London to confront the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war, perhaps the answer we need – and the bold plan we want – can be found 70 years in the past. For only an initiative as ambitious as the postwar Marshall plan can address the chaos of 12 million Syrians displaced from their homes.
The need to think in large scale is undeniable. Yesterday, the King of Jordan mourned that his country was at a “boiling point” – unable to offer refugees jobs, or even schooling for their children. And Care International reported that, in desperation, up to half of the 1 million refugees who have already fled from Syria to Jordan were considering a second exodus – to Europe.
A tectonic shift in migration patterns is already under way. Until the summer of 2015, men accounted for three out of every four who risked the perilous sea crossing into Europe. But according to new figures from Unicef, women and children today account for the majority of all refugees arriving in Greece.
The exodus through the eastern Mediterranean and western Balkans into Europe now includes entire families who have lost hope that they can ever make their future in their home region. For them the risks of a dangerous voyage to Europe are preferable to their fate holed up in camps, hovels and shacks in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.
In many refugee communities, child marriage rates have doubled as parents decide their girls are safer married off than on the streets. Europol estimates that already 10,000 children have gone missing, victims of this century’s most common form of slavery: trafficking.
And child labour is rising. A recent Save the Children report found that 47% of refugee households in Jordan rely, at least in part, on putting boys and girls to work to make ends meet. Even after up to five years of exile, the majority of refugee boys and girls are still out of school. And all this amid the endemic hunger, biting poverty and untreated disease that afflict the mass of displaced persons.
It is not just because this is the biggest humanitarian disaster since 1945 that we need a bold plan: it is because people everywhere have lost confidence in our capacity to deliver any solutions.
Confronted with this, history offers us a compelling analogue. Out of the ashes of postwar Europe, amid mass migration and destruction, came the Marshall plan, a model for enlightened self-interest. Two per cent of the resources of the world’s richest country were mobilised for the benefit of Europe’s poorest in an unprecedented outpouring of humanitarian generosity funding reconstruction.
To encourage peace, to make sure children are safe and not fodder for extremists, to slow the flow of refugees to Europe, and to prevent the emergence of a permanently scarred lost generation of young people, we must offer a grand vision equal to the challenge.
First, any plan must ensure Europe finally does what our values command: treat humanely those refugees who are now here, with a planned and orderly resettlement across the continent. Second, while we reach for that elusive peace, we must guarantee the regular flow of food, shelter and healthcare for those cut off at the centre of the conflict. And third, despite the panic surrounding levels of migration into Europe, 14 in every 15 of Syria’s displaced persons are still in the region.
If we fail to rise to the challenge of providing for families close to their homes, countless more will soon take the long-term decision to start a new life in a different continent. But if we want families to stay in the region, we must give them a reason to hold on, and we must recognise that families need more than food and shelter: the children need education and the adults jobs.
Fortunately, a breakthrough in an otherwise troubled Lebanon has shown the way forward and should be the inspiration for a Middle East plan. Under what is called the double shift system 200,000 Syrian children are being educated every afternoon and evening in the very same classrooms that local Lebanese children occupy in the morning. The success of the Lebanese experiment proves it is possible to offer education to 1 million additional refugee children in 2016 – and to every one of them in 2017. If we can raise the £6bn at today’s London conference, I believe we can reach agreement at the World Humanitarian Summit in May on a long-term global humanitarian fund to offer schooling in every emergency.
Universal schooling is but the first step towards a comprehensive plan for the region. Economic zones should be created in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey as part of a job-creation initiative that will help both refugees and locals. Oil revenues should fund a major cross-region infrastructure programme along the lines proposed by an Arab consortium led by Majid Jafir of Crescent Oil. A welter of smaller-scale initiatives should be brought together and expanded under the umbrella of a new, locally financed Middle East Development Bank – as proposed by the former prime minister of Qatar – and charged with the reconstruction of the region.
Today 47% of the region’s 18- to 25-year-olds are unemployed or underemployed. This reality must yield to a new one. The burgeoning youth population of the Middle East and North Africa, 200 million in all, should have what is in shortest supply: hope. Either we mobilise our power and resources in the cause of opportunity in the region, or there will be mounting chaos there and at Europe’s points of entry as refugees clamber over walls, and sadly each other, in search of a future.
We know the face of failure. From South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Afghan-Pakistani border, pinprick policy solutions have led to ever-lengthening conflicts and aborted attempts at reconstruction. But in enacting the postwar Marshall plan, and more recently in fighting the global recession, delivering African debt relief and addressing climate change, the world has shown itself capable of uniting in great, transformative acts of statesmanship. These achievements prove that compassion and competence need not be at odds. We now urgently need an injection of both.