Syrians are our neighbors, and our neighbors’ situation is beyond dire. On paper, the EU’s neighborhood policy for neighbors such as Syria, as well as Lebanon and Jordan, is impressive. But in reality the EU is leaving them in the lurch. After five years of war on our doorstep, European governments are demonstrating neither the “neighborship” nor the leadership that this crisis warrants. That includes the Netherlands, which, as the holder of the presidency of the EU, is in a position that demands leadership.
Foresight is the essence of government, and that means planning for the future. You would expect nothing less from your government, especially when it concerns war and making key decisions. Now that the last party of the Dutch coalition — the social democrats — has given its consent to bomb the Islamic State group in Syria and military intervention with F-16s is only a matter of time, you’d think there would be a plan in place. But there isn’t.
Indeed, where is the consolidated plan to push, no matter what, for a political solution in Syria? Where is the plan to offer refugees in neighboring countries structural support, to stand by Greece’s side, or to reach middle ground with Turkey?
Finance for urgent actions
The international community gathers in London today for the Syria donors conference. The main goal is to raise the billions required for emergency aid to those in need — which is everyone. The sheer scarcity of bread in Syrian cities, for example, has driven up its price by 900 percent. What’s more, these billions are a fraction of what we’ve been spending on military interventions. To put things in perspective: the war in Afghanistan had a price tag of $14 million an hour, according to calculations made by the U.S. Congress.
It’s terrific that Minister Lilianne Ploumen of Holland’s Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation has earmarked an additional 45 million euros ($50.2 million) for emergency relief in Syria leading up to the London conference. It’s just a shame that the money won’t be going to local organizations, those that know the territory best and are usually highly effective. Instead, the money will go to United Nations’ organizations, which are expensive and bureaucratic — according to Ploumen’s own Policy and Operations Evaluation Department, the IOB, in a recent evaluation of the country’s humanitarian policy.
So where’s the leadership?
We ask the Netherlands, as holders of the presidency of the EU, to seize this opportunity, first in London and then in subsequent Syria conferences, to come up with a real plan. Not a plan of attack but a plan for the future. Stop plugging a leak — of blood and carnage — with your finger, but fix it properly. Put your diplomatic heart and soul into finding a political solution together with Turkey, Lebanon and Syrian leaders, and put a stop to both the massacre and the exodus.
Ensuring that billions of euros in emergency relief are available is not enough: we need to make sure that local aid workers can do their courageous work properly. Make sure that it doesn’t stop at emergency relief but that people — however cautiously — can start building their future now, in the region, in the Netherlands or in other countries. Take the example of Dutch communities that, apart from a handful of loudmouths, have come up with clever, heartwarming ways of receiving refugees. And give overburdened communities — not national authorities — in countries neighboring Syria the resources to accommodate, educate, feed and keep alive the flow of refugees. Because that’s where it’s happening, not in government buildings.
Learn from the past
What has Europe learned from the past, when we took in migrant workers, stuck them in ghettos and before long took them from a situation full of hope, talent and entrepreneurship to a condition of impoverishment, deprivation and passivity? Not much. The many asylum seeker centers are organized hotbeds of despair. Solidarity and tolerance, the main values enshrined in the European constitution, are all but evaporating.
Most politicians aren’t doing much more than raising their voices to say that the influx has to end. They’re bogged down in populist ranting and raving that isn’t solving anything. If European border controls don’t work, they reason, then bomb at the source and hope that helps. But who should we be bombing in a murky theatre of war, the contours of which no one can spell out?
Demonstrate leadership, in full recognition that war and violence are the prime causes of war and violence, as Aldous Huxley once wrote. Out of respect for our neighbors.
Here are four recommendations for the international community:
1. Failure is not an option in Geneva, since the only way out of the horrific conflict is a diplomatic solution and inclusive peace. All other efforts (including military, humanitarian and development) will be worthless as long as the conflict has not been settled and a roadmap for peace in Syria has not been sketched.
2. As long as peace is not a reality, the international community should make sure to fill the humanitarian appeal for Syria. It is unacceptable that the world is not able to adequately help the Syrian IDPs and refugees in neighboring countries. The donor conference should make sure countries live up to their financial pledges. Past donor conferences have shown that it is relatively easy to promise money, but apparently much more difficult to pay it. This should now change.
3. Although the functioning of the humanitarian system will be intensively discussed during the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, the London donor conference can already make a good start by addressing the main inefficiencies and inadequacies in the system. An honest discussion should take place.
4. The EU should get their act together and finally agree on a harmonized refugee policy. This should be the top priority of the Dutch EU presidency. Bilateral, ill-advised policies — such as the way the Danish government is making refugees pay for their stay — are not fruitful at all.
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