Refugee Crisis Reveals Critical Gaps in Support for Millions Fleeing Conflict

“As the world faces the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War, the refugee crisis demands a new level of response from our institutions,” says Professor Safwan Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University and Director of Columbia Global Centers | Amman

December 15, 2016

Columbia Global Centers’ Refugee Symposium Addresses Challenges and Viable Solutions from NGOs, Governments, Universities, and Press


NEW YORK – December 15, 2016 – “As the world faces the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War, the refugee crisis demands a new level of response from our institutions,” says Professor Safwan Masri, Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University and Director of Columbia Global Centers | Amman. More than 4.8 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. “The sheer scope of the crisis and the stress it puts on host communities means we must engage with refugees and all other stakeholders in a much different way.”

To explore the unprecedented challenges created by the current crisis, the Columbia Global Centers in Amman, Jordan, and Istanbul, Turkey, organized a symposium on the topic “Strengthening Refugee Access, Equity and Inclusion: Developing a New Framework” this fall at the Columbia campus in New York City. Part of Columbia’s network of eight Global Centers in cities worldwide, the Amman and Istanbul Centers hosted Columbia faculty studying the refugee issue as well as scholars and experts working on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, including representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Labour Organization (ILO) Jordan, the World Bank, and research centers in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and the United Kingdom. 


Key Challenges around Current Refugee Crisis

With hundreds of Columbia students and faculty attending along with a global audience of about 1,000 people in over 40 countries viewing the event online, the symposium addressed a number of challenges around the crisis, including:


  • Need to think past immediate relief: “The Syrian crisis has led to a re-examination of the humanitarian aid structure and relief models. Previous models do not sufficiently fit the needs of the MENA region and the transformative nature of the moment in which we are living,” said symposium panelist Shaden Khallaf, Senior Policy Advisor in UNHCR MENA.  Joanna de Berry from the World Bank explained that “one of the big policy shifts that is happening at the moment is the recognition that displacement needs to be addressed not just through a humanitarian response, but through a development response. This is the recognition that, while humanitarian responses have a critical role, as time goes on the emphasis needs to shift toward self-reliance and the ability for refugees to secure access to sustainable livelihoods.”


  • Unprecedented stress on neighboring countries accepting refugees: As Syria’s years-long civil war continues to displace millions of its citizens, the migration has placed enormous strain on bordering nations, which are some of the poorest in the region. Jordan, with a population of only 9.5 million, has had 1.3 million refugees enter the country, and nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s current population are refugees. Nearly three million Syrians have registered as refugees in Turkey. And given the protracted nature of the conflict and no clear political solution that would end the violence, most refugees are unlikely to go back home to Syria.


  • Limits of international legal framework: Most countries assist refugees either through territorial admission or “third-state remedies.” Even though there are certain conventions for refugees, state sovereignty for the right to exclude refugees remains incredibly robust. Yet neighboring countries, especially in the “global south,” often have no say in whether they are to host refugees, and are not able to turn refugees away, despite having no legal obligation to host them. At the same time, states that are geographically separated from conflict have little incentive to become involved, legally or otherwise. The lack of international law regarding third-state assistance is weak. Symposium panelist Tendayi Achiume, Assistant Professor of Law at University of California, Los Angeles, explained that “there is no analogous, conventionally accepted legal obligation on third states to assist states that have refugees on their territory. This means is that there’s no obligation within international law that is widely accepted for any country to assist with those refugees.” She added that despite the absence of legally binding obligations, international law nonetheless provides some foundation for international refugee responsibility sharing, but a thin one: “There are principles that would permit refugee responsibility sharing but they have a very different valance relative to legally-binding obligations within international law and this has all sorts of implications when you take into account the geopolitical realities of where it is that refugees are.”


  • Insufficient awareness of what support refugees truly need: Symposium panelist Yezid Sayigh, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center, Lebanon, explained: “We need to focus far more systematically on the refugees themselves and how they see things. What kind of survival strategies are they adopting in a particular setting, whether it’s a camp or a city to which they have moved? What choices do they make based on different incentives – such as access to cash or food or jobs or education – that are offered to them? A lot of data isn’t shared among organizations trying to help, or isn’t even there. We aren’t necessarily asking refugees these questions.”


  • Misconception of where refugees are and the support they receive: Only 1 in 10 Syrian refugees live in refugee camps, with limited support available to the vast majority of refugees. “We need to think about refugees in the informal communities rather than just in the encampments,” said Masri. “These refugees are seeking employment in rural areas and in urban areas, and trying to set up lives for their families inside the countries themselves, and likely do not have access to the already limited resources offered in camps.”


How Can Institutions Respond Better to the Crisis?

To address some of these and other challenges, panelists discussed potential solutions:

  • Match research with actual needs: “The role of academia is critical,” emphasized UNHCR’s Khallaf. “So far we’ve found that research and programmatic needs do not necessarily meet; they are often on two parallel tracks. University researchers need to re-examine which areas of focus will have an actual impact on responses to the refugee crisis, and be better prepared to address future crises.” Columbia is attempting to address this need with several research initiatives, including ASPIRE (Advancing Solutions in Policy, Implementation, Research, and Engagement for Refugees), a study conducted by a multidisciplinary consortium of professional schools at Columbia University. This epidemiologic study focuses on examining refugee women health needs in Jordan, and assessing an agency (JHASi) that is providing services to them.  


  • Opening up education opportunities in universities: Only 1% of youth in the refugee population have access to university education, compared with 34% of youth globally, which leads to severe gaps in earning and employment potential for an entire generation of refugees. “We want to address this loss of economic potential by improving education and career opportunities, and demonstrate the economic potential of refugees,” said Jad Najjar, a Lebanese MBA student at Columbia Business School who is working on the Columbia Refugee Scholarship Project along with Columbia undergraduate Nadine Fattaleh. The Project, led by Bruce Usher, is working with the Columbia Global Centers to reach out to potential students from refugee backgrounds in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to fully sponsor them to attend Columbia.


  • Harnessing journalism teams around refugee issues:Panelist Sarah Stillman, a staff writer at The New Yorker, director of the Global Migration Program at Columbia Journalism School, and 2016 MacArthur Fellow, addressed coverage of the crisis: “The story of the refugee crisis is the story of warring narratives – many of them constructed by the press. We’ve seen stories of refugees as valuable contributors in the midst of labor shortages, and also seen stories of them as vectors of disease or economic distress or terrorism. And even a lot of the reporting that strives to be empathic still envisions refugees as one monolithic group, stripped of agency.” Through the Global Migration Program in Columbia’s Journalism School, Stillman said, “we want to foreground underreported issues, such as gender issues, that have been left out of mainstream reporting on the crisis. Our work allows us to put teams of people on investigating refugee issues, and take our time in reporting the complications and nuances of the crisis.”


  • Enhancing the role of the private sector: The number of people returning home after displacement is at an all-time low, requiring the support of the private sector, which can provide employment. Michael Doyle, University Professor and Director of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative, explained the value of private sponsorship of resettlement and efforts at refugee and job-matching, such as asking the refugees where they would like to go as well as asking communities what skill shortages they might have. While government integration is necessary and policy must step up, he argued, the private sector can ease much of the social stigma: “The private sector cannot do it on its own, but we make a mistake if we do not realize how much the private sector can do in this direction.”


  • Decentralizing the refugee response: Instead of the traditional focus on nation states, more focus is required on supporting local governments, which bear the brunt of supporting refugees. Panelist Achiume affirmed that “global law and policy initiatives require deeper engagement with municipal authorities, especially cities that are on the front lines of refugee integration and combatting xenophobia.”


  • Creating win-win development in host nations: “One of the shifts we need is moving the focus from relief delivery, such as giving out cash vouchers, to thinking about ongoing institutions such as schools and infrastructure,” said Sayigh. “For example, electricity generation in Lebanon is a huge problem for the existing local population. NGOs and governments need to figure out a way for municipalities to generate their own power, which can help communities solve some of their own problems. Funding that is going to help support refugees can thus be used as well to help local communities on a longer term basis.”

As the symposium covered a broad range of refugee issues and institutional responses, it was clear that collaboration was a key take-away from the event. “Ultimately, one of Columbia’s key roles as a global university is to bring together different backgrounds, expertise and perspectives, and marshal them into tackling some of the world’s toughest issues,” said Masri. “By creating a forum where ideas can flow in a multidisciplinary way, we can take on the complexities of the refugee crisis and the challenges of creating sustainable solutions that go beyond the needs of immediate relief.”

For more information about the Columbia Global Centers, or to speak with Professor Masri, please contact Davia Temin or Suzanne Oaks Brownstein of Temin and Company at +1-212-588-8788 or


About Columbia Global Centers

The Columbia Global Centers advance global knowledge and dialogue, connecting the people and resources of Columbia University with experts and local audiences around the world. Located in eight cultural and geopolitical crossroads across the world – Amman, Jordan; Beijing, China; Istanbul, Turkey; Mumbai, India; Nairobi, Kenya; Paris, France; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Santiago, Chile – the Global Centers are a springboard for Columbia’s faculty, students, and alumni to collaboratively engage with local and regional partners. Through cross-cultural and multidisciplinary research and programming with regional scholars and for a variety of audiences, the Centers explore solutions to today’s greatest global challenges. To learn more about the Columbia Global Centers, please visit


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