Issue 59 - Article 8

The Syrian refugee crisis: findings from a real-time evaluation of UNHCR's response

November 27, 2013
Frances Voon
Three Syrian refugee children explore the new camp at Darashakran in northern Iraq

In the first week of March 2011, a group of schoolboys in the rural Syrian village of Dara’a were imprisoned for graffiti, after spray-painting the walls of a school with a common slogan of the Arab uprisings, ‘The people want to topple the regime’. Joe Sterling, ‘Daraa: The Spark That Lit the Syrian Flame, 1 March 2012,  This event sparked anti-government demonstrations that would soon spread throughout the country. The ensuing conflict between government and rebel forces, which is now in its third year, has forced over two million Syrians to seek refuge abroad, principally in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, and further afield in Egypt. The relentless pace and extraordinary scale of the Syrian crisis has generated unprecedented challenges for the humanitarian community. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, recently noted, UNHCR has been ‘stretched to the limit’. High Commissioner’s Opening Statement to the 64th Session of ExCom, Palais des Nations, Geneva, 1 October 2013,

A real-time evaluation of UNHCR’s Syrian refugee response

In early 2013, the UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Operations, Janet Lim, requested that a real-time evaluation be undertaken of UNHCR’s operations in Jordan, Lebanon and northern Iraq. The purpose of the evaulation was to support UNHCR’s operations in Jordan, Lebanon and northern Iraq in their efforts to respond to the mounting refugee crisis flowing from the Syrian conflict. The review was to be forward-looking and focused on the situation of refugees themselves, identifying those gaps in protection and assistance that needed to be most urgently addressed.

The review was led by the UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, with a team including members from the UNHCR Division of International Protection and Division of Programme Support and Management, and two representatives from NGO consortia, InterAction and the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA). Fieldwork was undertaken in late May and early June 2013, and a brief report was released in July 2013. From Slow Boil to Breaking Point: A Real-time Evaluation of UNHCR’s Response to the Syrian Refugee Emergency. The full report is available at  A particular feature of the review was the mixed UNHCR–NGO evaluation team, which, although not uncommon for regular evaluations, is not typical for a UNHCR real-time review. This configuration not only enhanced the transparency of the exercise, but also provided an opportunity to bring to bear diverse experiences and perspectives. This may provide a model of partnership that could be replicated in future.

In such a complex and rapidly evolving crisis, there have been many developments in the months since the evaluation was undertaken. Nonetheless, the review highlighted a number of key issues that remain relevant, not only for UNHCR but also more broadly. This article briefly discusses some of the main observations that emerged from the evaluation.

A primarily urban refugee emergency

The Syria crisis is remarkable not only for the enormous number of people it has displaced across the region, but also for the fact that the vast majority of those displaced do not reside in camps. While the iconic media images of the Syrian refugee situation typically depict rows of tents in a windswept desert camp, over 75% of Syrian refugees in fact live outside camps, scattered amongst host communities. Although considerable experience has been gained in recent years in assisting refugees living in urban areas, this has largely been in relatively stable refugee settings. As such, the task of responding to refugee emergencies in urban and other non-camp settings poses a range of profound challenges. These relate in particular to the sudden and massive pressures placed on local economies, infrastructure and services in an emergency setting. The scattered nature and potential ‘invisibility’ of out-of-camp refugee populations make the task of ensuring protection and assistance considerably more complex, particularly in an emergency context. In the three countries visited for this review, refugees are spread over wide geographical areas. In Lebanon, for instance, refugees are found in over 1,500 municipalities across the country.

In such dispersed settings, strong and effective mechanisms for registration and outreach are especially important in ensuring that refugees have access to a basic level of protection and services, yet both are significantly more difficult to deliver in this context. The real-time evaluation noted that UNHCR and its partners have made substantial progress in overcoming large registration backlogs and establishing nascent protection and outreach systems. Measures which have contributed to this have included increasing the number of registration sites and staff, establishing mobile registration teams, helpdesks and information hotlines, strengthening referral systems and establishing networks of refugee outreach workers. A priority should now be to dedicate the resources needed to scale up outreach and mass information activities, ensuring that protection systems extend to all areas where refugees reside.

Challenges in protection and assistance

The protection environment for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and northern Iraq is broadly positive. Borders have been largely kept open, protection space has been preserved and refugees have been allowed access to basic public services. The great generosity of host governments and local communities must be clearly acknowledged. Key protection challenges remain, including social cohesion with local populations, sexual and gender-based violence, low school attendance, labour exploitation and risks to safety and security caused by armed groups. The mechanisms in place to address these must be strengthened and scaled up such that they are accessible to all refugees. In the camps in Jordan and northern Iraq, the evaluation noted that efforts were needed to ensure that international standards are met in relation to education, shelter and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in particular. Measures to ensure a safe environment and to promote community ownership of camp services and infrastructure were also required. Outside camps, shelter, water and sanitation, health and education were most frequently identified as priority issues by refugees. Access to livelihood opportunities was also a major concern, particularly to meet the costs of rent and food, and to avoid falling into a spiral of debt.

In ensuring refugees’ access to services, particularly outside camps, the preferred approach is to avoid the establishment of parallel systems, but instead to strengthen existing infrastructure, which is more sustainable and equitable with respect to the host community. Yet expanding the provision of key services at the scale and speed demanded by the Syria emergency has been no easy task, due both to the sheer scale of additional demand represented by the refugee presence and to existing structural and systemic constraints. For example, in Lebanon, most health services are privatised, making healthcare expensive for locals and refugees alike, and complicating the task of ensuring consistent and equitable access. In Jordan, chronic water scarcity limits the capacity of water and sanitation facilities to meet the dramatically increased needs created by the refugee influx. Such major challenges are clearly beyond the ability of humanitarian actors to address at scale. In the face of such limitations and inevitable resource constraints, existing services have been unable to keep up with the steadily growing demands being placed upon them. This growing pressure on infrastructure and resources poses difficulties in ensuring that international standards for assistance are met and, importantly, has significant implications for both host communities and refugees.

Putting host communities and development actors in the picture

One of the major issues that the Syrian refugee crisis has brought into focus is the importance of ensuring that the needs of host communities are taken into consideration as early as possible. As well as putting significant strain on local infrastructure, the burgeoning refugee influx has increased competition for jobs, depressed wages and pushed up the cost of living. These factors have fuelled tensions between refugees and their hosts, threatening the positive protection environment that has thus far been established in all three countries.

The evaluation called for ‘a visible and tangible demonstration of international solidarity and responsibility sharing’ aimed at mitigating the political and socio-economic pressures created by the refugee situation. It is apparent that the task of responding to the immense demands being placed on host countries by this crisis is well beyond what can be achieved by host governments alone, or through traditional humanitarian responses. As such, the swift and substantial involvement of development actors and the commitment of significant additional financing to stabilise the situation are urgently required.

The notion that development actors and approaches should be engaged at an early stage of an emergency is certainly not new. Nonetheless, the enormity of the strains being placed on host countries and communities by the Syrian refugee situation demands renewed and innovative efforts on this front. The evaluation calls for the forging of a substantial and coherent strategy to address these pressures, suggesting a two-pronged approach. This would involve, first, the initiation by UNHCR of strategic discussions at a high level to catalyse the engagement of governments, donors and development actors, and second, the speedy scaling-up of projects to provide immediate and tangible benefits to refugee-hosting communities.

Since the completion of the real-time evaluation, there have been important developments on this issue. For instance, on 30 September–1 October 2013 UNHCR convened a High Level Segment on Syria at the agency’s most recent Executive Committee Meeting, which included senior ministers of states hosting Syrian refugees and officials from the World Bank, UN development agencies and intergovernmental and non-government organisations. The participants issued a call for greater responsibility-sharing and increased support to host countries and communities.

The way forward

The conflict in Syria has generated an ongoing refugee exodus of enormous scale, pace and complexity. While there have been several important achievements in the refugee response, the constantly shifting demands of the mounting crisis have meant that many actors have been unable to plan ahead under the pressure of immediate needs. The evaluation highlighted the need for contingency planning and preparedness based on an ongoing analysis of the situation in Syria and cross-border dynamics.

Notwithstanding the still evolving circumstances in Syria, the evaluation also emphasised the importance of developing a coherent, longer-term strategy which may orient the refugee response towards a set of common objectives. Such a strategy, which should be developed in consultation with all relevant partners, would also provide a sturdy platform for stronger and more effective coordination of the refugee response. As the evaluation noted, UNHCR was initially stretched by the need to ensure sufficient and open coordination amongst the various partners in the response. While this has substantially improved over time, more needs to be done, including through attitudinal change, strengthened coordination expertise and the development of links with non-traditional actors, such as faith-based organisations.

The humanitarian response to the regional refugee crisis has stepped up significantly in the face of a range of complex, and in many respects unprecedented, challenges. Since the evaluation, recognition has grown of the need for greater international solidarity to address the economic and social impact of the refugee crisis on neighbouring countries. Managing the interface between the humanitarian and development responses and crafting practical cooperation on assisting vulnerable local populations is likely to become a more prominent feature of the coordination landscape from now on. This will undoubtedly add to the range of new and complex issues which must be tackled in responding to the Syrian refugee situation in the months to come.

Frances Voon is Associate Policy and Evaluation Officer, UNHCR.


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