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After eight years of war in Syria, military activity is decreasing in many Syrian regions. Public interest is waning. This diverts attention from the still precarious humanitarian situation. The country has suffered heavy bombing, the infrastructure is destroyed, the public education system has ceased to function in many areas, protection against violence is lacking. Millions of people are internally displaced. Inside Syria, 11.7 million people remain dependent on humanitarian aid.
More than five million registered refugees from Syria continue to live in the neighbouring countries. The willingness of the population and the governments in Lebanon and Jordan to host the refugees is progressively diminishing, the limits of their capacity to cope are becoming clear, and there is fear of a collapse of the social support systems.
In this light, the effects of the Syrian conflict on Switzerland seem small. The number of asylum applications has fallen sharply in the last two years, mainly due to the rigorous closed-door policy pursued by the EU and supported by Switzerland. Asylum applications from Syrians currently make up 9 per cent of all asylum claims. Although it is predictable that people will not be able to return to their homes for a long time, Switzerland prevents them from gaining refugee status and only grants them temporary admission.
Caritas’ help for Syrians displaced by the war
Since the start of the war, Caritas Switzerland has implemented humanitarian projects in Syria and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Jordan amounting to a total of 44 million Swiss francs. In addition to emergency relief and survival assistance, it has implemented educational measures for refugee children, as well as measures to promote income generation and the creation of livelihoods. Since 2012, Caritas has reached a total of approximately 566,000 people with its support measures. Caritas Switzerland is now planning appropriate training projects that will enable those affected to improve their living conditions and to repair their own roof over their heads.
Switzerland’s obligation to do more
Eight years of war in Syria also places an obligation on Switzerland to do more than occasionally fund projects involving humanitarian aid. In order to prevent the social support systems in Lebanon and Jordan from collapsing, Switzerland must make a considerably greater contribution in the form of cash programmes to help relieve the state budgets that are suffering enormous deficits. In addition, a substantial expansion of investments in basic education and vocational training is needed, since the school systems in Lebanon and Jordan are completely overstretched.
In order to improve the situation of Syrian refugees in Switzerland, the government should work actively to create safe escape routes and provide relief to countries such as the Lebanon, which are hosting particularly large numbers of refugees. To this end, the Federal government must greatly increase its commitment to receive resettlement refugees. The 8,000 Syrians who live in Switzerland with temporary admission status should be granted refugee status.
But Switzerland is also called upon to provide long-term and structural aid for Syria. Millions of buildings have to be rebuilt. In terms of the economy, the construction sector will be the most important sector in the next 25 years. This will offer the most likely opportunity to earn an income. There will be a need for hundreds of thousands of young workers in the future who have skills in the building trades. This opportunity must be seized.
Switzerland has great expertise in the construction sector. It has excellent training institutions and tried-and-tested training courses. Caritas calls on Switzerland to make a commitment in this area, with at least 20 million Swiss francs a year. This can be used to pay teaching staff and set up training centres. Switzerland should make a commitment of at least 10 years in this field, and conclude corresponding cooperation agreements. It can be assumed that companies in the construction sector could be won over for such a commitment and would support technical training with personnel and finance.
‘The money is there, Federal Councillor Cassis. Now you can act.’
Caritas Switzerland hopes that Federal Councillor Cassis recognises this opportunity and will do his utmost to promote capacity-building with a Swiss training programme for activities in the field, and to create good economic prospects for the people for decades to come. The money to do so is available. Switzerland’s expenditure for publicly-funded development cooperation has steadily declined in recent years, in the refugee sector by almost 400 million Swiss francs. Caritas calls on Federal Councillor Cassis to claim these unused funds from the Department of Finance and to deploy them in the field in Syria, in Lebanon and in Jordan.