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Due to the protracted conflict in Syria, refugees are turning into a serious challenge for the Mediterranean region with a significant spillover to Europe. Neighboring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, have absorbed the bulk of close to 5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, constituting approximately 86% of all Syrian refugees, compared to 8% hosted by the European Union (EU). The refugee crisis has not only evolved in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in time of economic and political fragility, but it has as well rapidly hit Europe in a state of unpreparedness and economic uncertainty. Municipalities are at the forefront of it all.
In the MENA region, 86% of refugees live in cities which is reasonably higher than the 60% world average. This situation has forced municipalities and local authorities to assume key roles in managing the crisis by providing services and integrating refugees into their communities. The Syrian refugee influx has placed huge demands on municipal services such as waste management and housing. Local governments have had to expand their traditional responsibilities to provide education, employment, aid relief and emergency shelter, health, etc.
“Some of the biggest challenges currently facing municipalities include rent increases or scarcity in housing due to high demand, in addition to unemployment, as there are a lot of unemployed Jordanians and Syrians” said Imad Issa, Coordinator of the Emergency Response and Social Resilience Programme at the Ministry of Municipal Affairs in Jordan. “This puts considerable pressure on municipalities.”
Addressing the needs of municipalities
Host communities from both rims of the Mediterranean have shown extraordinary resilience to the crisis, yet they face similar challenges and voice common concerns. Exchanging challenges and best practices among those municipalities actively involved in managing the refugee crisis will allow them to jointly tailor effective responses; to strengthen their preparedness and adaptation skills; and to ensure the common welfare of refugees and host communities.
In this context, the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI), the World Bank (WB) and the United Nations Human Settlements program (UN-Habitat) held the first peer-to-peer learning workshop for communities hosting refugees, end of May in Amman, Jordan. Seventy representatives of municipalities and local governments from MENA, Turkey and Europe had the opportunity to exchange real case studies and discuss innovative actions in areas such as managing the influx, integrating refugees, preserving social cohesion, among others.
The majority of municipalities acknowledged that they did not have the technical skills, human resources and financial needs to deal with the crisis they were faced with. So they agreed developing resilience approaches and strategies will equip municipalities and citizens with the necessary tools to face future shocks and crisis.
“When the first influx reached Turkey we were helping through humanitarian assistance and we were planning on a short-term basis. After five years passed, we saw that humanitarian assistance is not enough and we are now working on building the capacity of institutions and on social development” said Önder Yalçın, Head of the Migration Office at Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality in Turkey.
Local representatives outlined the urgent need to strengthen the coordination between local and national authorities as well as with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially in sectors such as employment, livelihood, health and education.
The refugee crisis has also caused social tensions so ensuring social cohesion by involving both refugees and host communities in joint activities will contribute to improved relations, coexistence and stability within host municipalities. This will help raise awareness as to the needs and resources of the population, and to insure sustainability of actions.
Discussions also highlighted a need for collecting and assembling specific data and analyses on the municipal reality of the refugee population (population characteristics, skill/education profile, existing infrastructures, land and buildings, etc.) in a more systematic manner, in order to better inform policies and actions.
Municipalities are providing an outstanding global public good by hosting refugees and their continued leadership is crucial for making sure that citizens and refugees have access to quality basic services.
“Municipalities have an important role to play, not only in providing social services to host communities and to refugees but also in building resilience,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, Senior Director for the Fragility, Conflict and Violence Group at the World Bank Group. “The refugee crisis can be an opportunity to build the medium to long-term economic development of the municipalities.”
Last but not least, the private sector has an important role to play in developing long-term solutions, including housing, employment and local economic development provided that it leads to employment generation and investments in infrastructure.
The Center for Mediterranean Integration’s Mediterranean refugees and host communities program will set up a network for host municipalities across MENA and beyond to follow up on the outcomes of the discussions. Networking and coordination instruments will be utilized to allow for regular exchanges and learning, such as technical workshops in priority sectors for municipal practitioners, peer exchanges in host countries and technical field visits. An annual gathering for cross-regional and cross-sectoral sharing of experience will also be planned.