Sunday, February 2, 2014

No Way Out: The Syrian Refugee Crisis and the Regional Host Countries

Just under a year ago, when the number of Syrian refugees had just topped a million people, the conflict had already caused the largest refugee diaspora and humanitarian disaster of the decade. Over the last year, the crisis has grown exponentially, and there are now more than 2.3 million registered refugees according to the UNHCR. There could be as many as three million when unregistered refugees are taken into account. In 2013, more than 1.7 million refugees were registered by the UNHCR, 3.4 times the amount that registered the year before. The UNHCR has thus requested $4.2 billion in additional funding to assist it and more than 100 other agencies as they deliver life-saving aid to refugees both in camps and out, as well as to their host communities.

Refugee camp in Iraqi Kurdistan. Courtesy PressTV.
The UN’s Regional Response Plan (or RRP), now in its sixth revision, focuses on responding to two key areas of aid delivery: essential needs and services, and protection. Essential needs and services range from food security, shelter, health and nutrition, education, water, sanitation and hygiene, and livelihoods. Of particular concern are the 30% of refugee children not vaccinated against measles and polio, leading to the resurgence of polio within Syria, and fears of an outbreak in the region. Additionally, most of if not all of the refugees have experienced trauma of some kind, and psychosocial health care must be provided if they are ever to recover. The UN highlights education as a key concern, amid fears that the Syrian refugee children will become a “Lost Generation” after having witnessed horrific acts and spending years out of the classroom.  Basic access to shelter has been an issue in every host country, and 420,000 refugees in the region live in “tented, non-permanent accommodations,” while 105,000 live in “substandard informal settlements.”

Protection aid covers issues such as Sexual and Gender Based Violence (or SGBV), the protection of children, providing documentation and preventing statelessness, and seeking durable solutions for refugees in temporary accommodations.

Each of the receiving countries in the region that is taking in significant amounts of refugees experiences burdens on their infrastructure in differing ways. While all of the above issue areas are present in every country, they occur with varying degrees of severity, thus offering priority areas on which humanitarian groups can focus their efforts. Every country has also experienced strains between the host communities and the refugee populations, leading the UN to include 2.7 million vulnerable members of host communities in the RRP 6.

This is one of the largest humanitarian disasters since the Rwandan Genocide, which will demand a corresponding amount of energy to resolve. For instance, less than 40 percent of refugee children are currently in school. If the Syrian refugees were a country, they would have the lowest school enrolment rates in the world. Over the next year, over 4 million people in the region, both refugees and host country citizens, will require water assistance. Polio, the measles, and other diseases could return with a vengeance to a region once rid of them. Syria itself has lost an estimated 35 years of human development, and if the refugees are left uncared for, there is no telling what a post-conflict Syria would look like when they begin to return.

The toll of human suffering and regional instability will become insurmountable if the international community does not at minimum step in to fund the relief efforts of the UNHCR and other agencies. Doing so will provide a basic foundation from which to begin rebuilding after the conflict ends. Following the international donors conference in Kuwait on January 15, only $2.4 billion of the $6.5 billion requested by the UN, both for the refugees and for those in need within Syria, was pledged. With only 60% of pledged funds actually delivered last year, it is unlikely at this point that aid agencies will be able to do more than place Band-Aids over the gaping holes in available resources, to the long-term detriment of the region and the international community at large.

The contiguous states of Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have absorbed the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis, although it is worth noting that Egypt is now host to over 130,000 refugees. More than four million refugees are expected to flee Syria by 2015, of which 84% will live outside of camps, presenting further obstacles to aid delivery and exacerbating strains with host communities.

Peshkhabour crossing, where 40,000 crossed in one week.
Already in a state of political turmoil and violent upheaval, Iraq has absorbed approximately 217,000 refugees in the last year and a half since borders were opened in mid-2012. Ninety-five percent of the refugees have settled in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kurdish Regional Government has been very generous and accommodating of the refugees that are currently in the country, but border access is often denied and months long closures are followed by floods of refugees in the tens of thousands. Such a flood occurred in mid-August 2013 when over 40,000 refugees crossed the border in one week.

60 percent of the refugees live in non-camp settings, while 40 percent are within camps, where services are markedly better, but by no means outstanding. Within Domiz, the largest established camp, overcrowding has led to inadequate Water, Sanitation and Hygiene access, and as a result waterborne illnesses such as diarrhea tripled in the last year. Outside of the camps, even in established “transit areas,” there is severe overcrowding and even fewer resources.

The education of Syrian refugee children is in crisis in Iraq. Only 5-10% of children are in school, owing to language barriers, lack of classroom spaces, and the need for children to earn a wage. Planned interventions for 2014 focus on providing classrooms closer to refugee settlements in and out of camps, providing catch up classes for students who have been out of school for one semester or more, and training teachers in Arabic instruction.

Ongoing political instability in Anbar province, where one of the 13 refugee camps and transit areas in Iraq is located, has created confusion between Syrian refugees and those fleeing the fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah. Because of the unstable situation, approximately 20,000 refugees returned to Syria last year, primarily to the Kurdish areas. Others cross the border into Iraq to collect supplies and return to Syria, despite the danger from mines along the Iraqi border. As inhospitable as Syria has become in the course of its three-year civil war, in some areas, it is preferable to the unstable environment in Iraq.

Turkey has been one of the most responsive host countries to the refugee crisis, benefiting from a relatively large population and territory as well as greater resources. More than 570,000 refugees now reside in Turkey, with 36 percent living in camps and 64 percent in urban areas. Up to a million refugees are predicted by the end of 2014, due to increased fighting between rebel groups in northern Syria. Relief projects have shifted focus from camps to urban settings, where many of the newest refugees are settling. Syrians have been given cash grants to start businesses as well as cash assistance on bankcards. Within the camps, school enrolment is at 60 percent, while outside it is just 14 percent, primarily due to language barriers and the need for child labor to sustain families.

Tents with the Turkish government's, not UN's, insignia
Physical security is an overriding concern in border areas, as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and other militant groups have crept closer and closer to the Turkish frontier. The Turkish government has instituted a Temporary Protection regime, whereby Syrian refugees have no limits on their stays and no forced returns. This generous policy could be jeopardized by radical groups encroaching on the border as well as political unrest within Turkey. The government has already spent $2 billion of its own money to support the refugees, and it is unclear how long borders will remain open and residency will be easily obtained.

Lebanon and Jordan have experienced the most acute drain on their infrastructures and capacity to provide aid due to the large proportion of refugees to their native populations. Lebanon, already home to approximately 260,000 Palestinian refugees in a population of over 4.4 million, now hosts 890,000 registered Syrian refugees with 1.5 million projected by 2015. That doesn’t include the 100,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria into Lebanon by 2015, as well as 50,000 Lebanese returnees predicted to reenter the country this year. The UNHCR estimates that 1.5 million Lebanese will need assistance to cope with the influx in 2014. Overall, refugees now make up at least a quarter of the population of Lebanon, with some estimates placing the proportion closer to a third of the population. To put that in perspective, in the United States, that would be as if one hundred million refugees poured over the borders in just three years.

Because the pre-conflict economic links between Syria and Lebanon were so strong, one of the greatest costs to Lebanon has been to its economy: the World Bank estimates that GDP growth rates have decreased by 2.9% every year of the conflict, at a cost to the economy of $7.5 billion by 2015. Also according to the World Bank, $1.4-1.6 billion are needed to simply restore public services to pre-conflict levels, services that were already inadequate to meet the needs of the native population. As a result, UN programs have focused on aiding areas with high numbers of both refugees and poor Lebanese to try to double the effectiveness of programs. Aid agencies attempt to “buy Lebanese” to bolster local economies and offset some of the costs of the conflict.

A shelter made of 'Hunger Games' posters in Lebanon.
The Syrian refugees face uniquely severe challenges in Lebanon than in other contiguous states, primarily challenges of finding shelter and integrating peacefully with local populations. There are no official Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon due to the country’s history with Palestinian refugees, which has led to a housing shortage and high inflation in housing prices, especially in the north. 67% of refugees live in rented accommodations, while 30% live in substandard, informal housing. Finding solutions to the basic issue of access to shelter has been difficult given the government’s unwillingness to establish camps, but the UNHCR recently gained approval for the use of pre-fabricated homes. The homes, designed by Ikea to be broken down and returned to Syria after the conflict, are similar to other pre-fabricated homes used in camps in Jordan. The first officially recognized tented settlement was also recently established outside of Arsal. Delivering aid is severely complicated by the lack of centralized camps, and aid agencies must be creative to reach the 1,400 or so makeshift settlements in Lebanon. Cash transfer programs have been the most effective in delivering aid directly to refugees, although due to lack of funding they are often not enough to meet basic needs.

The Syrian refugees in Lebanon are also experiencing difficulty acquiring adequate water and food. 27% of refugees do not have access to potable water, and 80% cannot provide food for themselves. Rising prices for food, water, and housing negatively affect local populations as well, and aid efforts aim to provide assistance for these groups if given adequate funding. Additionally, overcrowding and poor sanitation heightens the World Health Organization’s concerns that waterborne diseases and measles or tuberculosis, could break out at any time.

The lack of resources has heightened tensions with the locals that have often spilled over into violence and exacerbated Lebanon’s political standoff between sectarian parties. High profile assassinations and the resignation of the government have served to make things worse, and Lebanese attitudes from every religious sect and region have begun to turn against the refugees. A commonly cited statistic is that 170,000 Lebanese will be pushed into poverty this year due to the downturn in the economy, and there have been calls for closing the borders from every corner. Palestinian refugees from Syria are already barred from entering the country, although at most checkpoints they can reportedly pay an extra bribe or fee for entrance.

Finally, Jordan is quickly coming to the limits of its capacity to serve both refugees and vulnerable host communities, largely owing to the portion of its population now made up of these groups. Unlike Lebanon, Jordan does have four completed refugee camps and one under construction at Azraq. The largest refugee camp, Zaatari, is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. Still, 80 percent of refugees live outside of the camps. With 592,000 refugees in the country, they make up about 10 percent of the total population, and the refugee population is expected to grow to 800,000 by 2015. One positive development in Jordan is that aid agencies have caught up on the backlog of unregistered refugees, allowing them to better estimate for and provide services to both the refugees and the host communities.

Education is another area where the Jordanian government and aid agencies have made some progress. Thanks to a successful “Back to School” program that included “double-shifting” Jordanian schools so that Syrian children could attend special courses in the afternoon, 55% of Syrian refugee children are now in school. This is especially important in Jordan because the majority of refugee children come from rural areas with lower levels of education to begin with. Major barriers for refugee children still exist, however, as Jordanian schools begin instruction in English earlier and children are required to have a UNHCR registration card to enroll.

The issue areas in Jordan that are of major concern to aid agencies include SGBV, unemployment, and access to food and water. SGBV in particular is widely reported among Syrian refugees in Jordan, and 40% of women and girls report staying inside most or all of the time due to security concerns and harassment. In the camps, many report feeling unsafe in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene facilities, especially due to the lack of adequate lighting and security. Negative coping mechanisms such as early and forced marriage, prostitution, and survival sex are also common, and further monitoring and prevention funds have been requested by aid agencies.

One of the reasons negative coping mechanisms are so prevalent has been widespread unemployment. Unemployment is extremely high among the refugees, as 90% of working-age refugees are unemployed, the highest rate in the region. Agencies have emphasized the need for education or training programs to divert young men from illegal or violent activities due to a lack of employment. Within the camps, informal economies have replaced formal employment, and in Zaatari the main thoroughfare, where one can find everything from bridal gowns to kebab shops, has been renamed “Avenue des Champs Elysees” after the famous Parisian street. The abundant bridal shops along the street point to another disturbing trend: women using marriage as a defensive tool, hoping a male protector will be able to shield them from SGBV and harassment.

Main street in Zaatari refugee camp.
Access to food and water are overriding concerns in Jordan, especially in northern areas. Fresh produce in the north is now scarce, as much of it used to come from Syria. Aid agencies have highlighted a “grave need to increase water distribution” in the Irbid, Ajloun, Mafraq, and Jerash areas. Because the Jordanian government has generously extended access to public water sources to all refugees, the water infrastructure is strained beyond current capacity. Additional water networks are needed to meet the demands of the refugee and host populations, and water quality must be ensured to avoid the outbreak of diseases. The overcrowding and lack of resources is so acute that 90,000 refugees returned to Syria last year, although many of them may have since come back over the border to Jordan.

Yet another common thread between Jordan and Lebanon, other than the high ratio of refugees to the local population, has been tensions with the host communities. Jordanian communities in the north in particular are impoverished and were formerly aid recipients themselves, only to be sidelined now by aid designated for refugees only. A key part of the RRP 6 for Jordan is assisting both impoverished host communities and refugees, but without ample funding most of the resources will be concentrated on the latter, raising the risk of conflict and border closures. Like Lebanon, the borders have already been closed to Palestinian refugees trying to flee Syria.

While funding alone will not end the Syrian conflict nor return refugees to their homes, it will provide a desperately needed lifeline of support for both refugees and their host communities. As former US ambassador to Morocco Edward M. Gabriel remarked at a recent meeting on the crisis at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the failure to adequately share this burden and assist the refugees and host communities would be a “prescription for future hopelessness and attraction to radical ideologies.” The greater Middle East was already the host to the largest population of refugees in the world prior to the conflict, and the tremendous generosity and hospitality of the host governments reflects their preparedness to help. This preparedness, however, is being tested by weak economies and infrastructures, and without the aid of the international community, there is no guarantee that borders will remain open, or that contiguous states will remain peaceful.


  1. Great piece, Vicky! I was wondering about the pattern of underfunding UN requests - why is this? Are the member countries distrustful of UN money estimates or are they just being wienies?

    1. More to the latter. The UN actually typically low balls the numbers because it is so wary of trusting government sources, that understandably inflate numbers to try to get more aid. The fact is the international community could easily fund the entire effort - Saudi Arabia just pledged 3 billion to Lebanon to help its efforts in Syria, after all - but it's more of a priority to fund bombs than bread. And that is the state of the world today in a pretty succinct nutshell.