Syrian Refugees: A Blessing in Disguise?

February 2, 2015 Topic: PoliticsRefugees Region: Syria

Syrian Refugees: A Blessing in Disguise?

No one can deny the burdens the massive Syrian refugee influx has placed on neighboring countries. It’s time to find solutions and attract the international attention and support this crisis deserves.

Syrians are now the world’s largest refugee population at over three million. The growing numbers have created a worrying backlash in neighboring countries, such as new visa restrictions in Lebanon and border tightening in Jordan. These attempts to contain refugee flows are perhaps an inevitable response in countries that have hosted the largest numbers of Syrian refugees since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011.

To avoid further resentment and restrictions on Syrians desperate to escape their war-torn country, as well as the instability such attitudes generate, the international community must work with host governments to increase and highlight the benefits refugee populations can bring to neighboring states.

Of course, highlighting these benefits doesn’t mean ignoring the sobering state of affairs and the daunting challenges it poses.

Governments must recognize this is not just a humanitarian crisis—it’s also a long-term development challenge.  As much as everyone involved would like to see the refugees return home, they’re unlikely to do so soon. Studies show the average return time in protracted conflicts is 17 years. In other words, this refugee crisis has the potential to impact not only generations of Syrians but also the capacity and development of host countries.

All of Syria’s neighbors are hosting large numbers of refugees: over one million in Lebanon and Turkey, more than 600,000 in Jordan, nearly a quarter-million in Iraqi Kurdistan, and over 100,000 in Egypt. Because of their small sizes, Lebanon and Jordan have the highest and second-highest concentrations of refugees in the world, respectively. These unprecedented numbers are creating economic, political, and demographic pressures across the region.

Because the majority of refugees live in urban areas, not refugee camps, host countries face severe economic costs and strains on their education systems, infrastructure, and health services. Jordan’s public debt rose to 79 percent of GDP by 2014, raising concerns about the country’s ability to support refugees without negative economic consequences for Jordanians. High concentrations of refugees in Turkey’s southern regions are raising resentment and concerns among locals about increased cost of living and unemployment.

Increased demand for housing has led to higher rents for everyone. Hospitals are overcrowded, which is often blamed on large numbers of Syrian refugee patients. Public schools are also overcrowded, leading to double shifts to accommodate Syrian refugee students, the majority of whom don’t even attend school.

Despite these issues, the international response has been tepid at best. Calls for assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are grossly underfunded. In 2014, the UN requested nearly $3 billion for its operations in Jordan and Lebanon, but received less than one-quarter of that amount. 

But this bleak picture shouldn’t obscure the potential benefits refugee populations could bring to host countries. Syrian refugees have become the largest group of new entrepreneurs in southern Turkey, establishing more than 1,000 businesses in 2014 and setting up new schools to serve Syrian children.

International aid programs for Syrian refugees can also benefit host countries. For example, immunization programs for refugees can also be made available to the wider population, enhancing public health. U.S. State Department programs designed to refurbish and enlarge Lebanese schools and equip them with educational materials to support Syrian refugees can also improve the schools for Lebanese children.

UNHCR runs a number of programs to improve urban services in Jordan to benefit host communities with large refugee populations, implementing hundreds of “Quick Impact Projects,” like provision of street lights, rehabilitation of public service buildings, and water and sanitation support.

Because many of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are located in the more underdeveloped northern region, there may be other opportunities to leverage the international attention on the Syrian refugees to help further develop a part of the country that might otherwise be ignored.

The international community and host countries should work together to identify more of these win-win opportunities and make such benefits clear to the broader population to reduce tension and resentment toward refugee communities.  

To capitalize on such opportunities, there must be a major international commitment to the long-term development of host countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. This would mean not just more funding, but funding that’s channeled toward longer-term development, not just shorter-term humanitarian aid. With such an investment, host governments could be encouraged to ease restrictions on Syrian refugees entering the labor force. At the same time they should be encouraged to develop more permanent education solutions and to integrate Syrians into national school systems.

Resistance from host governments is likely and understandable, as they may be wary of encouraging long-term settlement for economic and political reasons. Current public opinion is increasingly hostile to Syrian refugees across all host countries. But if the benefits to the overall development of host countries were much clearer and supported financially with major international initiatives, resistance could dissipate over time.

No one can deny the burdens the massive Syrian refugee influx has placed on neighboring countries. But with neither host countries nor Syrian refugees benefitting from the current situation, it’s time to find solutions and attract the international attention and support this crisis deserves.

Dalia Dassa Kaye is the director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy and a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.