The plight of Syrian refugees – PRIO Blogs


The plight of Syrian refugees is worsening day by day. They face increasing pressure in all major host countries. The road to a refuge in Europe is closed. Returning to a shattered Syria, where the conflict remains unresolved, is seen by most refugees as far too dangerous.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The situation is increasingly desperate for Syrian refugees in the Middle East. There are big differences between the situations in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the three main host countries. Refugees are treated with varying degrees of benevolence, reflecting the internal tensions, economic circumstances and foreign policy ambitions of each country. But in all three countries, it is clearly that the pressure on Syrian refugees to return home is increasing. Globally, there are over 6.7 million registered refugees from Syria, more than from any other country. In addition, a similar number of Syrians are moved inside their country of origin.

The crisis in Lebanon affects everyone

At the start of 2021, Lebanon hosted 890,000 registered Syrian refugees. In total, however, the country is home to around 1.5 million Syrians, which equates to one in five inhabitants. Lebanon has a long history of welcome Palestinian refugees, who tend to live in dedicated camps. A number of Palestinian political groups are active in Lebanon, and this has been a challenge both nationally and in relation to the country’s neighbors. For this reason, the Lebanese authorities decided early on not to establish new camps for the Syrians, who were forced either to find rented accommodation or to live in makeshift tent camps. Only a part of the refugees succeeded in obtaining satisfactory papers and many of them consequently suffered either repeated evictions or shelters razed by the authorities.

Over the past two years, Lebanon has returned a limited number of Syrian refugees, some using force. Many are terrified by the stories of what these people have found on their return home.

The political crisis in Lebanon has thrown a large part of its population into poverty. The healthcare system was severely affected by the Beirut port explosion last year, and the Covid-19 arrived at the worst possible time imaginable. Syrians are allowed to take certain types of jobs, but increased competition in the labor market increases the frustration of the host population. Over the past two years, Lebanon has returned a limited number of Syrian refugees, some using force. Many are terrified by the stories of what these people have found on their return home.

Jordan’s steady course meets new obstacles

“The way in which Jordan has welcomed refugees is an example for all of us,” said King Harald of Norway during his state visit to Jordan in March last year. Jordan hosts at least 700,000 Syrian refugees, but the actual number of Syrians in Jordan is estimated to be nearly double that number, 1.3 million. Jordan has maintained a relatively open approach, but its population has gradually become more critical of refugees, and especially of government refugee policy. Much of the Jordanian population is made up of Palestinians who have obtained citizenship and consolidated their position in Jordanian society. Palestinians constitute the majority of the population, and there is a strong desire for Syrians not to become permanent residents.

Jordan has long stood out as a stable country that manages to stay on good terms with most other countries in the region. Like Lebanon, Jordan is also experiencing an economic slowdown, and recently its stability has been called into question both by popular protests and by tensions in the circle around King Abdullah. Some critics of the king allege that his treatment of refugees has been too generous. Even before the global pandemic, Jordan’s infrastructure was stretched to the breaking point and many people see refugees as competitors for increasingly scarce resources. The economic downturn affects everyone, especially refugees. Access to health care and education has declined, and despite international agreements, refugees have limited access to the Jordanian labor market. Nonetheless, although new refugees are not welcome, government policy is still not to promote the return of Syrian refugees.

The Turkish authorities are politically doing the splits

President Erdogan welcomed Syrian refugees, making a political point of help a neighbor in distress. Turkey has 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. Many live in camps along the border with Syria, from where they have slowly moved to urban centers. Turkey is in constant conflict with the Kurdish PKK, which maintains close ties with the Syrian YPG. In 2019, a strong desire to prevent the border regions of Syria from becoming zones of deployment of internal enemies supported the intervention and the creation of a zone under Turkish control on the Syrian side of the border. As a result, Syrians in Turkey found themselves trapped in even more political intrigue. Turkey has already started resettling refugees in the safe zone, to the detriment of the local Kurdish population. For these resettled refugees, the future is uncertain.

Turkey is also experiencing an economic slowdown. Among its population, dissatisfaction with refugees and government policy continues to grow. In Turkey, the Syrians were allowed to look for work, but employers are subject to restrictions, for example regarding the proportion of their employees who may be refugees. Access to education has been relatively good, and so has health care. But access to both diminishes as popular discontent grows. The creation of the “safe” zone on the Syrian side of the border following the 2019 intervention was intended to facilitate return, but had a limited effect. At the same time, Syrian refugees in Turkey have become pawns in a high political game between Ankara and Brussels, linked to the agreement to restrict the number of asylum seekers entering Europe.

Europe is closed and Syria is dangerous

The deal between the EU and Turkey is crucial for Europe’s efforts to prevent a further influx of asylum seekers. Opportunities to reach European countries and there are fewer and fewer asylum requests; those who make the attempt nevertheless know that the risk is high. The number of people who have fled to third countries with UNHCR’s assistance has fallen from nearly 40,000 in 2016 to barely 9,000 in 2020. Today, those who manage to escape represent only a few thousand Syrian refugees. In the region. . The others must either try to survive where they are or return to Syria.

Many Syrian refugees have left their countries of origin because they were persecuted for political reasons, to avoid being recruited by the regime or to participate in the resistance. These people do not feel safe in any way, despite the assurances of the plan that they will be welcome. Commerce, government apparatus and infrastructure are in shambles, and the authorities finance the conflict by selling the infrastructure to an increasingly wealthy conflict elite. It is difficult to envisage an effective reconstruction under these conditions, and for most of the refugees it is difficult to see how they could survive the return. The Syria they knew no longer exists, and for many refugees, returning home will result in displacement within their own country.

Are there any solutions?

For the Syrian refugees, who know that their situation in their host countries is deteriorating day by day and that the pressure to return is increasing, the situation must be unbearable. At the same time, they are not welcome elsewhere, and many do not dare to return. It is difficult to see a solution. A creative initiative – the Jordanian pact – was launched in 2016. The intention was to give refugees the opportunity to work and learn valuable skills in a kind of economic zone in Jordan, but the initiative has produced little practical results. Globally, refugee policy is characterized by reductions. Prospects for an inclusive political solution to the Syrian conflict are dim. This will require international coordination and a combination of pressure and engagement with the Syrian regime. None of this seems likely in the immediate future.

And the Syrian refugee population will not disappear. Some will try to get out of the Middle East. Some will return to Syria, despite the uncertainty of what they will encounter. And many will try to stay in exile in neighboring countries for as long as possible. They are the victims of a war they did not want, a war that is being fought without regard for their future. They have legitimate reasons for feeling betrayed, bitter and angry. And there we find some of the seeds of future conflicts.

  • This is the English version of an editorial published in Norwegian in NRK Ytring August 3, 2021, ‘Syriske flyktninger i klemma’
  • The text is based on a translation from English by Fidotext

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