One of the many plot lines lost in the summertime discussions of a US strike on Syria is the pace of refugee movement out of the country. As it stands, the refugee crisis is overwhelming and likely to stay that way. Another external military intervention would further accelerate the mass flight and exacerbate what is already a humanitarian emergency.

The Syrian refugee crisis became too large too quickly for any real planning of ameliorative measures to take place. At the end of September 2012, one year ago, there were less than 240,000 registered refugees in total. Today, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees data, the number is 2 million. And that is not to speak of the millions more internally displaced persons, or IDPs, who have fled their homes but remained inside Syrian borders. Most refugees express a desire to go home, but the statistics are not on the side of return. The UNHCR defines “protracted refugee situations” as those in which refugees have lived in exile for five years or more with no serious prospect of finding a “durable solution,” meaning repatriation, integration into the host country or resettlement in a third country. By this definition, two thirds of all globally registered refugees — over 7 million people — are in “protracted” limbo. Many Syrians are likely to join them.

A number of factors make the evolving Syrian refugee crisis particularly daunting. First, the displacement comes as part of a brutal civil conflict that shows no sign of abating. Repatriation is therefore unrealistic, as is waiting until the “end of the conflict” to discuss the long-term problems of refugees. The throngs of refugees and IDPs need extensive humanitarian assistance now to meet basic needs. Second, there is now a sizable refugee population in at least five countries — Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey — implying the necessity of a large-scale, internationally coordinated effort at durable solutions. None of these host countries are eager to grant Syrians permanent residency; several have repeatedly vowed not to.

Third, the displacement takes place alongside a process of regional upheaval, where some of the countries of destination are also active participants in the Syrian crisis or are undergoing civil strife of their own, making the status of Syrian refugees tenuous. Fourth, the refugee population is not divorced from questions of politics, including the increasing sectarianization of the Syrian conflict and how the fighting is perceived in the region. The refugee flight, in particular, is a main vector of “spillover.” The displaced people are human markers of the Syrian conflict’s potential to redraw the map of the region and stir up sectarian animosity in neighboring countries. Fifth, the Syrian refugee population lies at the intersection of various kinds of forced migration, which include departure due to war and ethnic or religious tensions, as well as the devastation of economic and ecological life. Syrians are in neighboring countries as refugees, legal immigrants or guest workers, as well as undocumented immigrants. Finally, even in countries such as Turkey, where there was more preparation, there are refugees in both formal and informal camps, along the borders and in large urban areas, as well as dispersed among the local population. Even the task of counting the displaced is not easy.

An Issue of Resources

All of these factors are particularly resonant in Lebanon. Despite the spread of refugees across five countries, Lebanon has borne the brunt of the exodus, with over 750,000 refugees registered or awaiting registration. The Lebanese government claims that more than a million Syrians were already in Lebanon before the fighting became intense. A World Bank report whose highlights have been released finds that the total economic impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is devastating, with the Lebanese economy suffering cumulative losses of $7.5 billion. [1] The influx of Syrians pushes up the unemployment rate and forces the government to borrow more money to sustain public services.

Refugees are breaking down under the daily struggles and tensions. Many of the new Syrian NGOs that have emerged to provide services are themselves run by Syrian refugees, middle-class and relatively better educated, who are completely burned out. Most of the refugees express a desire for return or resettlement because they cannot bear to remain in Lebanon in such tough conditions. The cost of living in Lebanon is astronomically high compared to Syria and refugees across the board are depleting their savings. The worst off are increasingly confined to small, unsafe and unsanitary spaces, and complain of exploitation in the form of higher prices for rent, food and medicine. These grievances echo those of Syrians in Jordan — and, for that matter, Iraqis who still languish in various Arab countries with little hope of a durable solution.

With the newly displaced refugees have come large numbers of Palestinians who have resided in camps and towns in Syria since 1948. They are legally prohibited — as Palestinians — from formal employment in over 70 professions. Lebanon is home to some 425,000 Palestinian refugees and denial of tawtin (settlement) to these people is the mantra of political parties right and left. There is a trend (or at least the perception of one) by which aid NGOs are transferring their expenditures from existing Palestinian refugees to newly arrived Syrians and Syrian Palestinians. A needs assessment of Syrian Palestinians conducted by American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA) found that only 10 percent are employed in Lebanon. All this hardship is increasing tensions within the existing Palestinian communities, according to Samar al-Yassir, the ANERA country director for Lebanon. Al-Yassir explained that hosting a refugee means sharing resources with this new person or new family and so it becomes a drain on the hosts’ wherewithal. “In the case of the Palestinians, UNRWA is becoming overstretched as they have opened their schools to new refugees. Because this community living in Lebanon is the poorest in the whole region, when you distribute food or cash, they need it as well.” Shelter is the biggest problem, according to al-Yassir, since high rents consume most of the income of refugees.

The Palestinians must deal with these particular difficulties on top of the multi-dimensional crisis for all refugees. A consistent complaint relates to education. To give a sense of scale, it is estimated that there are 300,000 Syrian children between 5 and 17 years of age in Lebanon today. At the same time, the total number of Lebanese children enrolled in public school in all of Lebanon is also 300,000. The Lebanese government has instructed public schools to accept Syrian children, but only about 30,000 of these children are in fact receiving an education. Some Syrians are returning home, braving the war just to be able to enroll themselves or their children in school or university.

Hani Jesri, from the Syrian foundation Jusoor, directs a small school for about 120 children in the Qasqas area of Beirut. He explains that the older the children are, the harder it is for them to pass placement tests in English or French so they can enroll in public schools. While younger children can catch up more easily through “accelerated learning programs,” children beyond ninth grade have little prospect of a formal education. Those lucky enough to get an education are wrestling with the demands of different curricula. Syrians inside Syria, in areas under government control, study the traditional curriculum, while those in Lebanon may be given the informal NGO curriculum, the program of Lebanese public schools, the lessons of Lebanese or Gulf-financed private religious schools or even those of schools overseen by the opposition Syrian National Coalition. The same child may be exposed to two or more curricula in the same year if the family is forced to relocate. Jesri sees the newly approved “second shift” as a positive step. This legislation, not yet implemented, mandates that existing public schools provide an afternoon shift for Syrian children. In theory, this change should allow the schools to absorb much larger cohorts of students. But until the law is put into effect, enormous numbers of Syrians will be left with no education, no job and few skills. Coupled with high unemployment, the education deficit threatens to foster an entire generation of illiterate or semi-literate kids.

Across the Board

The crisis effects are felt across the board, of course, not just in education. Zeina Hassan, who works with the International Medical Corps, which focuses on health and mental health needs, argues that Lebanese infrastructure is at the breaking point. Some villages have more Syrians than Lebanese. “In the Bekaa Valley, some hospitals are out of beds,” she warns. “There is fear of cholera outbreak in informal tented settlements that have sprung up everywhere and there is a lack of water and hygiene.” Health workers are worried that a public health catastrophe could break out at any moment, especially in the informal tented settlements in the Bekaa. Hassan points out that NGOs and other relief organizations are so overwhelmed with immediate needs that they have no chance to think long-term. They are too busy to take such simple steps as investing in a two-year program to train Syrians to provide basic mental health — a way of both reducing costs and providing skills development down the road.

Hassan’s conclusions support the idea that the crisis in Lebanon cannot be solved through humanitarian assistance alone. The refugees are too many and too desperate, and they are likely to stay for too long. As attention to Syria fades, so will the well of funding run dry. The solution must come through a combination of investment in longer-term development and attention to immediate humanitarian needs. There are signs that international organizations are making this shift, particularly in the UN. The UNHCR’s upcoming Regional Response Plan 6, which will outline the scope of the response through 2014, is likely to advocate for a shift toward a focus on community development. Synne Bergby from UN Habitat says that her organization, given its mandate, is targeting the issue of shelter, including by locating buildings that can be rehabilitated as large collective shelters as well as basic urban services especially related to water and sanitation. She explains that Habitat has developed a model of working with municipalities on housing infrastructure, including upgrading of water, power generation and sewage networks, among other things. This strategy serves both the displaced and the poorer host communities, and is particularly important for the latter, who rightly feel that they are just as in need of support as the newly arrived refugees.

Most NGOs, including Lebanese and Syrian ones, are alert to the issue of community tensions and are working to address them. “Spillover” from the current war aside, the legacy of Syria’s three-decade military “presence” in Lebanon remains bitter eight years after it ended. Syrian workers in Lebanon have long faced discrimination and opprobrium. The NGO efforts in outreach and education about refugee conditions are crucial so that the locals do not see the presence of Syrians simply as a curse. The groups have stressed the need for the media to disseminate such messages to refugees and host communities. Syrian civil society in Lebanon is leading the charge: Several NGOs are working to provide booklets and information for both groups on their respective rights and responsibilities.

International organizations and NGOs as well as Syrian and Lebanese groups are doing heroic work under politically tense and financially difficult circumstances. They have, however, reached the limits of their capacity. Their struggles add to the urgency of an immediate cessation of violence in Syria, followed closely by a political settlement that will allow Syrians and Lebanese to catch their breath. Averting a US strike on Syria — for now — was an important step toward deescalating the crisis. President Barack Obama’s announcement of aid to Lebanon is also welcome recognition of the troubles this country is facing. But donations alone are not sufficient. Unless the cycle of violence in Syria is stopped, the humanitarian crisis is likely to worsen.

Author’s Note: This research was carried out with the support of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The views are those of the author and interviewees and do not necessarily express those of ACSS or Sida.


[1] Reuters, September 19, 2013.

How to cite this article:

Omar S. Dahi "Breaking Point," Middle East Report Online, September 25, 2013.

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