From the regional protests that erupted in Syria in mid-March 2011, few could have predicted the mass calamity that would follow. Now, nearly four years later, Syria’s civil war has claimed more than 200,000 lives and profoundly damaged the country’s economy and infrastructure. Perhaps the most significant impact of the war has been the number of people displaced. Over 9 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes; and, of those 9 million, over 3 million have crossed the border, seeking refuge outside the war-torn nation.
Due to familial ties, shared culture and language, and geographical proximity, the large majority of refugees have settled in neighboring countries. Since the start of the conflict, approximately 1.2 million Syrians have relocated to Lebanon (now comprising over one-third of Lebanon’s population) 1.6 million have fled to Turkey, and over 600,000 to Jordan.
As one can imagine, numerous problems arise when a population of this magnitude shifts its demand for resources and employment onto an unprepared, underfunded host. Lebanon, which even before the crisis was home to the densest population in the Middle East, has been especially hard hit. According to the World Bank, the Syrian civil war has already cost Lebanon 2.9% of its annual gross domestic product. Lebanese laborers have lost jobs to Syrians who are often willing to work for less; the barrage of new students has meant a shortage of teachers and a significant strain on schools; and increases in electricity consumption are costing the host country roughly $100 million USD monthly.
Similar problems have arisen in Jordan, where there have been complaints about the influx of Syrians in the labor market, as well as in the educational system. There is also fear that refugees are depleting Jordan’s water supply—a vital concern in the dry Arab Levant. Unlike Lebanon, Jordan is host to a number of refugee camps, including the famous Zaatari camp. Following the escalation of violence in March 2013, the camp’s population swelled dramatically, making it the second largest refugee camp in the world with an estimated 200,000 inhabitants in 2013 (now down to 84,000). Overcrowding at the camp led to a diminished food supply, crime, and rioting.
Turkey has fared better than Lebanon and Jordan. For one, the Syrian population even now only makes up two percent of the Turkish population, a much smaller proportion than in either Lebanon or Jordan. Moreover, the Turkish government has created first-rate camps in which people can go and come as they please, therefore limiting the isolation of the Syrian community.
A top priority of these host nations is to alleviate the pressure on their society and infrastructure by relocating refugees to other regions. Many leading experts feel that because of Europe’s proximity and affluence, it is the natural candidate to absorb some of the displaced population. However, only four percent of Syria’s refugees currently reside in Europe. Of those who have relocated to Europe, over half applied for asylum in two countries: Germany and Sweden. In 2013, merely five European countries—Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and Switzerland—received more than 5,000 asylum applications.
Short of a resolution to the conflict, there is no quick fix to the Syrian refugee crisis. To deal with overpopulation, host countries have been forced to come up with ad hoc solutions. For example, the Turkish government has advocated for a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border. The zone would push several miles into Syria, allowing Syrians to continue with their daily lives within Syrian territory, while alleviating pressure on host communities within Turkey. However, many experts fear that the protectorate could become a haven for anti-Assad forces and consequently put Syrian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at risk. Elizabeth Ferris, director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, explains the potential dynamic of such a situation:
Indeed I worry about some of the comments that a buffer zone would not only protect Syrian civilians but also provide an area for the Syrian opposition to organize a military response. Any time you mix military operations with protecting civilians, the civilians are put at risk. The Syrian regime could bomb the buffer zone on grounds that it is a military target.
Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International and Save the Children are demanding that countries outside the region resettle refugees. Advocates have recently made modest progress to this end. In December, the international community indicated that it would allocate 100,000 places to Syrian refugees, raising the total from the current 62,000 pledges. This includes resettlement as well as private sponsorship, scholarships, visas, and other relocation schemes. Germany alone has pledged to take in 30,000 Syrians—more than the combined total of the rest of Europe. Moreover, the United States, which only resettled 350 displaced Syrians in 2014, is reviewing more than 9,000 UNHCR referrals, and expects “admissions from Syria to surge in 2015 and beyond.”
To encourage a more equitable distribution of refugees in Europe (five countries currently host more than 75% of all refugees in Europe) the EU is considering adopting a quota system. Under the system, refugees would be re-allocated throughout Europe, depending on a country’s population and available resources. This would force the countries that are currently falling short to assume a larger role, while simultaneously freeing up resources for countries such as Germany and Sweden to admit more refugees.
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the trend of the international community has been to provide aid from afar. In other words, countries have generously financed the relief effort in the region, but have turned their backs on Syrians looking to resettle. The United Kingdom is a striking example of this approach. It has donated more to humanitarian aid than any other country apart from the United States, but has only accepted 90 refugees under its Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme, a program started in 2013 to resettle several hundred at risk victims of the conflict. The international community’s apparent commitment to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees is only a small fraction of the number currently living in Syria’s neighboring countries. One can only hope, however, that this declaration will encourage more countries to actively aid the refugees of Syria.