Viewpoints: Impact of Syrian refugees on host countries

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A female refugee holds her children's hands

UN agencies say the number of children forced to flee Syria has reached one million, describing the figure as "a shameful milestone".

Overall, more than 1.7 million people have registered as refugees since the uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, with many more believed to be unregistered.

Although Syrian refugees have fled to numerous countries, the vast majority have ended up in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

Lebanon - the smallest of the three, with a population of four million - has more than 700,000 registered refugees. Jordan and Turkey are hosts to more than 960,000 others.

Three experts discuss the how the countries are dealing with the influx.


Patricia Mouamar, advocacy and communications officer, World Vision Lebanon

At the beginning of the war in Syria, Lebanese willingly received Syrian refugees into their own houses, their spare rooms, even their education system. They were sharing everything with them, sharing their whole communities.

But as the war in Syria has become more protracted, there has been increasing tension between the communities.

In some towns, the population has doubled. This has been putting a lot of pressure on health services, educational services. Waste management is not enough to cope.

If you talk to Lebanese, many say they have lost their jobs because Syrians are willing to work for less. Or that they have been evicted because Syrians share housing with many people, and so can afford rents that Lebanese cannot.

If you talk to Syrians, they say that some Lebanese have started to say that they deserve what has been happening to them.

It is a result of the frustration, and the international community really needs to give aid and assistance to both sides.

It has been even clearer in schools.

One of the main problems comes from the different levels of ability. Many Syrian children have missed out on school for a long time and are struggling to catch up. But the Lebanese children feel left out because of the attention teachers give to the Syrian children. One said to me: "I feel like I'm in a Syrian school."

There are space issues too, and there are not enough teachers. Some schools send Lebanese children home after half a day and then teach Syrians in the second half.

Wherever you go, in every single corner of Lebanon there are refugees. They are scattered all over, not in one place - this crisis is affecting all of Lebanon. It is a population of four million and you are adding more than a million. That means one in five people are refugees.

Image caption,
Syrian refugees burn scrap paper to keep warm in Lebanon

The government should take a leadership role to find a solution, but they have mainly left the Lebanese communities to deal with the situation.

It is having a negative impact on local economies. Sure, when an employer is firing Lebanese to hire Syrians they are saving money, but many Syrians are getting into debt on so many levels - medication, shelter, transport.

And some of the small Lebanese shops go into debt because they are surrounded by refugees. The refugees ask for things like rice, bread or beans but they are not able to pay. What are the shop owners supposed to do?

"I can't say no," said one woman to me, and she showed me the account book containing her debts.

I'm not very optimistic [for the future] because of the tension. The security situation will deteriorate, as poverty leads to more tension.

Laura Sheahen, senior communications officer, CARE International

For years and years, Jordanians and Syrians have mixed and they have relatives in common, so it is not an extremely stark contrast [socially] but there are still differences in customs and traditions.

One thing I heard yesterday near the Syrian border was that because Syrian refugee men are willing to work for less money - and often they are being exploited when they do so - Jordanian men are not being able to earn enough to provide a dowry - basically a nice home or an apartment for a Jordanian woman they would like to marry. And so they have had to delay marriage.

Another impact on marriage is that Syrian women are sometimes seen as being willing to accept a smaller dowry in order to marry a Jordanian man who maybe cannot provide quite as much in terms of a place to live. So there is this little bit of resentment that maybe Syrian women are getting the men.

These are generalisations and stereotypes that highlight some of the social dimensions of what is happening.

There are tensions in some areas of Jordan, although it certainly does not apply to all areas, for example [the capital] Amman.

But when we were up north in a smaller village, one of the older Jordanian men said: "Syrian men come here and Syrian men wear shorts. We don't do that here."

And he said: "Syrian women ride on a motorcycle behind their husbands. That's not done here."

Of course, the subtext is that there have not been a lot of motorcycles in that region at all until recently, and so the appearance of them is quite new.

Overall, the longer the refugee families stay, the harder it has been on the host community.

The issue is basically water. Jordan is very "water poor". Every drop of water is precious and some Jordanians have this perception - whether it is true or not - that Syrians maybe do not conserve water as best they could, in terms of daily habits.

So there is resentment about a lot of things.

There is a perception that Syrians are willing to be paid less and still do a very good job. And some Jordanians feel priced out of the job market.

The other thing is that landlords are raising prices on apartments, so again that affects society. You cannot send your kids to school if you cannot pay the rent, and again Jordanian men who want to get married cannot afford these rents, so they cannot get married and bring a wife to a new apartment.

It is sort of snowballing, and it is a really painful situation.

Dawn Chatty, director, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

Turkey is really quite different [to Lebanon and Jordan]. Most of the refugees until the last couple of weeks were going into Hatay province, which was the former governorate of Alexandretta - so it was part of Syria until just before the beginning of World War II.

And so the population of Hatay is very closely tied with the population across the border. In a way the population of Hatay really mirrors the very complicated ethno-religious make-up of the provinces surrounding [the Syrian cities of] Idlib and Aleppo. There are lots of kinship ties, lots of social networks, lots of social capital between these areas.

You've got Armenians, you have got Alawites, you have got Sunni Muslims - all these groups have their own kin that they are either near or have contact with. So socially it is still kind of like "we're brothers, we realise these problems", and everybody is waiting for the fighting to die down and the opportunity to go back.

So that was always bound to be a smoother process [than in Lebanon and Jordan].

Also, the Turkish government has been really praiseworthy in the way that they have approached the refugee crisis. They have created refugee camps that you can really say are "five-star" - where people really do have the ability to come in and out, and there is very little to complain about.

In general, there is a lot of politics now in terms of numbers and what it means.

I think Jordan is probably going to get a lot of aid to help with the Syrian numbers. Lebanon should do too, although that does not seem to be as forthcoming, partially because Lebanon, for many reasons, has not wished to work with UN agencies to create camps - preferring to do a lot of local hosting.

Turkey has not worked with the UNHCR - it has decided to do it by itself. Turkey has a long history of working with refugee integration without assimilation, and their model has always been local hosting.

What they have done now is created camps, but these camps are not marked out physically as places that you cannot leave without local sponsorship. And it has been near totally coming out of the Turkish budget.

Whenever you have camps that receive a lot of assistance you create a negative environment in the local community - which is happening in some of the camps in Jordan. The Lebanese are desperately trying to make sure that does not happen. They have had a very bad experience with camps in which you take a minority community, and isolate and separate them out.

We know from years and years of working with refugees that local hosting, local accommodation, is far superior to encamping people, where you really strip them of their agency but also strip them of their dignity.

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