It is another anniversary. Four years ago this month the Syrian uprising of 2011 escalated into the civil war phase, with internal conflict officially declared in July 2012 by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Around this time, the outflow of refugees swelled to unprecedented numbers: from thousands and tens of thousands in mid-2012 the human stream of misery has grown to 4.8 million people who are currently registered as refugees outside of Syria, according to UNHCR figures. Among them are half a million people residing in camps. In Lebanon today the Syrian refugee crisis affects, by UN reckoning, an estimated 3 million people: half of them Syrian and half of them Lebanese.
For some time going on a year now, however, the inflow of refugees into main recipient countries around Syria has moderated. Probably it has not abated as greatly as data suggest in Lebanon simply because the government in Beirut asked UNHCR over one year ago to stop registering new refugees. But in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq the numbers of incoming refugees have all lessened; last of all in Turkey which in absolute numbers has now the highest refugee count at 2.7 million, mostly in urban areas and in camps that witnesses describe as better-run and freer than camps in Jordan.
This assessment was part of what researchers of Ankara-based, and clearly government-friendly, think tank ORSAM, or Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, presented last month in a workshop at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute (IFI) and what other academics confirmed. ORSAM had conducted field research and produced a report titled “Effects of the Syrian Crisis on the Neighboring Countries”, assessing among other factors the effects on state structure, on radicalization of human behavior, and on economics in the four neighboring countries: Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
The regional role
The report said that radicalization within religious and ethnic groups and negative impacts on state structure as well as social and economic effects of the crisis were evident in all four countries but were met with different responses.
Discussion among academic responders showed that the impacts of the Syrian crisis are clearly influenced by each of the four countries’ economic or historical contexts and also influenced by the interests of regional and international players.
It is not yet clear if the social and political impact wave will amplify around the world in an exponential form or by a slower pattern, but it will widen and at the same time probably dilute. From the vicinity of its focal point, however, we must expect the effects to be impacting the four immediate neighbors with no prospect of ending even in the medium term.
All of us practice denial at different times and with good rationalizations like that one should not hand money over to the children who have been sent to beg at the traffic lights instead of partaking in – however imperfect – schooling, a symptom of what the UN describes as the increasing negative coping strategy on the part of refugees.
What we can also see now beyond question is that we need billions of dollars in humanitarian and development aid. The funding hole for this year according to UNHCR is 70 percent (or $1.2 billion missing) of the targeted $1.8 billion.
After five years of unrest and four years of civil war in our large eastern neighbor country, it is high time we move into more long-term strategies, which means on the one hand preparing for better times of people returning to Syria without actually waiting for peace to arrive there but rather investing in their capacity building and skills development (as was the message at another IFI conference last month). On the other hand, it means accepting that the problem will be around for much longer and cannot be made to disappear by even the smartest rhetoric or populist but counterproductive “solutions” like barrier residence fees, denial of work or closing entire Lebanese towns to Syrians.
Nobody needs to lecture the Lebanese on the security risks and social burdens of harboring large refugee populations. Lebanon is the case study for that (and even as the Lebanese carry this burden, they are piling up reputation assets that will be their reward in future). With no end of the crisis in sight, it is time for Lebanese to repeat to themselves that they must not forget and must not deny. They must not forget to remain compassionate and they must not deny our responsibility of active care.