Thinking Long-term about Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

Assessing the Economic Impact of Syrian Refugees and Planning for the Future

Summary Report

This is a summary of research prepared as part of the World Refugee & Migration Council’s Syrian Refugees in Jordan and the Region project with support from the International Development Research Centre.

Thinking Long-term about Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey

In 2019, the World Refugee & Migration Council (WRMC) released a Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System, suggesting concrete ways to transform the increasingly-dysfunctional international refugee system.[1] In particular, the report recognized the inadequacy of current responsibility-sharing measures and urged the mobilization of non-traditional support for countries hosting large numbers of refugees, including through trade and international financial institutions. Since then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented economic hardship for the hosting countries, as detailed in research carried out in 2020 on the impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Jordan.

With the support of Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the WRMC commissioned research in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to assess alternative solutions for Syrian refugees in the medium to long-term and the three governments hosting the largest numbers of Syrian refugees. The central research questions for the study were:

  • How can the governments of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey be supported to continue hosting Syrian refugees? What additional means — beyond humanitarian support — can be mobilized in light of growing economic and social pressures on host governments? 
  • How will the effects of COVID-19 — on refugees, host governments and communities, and conditions in Syria — shape long-term prospects for Syrian refugees in the region?
  • What are the realistic alternatives for Syrian refugees and the governments that host them in the medium- to long-term?

These three refugee-hosting countries, all considered upper middle-income countries by the World Bank, each have their own particular political and economic context and, like all countries in the world, have suffered economically as a result of COVID-19 and the measures implemented to contain its spread. The pandemic has revealed growing governance problems in Turkey, reflected in an increasingly deteriorating economy, that are complicating the incorporation of Syrian refugees into the Turkish economy and society. While politically, Jordan is a kingdom with a functioning democracy that has also suffered economically as a result of COVID-19, Lebanon’s instability and high levels of corruption make it particularly fragile, resulting in the nation’s increasing characterization as a failed state. As a result, Lebanon has been the hardest hit of the three: reeling from compounded crises of economic freefall with a drop in per capita GDP of 40 percent over the course of a year, devaluation of its currency, political instability, and a devastating explosion in August 2020. Turkey, too, has experienced economic decline, with its per capita GDP plummeting from a peak of almost US$13,000 in 2013 to a little above US$8,600 in 2019 and inflation rates soaring to over 15 percent in 2021. 

All three governments began receiving Syrian refugees shortly after the insurrection began in March 2011 and, in all three countries, initial policies of welcome and hospitality gave way to closed borders (with occasional exceptions for urgent medical cases and others). While Jordan and Turkey were quick to open camps for arriving Syrian refugees, Lebanon implemented a ‘no-camp policy’ from the beginning. Presently the vast majority of the refugees in all three countries live outside of camps, most often on the margins of large urban areas. 

Although Turkey has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, it maintains the geographical restriction and does not consider Syrians to be refugees; rather it has offered them temporary protection. Neither Jordan nor Lebanon has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and both countries consider the refugees to be temporary ‘guests.’ In fact, in Lebanon, only 20 percent of Syrian refugees have legal status. In all three countries, there is a significant gap between the number of registered refugees and the total number of Syrians in the country. Turkey estimates that in addition to the 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees in the country, there are an additional 320,000 non-Syrian refugees and over one million irregular migrants. In both Jordan and Lebanon, the number of registered refugees is about half the estimated total number of refugees in the country.

In all three countries, only a small minority of Syrian refugees have been able to obtain work permits enabling employment in the formal sector. The vast majority of refugees work in the informal sector, with the precarity and vulnerability associated with informal work. In all three countries, certain occupations are off-limits to Syrian refugees and in Lebanon and Jordan, in particular, refugees largely survive on international assistance. In Turkey, all registered Syrian and other refugees enjoy full access to health and educational services. All three countries have received substantial international assistance: in Lebanon and Jordan primarily through UN consolidated appeals, in Turkey primarily through the European Union, as a result of the 2016 EU-Turkey Statement.

Syrian refugees have been in these three countries for ten years, with the majority arriving before 2015. In all three countries, initial public reactions of sympathy and hospitality have eroded, with growing numbers of nationals expressing resentment at the continued presence of refugees. The refugees have been scapegoated and blamed for rising unemployment and other national economic problems in each country. However, the three studies in this report all found that in none of the countries have refugees had a major negative effect on the national economies, whether measured by unemployment, wages or economic growth.

In all three countries, host governments have insisted from the outset that the presence of Syrian refugees is a temporary phenomenon and that, sooner or later, they will return home. And yet, the steady consolidation of power by the Assad regime in Syria, the internal displacement of almost 7 million Syrians within the country, and continued policies of terror and coercion, make it unlikely that most of the Syrian refugees will return in the foreseeable future — in spite of increasing pressures from the refugee-hosting countries. Nor is it likely that many Syrian refugees will be resettled to third countries. The reality is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are likely to remain where they are now. While politically it may be difficult for the host governments to acknowledge this, they would be better served by developing policies that enable the refugees to integrate into national life, including the labor force.

All three research papers commissioned for this project suggest ways that this can be accomplished: ways the Syrian refugees can be more effectively integrated into national economic life and that the international community can increase its support for refugee-hosting governments, including through use of trade and debt policy. But the primary need is for a change in the narrative – to move from seeing refugees as a burden to host countries to seeing them as human capital to be used in meeting the development priorities of the host countries.

Over half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced: almost 7 million within the country and 6.7 million living as refugees in neighboring countries. None of the refugee-hosting countries are responsible for the conflict in Syria and yet, by reason of geography, they have been expected by the international community to assume the responsibility to protect and assist the millions who have sought safety within their borders — now, for over ten years. The international refugee system was created 70 years ago on the understanding that responding to refugees was a shared responsibility. It is way past time for the international community to consider additional measures to support front-line governments hosting refugees — particularly in light of the reality that their presence is not a temporary phenomenon. 

The full reports for Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, along with translations of this document in Arabic and Turkish, are available at wrmcouncil.org/SyrianRefugees. The short summaries of the research papers which follow are intended to spark your interest in learning more. 


[1] The World Refugee & Migration Council was known as the World Refugee Council (WRC) prior to 2020.