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

Watch the full event and read about the panelists on our Thinking Long-term About Syrian Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey event page.

On September 9, 2021 the World Refugee & Migration Council (WRMC) hosted a virtual panel discussion to launch new research focusing on long-term prospects for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. 

The event was moderated by WRMC Vice-President of Research Elizabeth Ferris and included presentations from four authors of the reports including: Yusuf Mansur, Chairman of the board of Trustees of TAG University College for Innovation, CEO of EnConsult in Jordan; Catherine Brun, Director of the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice at Oxford Brookes University; Maha Shuayb, Director, Centre for Lebanese Studies; and Kemal Kirişci, Nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and research associate at, IGAM Academy. Opening and closing remarks were delivered by WRMC Honorary Chair HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal and WRMC Chair Lloyd Axworthy.

Introduction

Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have hosted Syrian refugees since the very beginning of the country’s civil war in 2011.  Presently over 5 million Syrians live in these three countries, each of which has its own unique political, social and economic context. As the Syrian conflict either winds down or enters a new phase, the fate of the refugees depends on political and economic developments in Syria, on the willingness of host countries to allow them to remain, and on international support for host countries.

Pressures on the refugees to return to Syria are increasing and are likely to grow in the coming months and years.  While the international community has mobilized significant amounts of humanitarian assistance, the host governments need additional support as well as innovative strategies in continuing to provide the refugees a chance for security, self-reliance and dignity in their countries of refuge.  

Not only is this question important for the over 5 million Syrian refugees currently living in uncertainty and poverty, but it is also important for the international refugee system — which has been stretched to the breaking point in recent years. 

The research presented seeks to answer and propose solutions for realistic alternatives for Syrian refugees and the governments that host them in the medium- to long-term and ways in which host countries be supported to continue hosting refugees in light of growing pressures for return.

The reports presented focus on the following themes:

  • The impact of hosting refugees on host country economies
  • The impact of humanitarian assistance in the region
  • The issue of return of refugees to Syria 
  • The attitudes toward return and local integration of Syrian refugees and host communities

WRMC Honorary Chair HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal of Jordan opened the discussion with remarks on how to move from seeing refugees as a burden to human capital. In his remarks, His Royal Highness discussed the rising levels of donor fatigue as crises continue to unfold around the world and the need for the international community to share responsibility and unite to assist forcibly displaced persons from Syria and further abroad.

In his closing remarks WRMC Chair Lloyd Axworthy discussed how the world is at a crossroads as the number of displaced persons in the world grows to never before seen levels. On one hand, countries are retreating into national agendas, unwilling to assist forcibly displaced persons. On the other hand, there are growing demands for more multilateral and humanitarian efforts to assist the world’s most vulnerable – most notably refugees and other forcibly displaced persons. 

In order to ensure that more work is done to assist forcibly displaced persons, there must be more sharing of responsibility amongst members of the international community and collaboration between all sectors of society including government, civil society and faith based groups, and the business community to reset the response to forced displacement.

The Reports

The first report presented was “The Economic Impact of the Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: What It Means for Current Policies” by authors Cathrine Brun, Ali Fakih, Maha Shuayb and Mohammad Hammoud.  The authors highlighted that while Syrian refugees are often blamed for poor economic conditions in Lebanon, the country was already experiencing an economic downturn before their arrival. In contrast to narratives of the Lebanese Government, the authors found that the Lebanese economy has in fact benefited from Syrian refugees. However, despite this, Lebanon has adopted increasingly exclusionary policies over the last 10 years towards Syrian refugees, resulting in Syrian refugees experiencing difficulty in maintaining their residency permits and living in poor conditions with limited government supervision and protection. 

Pull quote: “The  government of Lebanon sees refugees as a security threat, they don’t see them as potential. This is a big issue we need to address and humanitarian organisations should be involved in this response” – Maha Shuayb

While there are no “quick fixes” to the situation, the authors put forward 6 recommendations born out of the WRMC’s A Call to Action (2019) to help resolve the situation in Lebanon. The recommendations heighted are as follows:

  • Changing the lens of how Syrian refugees are perceived by shifting the lens from deficit to asset
  • Acknowledging Syrian refugees’ positive role in the economy and stop blaming them for the country’s economic woes
  • Reframing policy to focus on the local, rather than exclusively national, level of policymaking to integrate refugees into different sectors of the economy
  • Creating institutional measures to incorporate, and foster the participation of Syrian refugees into local communities
  • Address pre-existing issues of marginalisation and inequality among Syrian and Lebanese populations
  • Reframe the Lebanese response to Syrian refugees from a security issue to a development and humanitarian issue.

The second report, “Moving beyond Humanitarian Assistance: Supporting Jordan as a Refugee-hosting Country” was co-authored by Rasha Istaiteyeh, Belal Fallah and Yusuf Mansur. The authors highlighted the impact of Syrian refugees on Jordan’s economy and suggested ways that the international community can deliver more international support. Following a review of the characteristics of Syrian refugees in Jordan, possibilities for Syrian refugees to find solutions to a lack of economic opportunities, and an analysis of the international assistance provided to Jordan from 2012-2019 the authors highlighted recommendations from the WRMC’s A Call to Action  that can be taken to support Jordan as a refugee host nation including, encouraging non-traditional international support for refugee-hosting countries through international financial institutions.

For example, Jordan should support WRMC’s call upon the WTO Ministerial Conference to allow trade concessions for refugee/migrant host countries. Furthermore, the Jordanian government should also support WRMC’s call on individual WTO members to seek duties relief within the scope of the existing GSP, including appropriate qualifying criteria, to support refugee-hosting countries. This would be similar to the treatment regarding the rules of origin qualification that Jordan received from the European Union in the Jordan Compact and would open global markets to Jordanian exports.

The WRMC also called on political leaders to eschew xenophobic impulses and short-term political gains when they are making policies affecting refugees and displaced persons. True leadership entails the protection of the most vulnerable and disenfranchised populations; it means doing what is right even when there are incentives to do otherwise. In Jordan, the demonizing of refugees became less common after the Jordan Compact introduced additional aid flows for refugees and their host communities. However, additional work needs to be done to combat xenophobia. Leaders not only must be convinced, but they must also convince their constituencies that the integration of refugees into the economy can be beneficial and should not be viewed as a threat.

The final report “Improving Syrian Refugee Inclusion in the Turkish Economy: How can the International Community Help?” was written by Murat Erdoğan, Kemal Kirişci and Gokce Uysal. In the report the authors highlight that in a span of less than a decade, Turkey has become host to the largest population of refugees in the world and the country needs more international support from development agencies to support its work with refugees. 

In their recommendations the authors called for an array of measures to improve Syrian refugee inclusion in the Turkish economy. Recommendations included measures to increase formal employment of Syrian refugees in the Turkish economy – particularly in the agricultural and industrial sectors – and the establishment of special economic zones on the border of Syria and Turkey where refugee populations are concentrated.

The authors gave special attention to improving local integration of Syrian refugees by granting citizenship to refugees through a process where those who have been under temporary protection for a certain period can enjoy the right to apply for “residency” first and later “citizenship.” In addition, the authors highlighted the need for the Turkish government to amend municipal law to ensure that the provision of funds is based on “the number of residents, including refugees” instead of “the number of citizens.” Such an amendment would facilitate municipalities’ ability to play a more comprehensive role in managing proper refugee inclusion and social cohesion, while also assisting municipalities in cooperating with international stakeholders to receive funding for programs 

Conclusions

Over half of Syria’s 17 million population is now displaced. Prospects for voluntary return for those refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey remain dim and there is little opportunity for Syrian refugees to seek refuge elsewhere.  Most refugees are stuck in limbo as host governments feel that international support has been insufficient. As a result, welcome is wearing thin among local populations that had previously welcomed Syrian refugees. As a result, there is reduced protection for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as the three governments increase pressure on Syrian refugees to return to the country they fled – despite evidence of human rights violations for those that do.

As shown in these reports – and presented by the authors – the situation for Syrian refugees is worsening. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are all experiencing economic downturns as a result of COVID-19 and Syrian refugees have become scapegoats for the economic problems of host countries – particularly in Turkey. Further, despite large amounts of international assistance to each of the three host countries it has not been enough to relieve the pressure they face. Worse, as COVID-19 continues to hinder countries economically around the world and emerging crises continue to develop – such as Afghanistan – humanitarian donors are finding it difficult to maintain even present levels of support.

In order to address these shortcomings, new sources of support beyond humanitarian relief must be located – such as through trade policy and working with international organisations such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund – as pointed out by the authors of the reports. Further, host countries must come to accept that refugees are not an ephemeral phenomenon, and take measures — supported by the international community —  to incorporate them into society and their formal economies. A change in narrative about Syrian refugees is needed, for if they remain as outsiders in countries where they have lived for 10 years, their quality of life will continue to deteriorate with widespread ramifications for human, economic, and security concerns both for refugees and the host countries alike.


The research was supported by the International Development Research Centre and Cuso International, and carried out by the Centre for Lebanese Studies, IGAM Academy in Turkey and three economists looking at the Jordanian situation and was supported by a research advisory group of experts from the region.  

The research presented builds on the WRMC’s A Call to Action: Transforming the Global Refugee System report, which recognized the inadequacy of current responsibility-sharing measures and urged the mobilization of non-traditional support to support host countries, 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 on the impact of COVID-19 on Syrian refugees in Jordan.