Syria’s Refugee Crisis: Prospects for Regional Stability?

As the 17-month-long civil war in Syria drags on, thousands of refugees flee to neighboring Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.  No matter the ultimate outcome of the conflict, the refugee crisis will have a lasting impact on the region’s economic and social stability.

The exact number of refugees is difficult to estimate. The official number of those who have registered for UN assistance now stands at over 200,000. If one includes unregistered refugees and those refugees that remain inside Syria, the number is even higher. There are reportedly 10,000 people on the Syrian side of border waiting to be allowed entry to Turkey, which has temporarily closed its borders while it finishes building more refugee camps. Jordan—a country with a population of only 6 million—has reportedly taken in 180,000 refugees, only a small minority of which have registered with the UN.  It is threatening to close its borders as well.

Counting the refugees is further complicated by the fact that Syria is already home to refugees from other, past conflicts. Palestinians, Afghans, Somalis, and Iraqis, among others, fled to Syria in search of political stability, despite the repressive nature of the Assad regime. Many of them are now returning to their home countries after years of living in Syria. Their experience may be an indicator of what Syria’s neighbors are now facing with large refugee populations living on their territory.

The refugee crisis is taking its toll on Syria’s neighbors. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees obligates States to accommodate refugees. Grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this document recognizes the right of individuals fleeing persecution to receive asylum. It also outlines certain minimum standards of treatment for refugees including access to primary education, housing and public relief assistance. While UN High Commissioner on Refugees, the Red Crescent and other groups have provided some assistance, providing basic amenities for thousands of refugees is depleting government resources and exacerbating sectarian tensions.

Sectarian fighting as a result of the refugee crisis has already erupted in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. Turkey, which has a long-standing conflict with its Kurdish population, recently launched air strikes against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which, Turkey claims, is using the Syrian conflict as an opportunity to increase operations against the Turkish government. In Jordan, a protest last week over conditions in the Zataari refugee camp—temporary home to 26,000 people—had to be quelled with tear gas.  Not wanting to upset its already delicate sectarian balance, Iraq is trying to refrain from taking sides in the conflict.  But it is catching heat from the United States over Iranian support of the Syrian government. As Syrians seek refuge outside of their own country, they are drawing Syria’s neighbors into the conflict.

The dismal state of the Syrian economy adds momentum to the stream of refugees and raises questions about what kind of life refugees will return to once the conflict is over. Syria typically exports the vast majority of its oil to Europe.  But European countries have cut them off with sanctions, eliminating 20% of the Syrian government’s revenue. Tourism —a vital source of foreign currency reserves and employment in the hospitality industry—has vanished as a result of the violence. Syrians living abroad report that they are having difficultly sending remittances home to family members.  And prices for basic goods are skyrocketing.  High unemployment, food and fuel shortages, and rampant inflation are prompting the government to rollback liberal economic reforms implemented over the last decade. While the Syrian economy is not likely to collapse in the near term because of assistance from Iran and Russia, the conflict will have lasting impacts on Syria’s economy which, prior to the outbreak of fighting, was in the midst of steady (albeit modest) growth and economic reform.

Concerned about regional stability, Turkey has called for the creation of a “buffer zone” in Syria which would provide a space to safely accommodate refugees inside Syrian territory.  UN action in support of a buffer zone is unlikely given Russian and Chinese opposition on the Security Council.  But if the United States and NATO get drawn into the conflict, it may be in support of Turkish action over the refugee crisis. Even if the international community does not intervene militarily, they will be dealing with the fall out of conflict for years to come.


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