The Cost of Being a Good Neighbor

The Syrian Civil war has dragged on for over two years and has resulted in the largest refugee crisis in recent history with over 2 million forcibly displaced people; roughly 8 times more than reported in a CGP blog post last year. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports show that if internally displaced people are also included, the number amounts to more than 6 million Syrians removed from their homes. More than 97% of Syrian refugees have migrated to countries in the immediate area, putting immense pressure on their people, governments, and economies. The three largest recipients of refugees, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, have been doing their best to accommodate such a large influx of people. But with limited assistance their hospitality can only last so long as projections of future refugees continue to skyrocket.

Syrian Refugee statistics from Mercy Corp as of Aug. 2013
Syrian Refugee statistics from Mercy Corp as of Aug. 2013

The number of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the largest recipient, stands at over 700,000 people and is increasing every day. When compared with the 2010 population of 4.2 million, this is an extremely significant increase ( 17%, though likely higher due to illegal entrants) in such a short period of time. In addition, the pro-Assad Lebanese government does not allow for the establishment of official refugee camps for Syrians on the basis of security, insisting that, “…any camp… will become a military pocket that will be used as a launch-pad against Syria and then against Lebanon.” This is forcing Syrians to find shelter anywhere they can, living among the local people, and competing for increasingly scarce resources. Tensions are on the rise as Lebanese perceptions of Syrians begin to sour, remembering the issues of past Palestinian refugee populations contributing to Lebanon’s descent into civil war not long ago

“In a recent poll of Lebanese nationals conducted by the Norwegian research foundation Fafo, more than half of respondents said they believed Syrian refugees were a threat to national security and stability. Ninety-eight percent said they agreed that Syrians were taking away jobs from Lebanese “to some extent” or “to a great extent.””

Turkey can be looked at as a contrast to Lebanon in terms of how open their embrace of Syrian refugees has been. The number of known refugees in Turkey has recently exceeded 500,000 and, similar to Lebanon, the number is expected to grow exponentially over the next year. Since the beginning of the influx of Syrian refugees the Turkish government has maintained an “open-door policy” to allow for an easy transition across the border. In addition, the International Crisis Group has reported that refugee camps in Turkey are the “best refugee camps ever seen.” However, Turkey does not technically acknowledge arriving Syrians as “refugees” but instead as “guests”. This status offers fewer rights and does not limit the acceptable locations for the camps. Thus, the Turkish government has established these camps closer to the Syrian border than otherwise permitted. This has resulted in Turkish refugee camps being used as retreats for rebel forces to rest, receive medical attention, or to visit families. The majority of refugees do not reside in these camps however, instead attempting to integrate with border towns. This has put a strain on local economies and the Turkish people living in these areas.

“Border residents complain about the effects of Syria’s refugee crisis on daily life. They grumble that rental prices for housing have risen, and some claim that wages have dropped as a result of refugees accepting lower compensation.”

There is also a growing concern in Turkey that the religious aspects of the Syrian conflict will ignite sectarian tensions within the country. The Turkish government has voiced its support of Sunni majority rebel forces in Syria, and continues to polarize the people of Turkey along religious lines. In the province of Hatay, which borders Syria, the Sunnis and Alevis have lived together peacefully. However, locals have already felt that tolerance is on a decline, “”Before, nobody used to care about religious affiliations but now people do. Unfortunately, much of this is fuelled by the government.”” There is also a fear that Sunni extremist elements from Syria that are openly antagonistic towards minority sects will target Turkish Alevis. It is important to note that Arab Alawites associated with Assad and the Turkish/Kurd Alevis are often conflated despite being extremely different.

The Za'atari refugee camp has become Jordan's 4th largest city.
The Zaatari refugee camp has become Jordan’s 4th largest city.

As the number of refugees continues to rise with up to 5,000 Syrians fleeing their homes every day neighboring countries struggle to deal with such a large scale crisis. These governments are stretching their limited resources as the international community continues to skip out on the bulk of the bill. If this continues, the spread of instability in the region could lead to a larger scale conflict and an even bigger humanitarian crisis.


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