This piece was prepared as part of the 2013–2014 Syrian Economic Reconstruction Project run by the Carnegie Middle East Center, which sought to help map the social, political, and institutional dynamics that will be generated when postconflict reconstruction begins in Syria.


Alongside the impact of the civil war taking place in Syria, the mass displacement of Syrians since 2011 is widely acknowledged as the most severe and pressing humanitarian catastrophe today. Millions of refugees and internally displaced people struggle daily to secure basic needs. The challenges facing the host countries and the international relief community in addressing those needs are complex.

The humanitarian crisis revolves around several interconnected dilemmas that confront host countries and local and international relief organizations. Addressing them requires long-term planning in conjunction with urgent humanitarian relief, as well as cooperation between host governments and local and international partners. In particular, over 3 million refugees are spread across five countries, and their legal status, rights, and living conditions, including access to basic services, vary widely across and within those countries. While the refugees are deeply vulnerable and in need of assistance, their presence and the direct involvement of some of the host countries in the civil war in Syria creates increased risk of spillover.

Omar Dahi
Dahi was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where he specialized in economic development and international trade, with a focus on South-South economic relations and the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa.
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Furthermore, the two smallest and poorest countries in the region, Lebanon and Jordan, are hosting a disproportionately large number of refugees, resulting in severe economic and societal tensions. By the end of 2013, most neighboring countries had either closed down or heavily managed their borders to let in fewer refugees, leaving only Lebanon with an open border. Maintaining open borders is crucial for refugees desperate to escape the fighting and economic decline, but the host countries cannot be expected to continue to shoulder the burden alone.

The United Nations (UN) put out an appeal for $6.5 billion in aid for 2014, based on expectations of 4.1 million refugees by the end of that year. However, donors’ enthusiasm is waning. International donors pledged $2.3 billion for the entire Syrian crisis in early 2014; even if all pledges are honored, there will remain a massive shortfall. The stream of refugees and the burden on the neighboring countries will continue as long as a meaningful political settlement and ceasefire in Syria are not achieved. Even if such a settlement is achieved, the refugees are likely to remain for many years.

The complete dependence of some of the refugees on aid has resulted in an understandable focus on short-term relief, but the crisis requires long-term planning on the part of host governments in collaboration with local civil society and multinational institutions. Specifically, it calls for attention to economic development needs, such as infrastructure upgrades and job creation, to lift all vulnerable populations, which include refugees as well as host communities.

Host Countries Overwhelmed

There are large numbers of refugees in four countries immediately neighboring Syria (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey) and significant numbers in Egypt as well. These countries have borne a large burden by absorbing hundreds of thousands of people in a very short period. Many have committed substantial resources to the refugees, and some have extended national treatment to Syrians, allowing them crucial access to the education and health sectors. In all cases, this has necessitated an increase in public spending by host governments at a time when many of them are facing substantial financial constraints. At times, the necessary expenditures are simply beyond the reach of those governments, given their small domestic economies and their reliance on external capital flows.

In addition, the Syrian crisis—and the upheaval associated with the Arab uprisings more broadly—has had a negative impact on these countries’ economies. It has lowered their economic growth rates, preventing them from realizing revenues that might have put them in a position to better assist the refugees. For example, the annual GDP growth rate in Lebanon and Jordan dropped from 8.5 percent and 5.5 percent in 2009, to 1.4 percent and 2.7 percent in 2012, to 2.8 percent and 0.9 percent in 2013, respectively. The fact that over 70 percent of refugees, including all Syrians in Lebanon, are considered to be outside the official camps set up by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) makes the task of reaching and serving them all the more difficult and costly.

Officials in the host countries, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, protest that they cannot be expected to carry this weight alone, and that they have already committed a large part of their countries’ overstretched resources. This is undoubtedly true. As a 2013 report stated, “It is hard to imagine Western countries responding with similar generosity should a comparable number of refugees have arrived on their borders.” By mid-2014, the total number of resettlement pledges worldwide was about 42,000, with about ten to fifteen European Union countries having offered resettlement to a small proportion of refugees. While most of those countries have pledged numbers in the dozens or hundreds, Germany has pledged a resettlement of 20,000–30,000. Australia has pledged to resettle 5,600, while countries such as Italy have not offered to resettle any Syrians. From the start of the Syrian uprising until early 2014, the United States has resettled a total of 121 Syrian refugees. It is especially unrealistic for the international community to make demands on these countries when they are facing an unprecedented crisis, internal civil strife, and polarization of their own, as well as an increasingly restless host population.

At the same time, this does not mean that there isn’t a wide range of policies that these countries are able to undertake that would alleviate the suffering of refugees as well as help address the internal economic dilemmas that their presence exacerbates. Nor do the severe burden or legitimate security concerns imply that refugees do not have minimal rights that must be respected. The most basic is the right to seek and enjoy asylum, which means open borders. Throughout 2013, neighboring countries’ borders gradually closed to Syrians. By many accounts, Lebanon remains the only country with a fully open border, while others are heavily managed or closed. People will continue disproportionately flooding into Lebanon despite its already large refugee population.

Regional Crisis

Just as the Syrian conflict itself has become regional in nature, the humanitarian crisis has also become regional. Though decisions are being made at the country-to-country level, actions by one host country will affect others. The border closings in Jordan have likely resulted in increased flows toward Lebanon.

This in turn points to another challenge, which is the need for long-term planning in the host countries in the midst of short-term priorities and political difficulties. Most refugees tend to express a desire to go home or to be resettled, but the statistics are not on the side of either. Two-thirds of all globally registered refugees—over 7 million people—are in protracted refugee situations.1 Given that over 2.3 million Syrians were already registered as refugees by the end of 2013, with perhaps many more not yet registered, Syrians are likely to remain in the host countries for years to come, even if a political solution were to immediately end hostilities.

However, the needed long-term planning has been complicated by two factors. First is that the nature of the crisis means that relief organizations and host governments have been too overwhelmed by daily needs to have the time to think about and plan for the longer run. In many cases, this has resulted in a lack of coordination among relief bodies, including multiple organizations working at cross-purposes. Second is the reluctance of the host governments themselves, which is driven both by fear of integrating refugees as well as exacerbating domestic tensions. Jordan and Lebanon are two countries where these problems are particularly salient, especially as they are already hosts to large Palestinian and Iraqi refugee populations.

The International Community’s Response

The severity of the Syrian crisis has led to its description as a Grade 3 emergency by the World Health Organization and a Level 3 emergency by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, both the highest levels of crisis in the UN system, given the over 6.8 million people estimated to be in need of assistance as of August 2013. Announcing a Level 3 emergency means a Humanitarian System-Wide Emergency Activation, making it a global priority for the international humanitarian system.2 It also calls for—among other things—the deployment of a regional humanitarian coordinator to lead the overall response and a more coordinated UN effort. Nigel Fisher, who previously served in Haiti, has been appointed as the coordinator. The Second International Humanitarian Pledging Conference on Syria in Kuwait City, which took place mid-January 2014, has resulted in total pledges of $2.3 billion out of a requested $6.5 billion for both the regional crisis as well as aid inside Syria.

Refugee Conditions: Between Official and De Facto Status

Common patterns have emerged across the region in terms of host countries’ responses to the influx and the needs and problems of the refugee population. There are also unique challenges specific to each country, which means that though there are across-the-board issues of concern, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. An examination of these similarities and differences will shed light on the collective challenges and the country-specific difficulties, as well as the way the refugee issue has been politicized.

Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey all have closed or strictly managed borders. Managing a border includes a variety of practices that range from shutting it down completely to allowing small numbers across to being selective about who is allowed to cross. These policies are generally not announced or made explicit. When combined with a general climate of rumors and misinformation, that makes the border status situation quite ambiguous and vague, not just for refugees but even for aid workers and organizations.

Refugees or Temporary Guests?

None of the host countries has officially granted the status of refugees to Syrians on its territory, preferring a variety of other classifications such as guests, asylum seekers, or displaced individuals. Out of the neighboring countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees, only Turkey and Egypt are signatories of both the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 protocol (Syria is not a signatory of either). Turkey has limited the treaties’ applicability to refugees from Europe only; Syrians have generally been subject to the laws and regulations governing foreign nationals or Syrians in particular, whether they are refugees or not.

The lack of clarity regarding legal status has two implications. First, it means that what Syrians are legally entitled to and receive in terms of services is often opaque, varies from country to country, and is dependent on the local context. Many refugees are also unaware of their rights. Second, it implies that the de facto treatment of refugees is vulnerable to political changes, as was the case in Egypt after the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi.

Fears of Integration

Another commonality is host governments’ fears of permanent settlement or integration of Syrians. Many Lebanese and Jordanians point to periods of upheaval in each country’s history as being associated with the long-term presence of large numbers of refugees, such as the Lebanese civil war. A Jordanian minister stated that conditions are calibrated to provide minimal aid so that refugees will have no incentive to remain, although this is an unspoken policy in other host countries.

Syrians continued to pour into neighboring countries throughout 2013; however, there were large numbers of refugees returning to Syria as well. For example, in fall 2013, an average of 5,000 Syrians returned from Jordan each month, and government estimates are of 50,000 returnees from Jordan during 2013. Refugee return includes a variety of push and pull factors. In some cases, the difficult conditions in the host countries, particularly in camps, are extreme enough to make some refugees consider return. For example, given the minimal opportunities for education in some host countries, many Syrians are braving the war to return home just so they can enroll themselves or their children in school or university.

Country Conditions: Politics Are Not Absent


The situation of Syrians in Turkey differs, depending on whether they are in or out of camps and whether they entered legally and with a valid passport or otherwise. Until summer 2014, the legal status was rather ambiguous. Turkey decided to revamp the legal system relating to Syrian refugees, and by fall 2014, it had gradually overhauled the system and replaced it with a new one.

Initially, Syrians were considered guests in Turkey, and therefore they were not given the legal status of refugee. As camps were built, Syrians living inside the camps were registered by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, which oversees the administration of the camps. Syrians outside of the camps have been able to obtain a one-year residency permit, which allows them some access to local services such as public schools. However, there is a caveat. Not all Syrians were aware of this issue, and two provinces, Hatay and Şırnak, did not allow any Syrians to obtain residency permits. In Turkey, the UNHCR merely provides technical advice to the authorities rather than overseeing the operation of refugee assistance inside and outside of camps.

Conditions in the camps in Turkey are usually considered to be the most acceptable by international humanitarian standards. Outside the camps, many refugees, especially middle-class Syrians, generally voice a sense of autonomy and welcoming by the Turkish state. Syrians in Reyhanlı run their own school with a revamped Syrian curriculum,3 but there are also routine attacks against poor Syrians living in open spaces and mosques in the southeast of the country.

The response of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is one of charity and brotherly relations, rather than of observing legal rights. Lack of official protection and legal status means that conditions are contingent on the support and generosity of the current government. At the same time, many Turks, particularly in the border areas, resent the Turkish government for opening the border not only to refugees but also to militants who continuously move back and forth, and this resentment is occasionally transferred onto the refugees themselves. While the borders were much tighter or even closed by the end of 2013, for many members of the local population, the damage had already been done.


Large influxes of refugees to Jordan throughout 2012 and 2013 led to the refugee population rising to over half a million and the establishment of Zaatari camp (in July 2012). Reports have spoken about mixed and difficult conditions inside the camps. Refugees inside the camps receive ration cards, while off-camp or urban refugees receive asylum-seeker certificates. Refugees in camps are allowed to leave only if they are “bailed out” by a Jordanian citizen, but in fact, most of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians in the country are those who have left camps outside the bailout system. In theory, the government officially forbids refugees from leaving the camps and threatens those who do with punitive action such as withholding humanitarian assistance. In practice, given that the camps were overwhelmed, it has allowed assistance to reach all Syrians. In fall 2014, however, there were increasing signs that the government was going to follow through on its threat for new entrants into the country that leave the camps.

In comparison to other countries, where refugees come from all over Syria and tend to be heavily middle-class, Jordan has welcomed refugees from lower economic backgrounds and primarily from Daraa and Homs. Palestinian refugees from Syria, however, saw the Jordanian border close within a year of the Syrian uprising and remain shut.

Though Jordan is a poor country, its infrastructure and services are somewhat more developed than those in Lebanon, particularly in terms of water and electricity. The conditions there vary dramatically within the camps and between camp and urban refugees. Some refugees interviewed by the author stated that they “ran away” from the camps because they could not bear the living conditions, particularly the security situation, isolation, and harsh climate. They would not return despite having free housing, healthcare, and education in the camp and having to pay high sums for rent outside. Some remain in the camps to treat specific wounds and leave once treatment is completed.

A University of California, Davis, study in April 2013 found that large numbers of Syrian academics and university students in the refugee population in Jordan are eager to continue their professions or education. Yet they find few opportunities, or they are legally or technically unable to do so due to lost or incomplete documents. This is a further obstacle for those inside the camps who have severe restrictions on mobility.4 Unlike the case of Lebanon, however, there were minimal ties between Syria’s middle class and Jordan. There are few Syrian civil society organizations working on relief, which adds to the sense of isolation for many Syrian refugees in Jordan, and the relatively high rate of monthly returns offers a hint of the difficulty they are facing.

The political dynamics in Jordan have not been as volatile as any of the other host countries. Though there were Islamist groups in Jordan that have agitated for a bolder stance against the Syrian regime, as of fall 2014, there has not been any of the sharp political and social polarization that has existed in the other countries. However, resentment toward the Syrian presence has become as palpable as elsewhere, and the government has been taking steps to seclude more incoming refugees in the camps as well as to limit the number of entries.


Iraq contained 214,000 registered refugees as of September 2014. Aside from very small numbers in Baghdad, most refugees are located in the northern Erbil, Dohuk, and Sulaymaniya Governorates in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the overwhelming majority of them are ethnic Kurds. Refugees also entered through Anbar Governorate, though the government of Iraq severely restricted entry and closed the border by October 2012.

Early reports generally showed a very high level of solidarity between Iraqi and Syrian Kurds; nevertheless, entry into the Kurdistan region gradually became more difficult throughout 2013 until it was effectively shut down by the end of August 2013. Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened in 2013 to intervene in Syria to protect Syrian Kurds from terrorism (that is, the Nusra Front and the militant Islamic State). He spoke of the Kurdish “brothers” coming from Syria, referring to the region as “Western Kurdistan,” and he called on them to remain and defend their land. Large numbers of Syrians are registered to the Domiz camp in Dohuk, though only half of them reside continuously in the camp. The Kurdistan Regional Government announced toward the end of 2013 that it would allocate more space for the construction of new camps.


In Egypt as well, the refugees were not immune to domestic politics. Syrians had initially benefited from open borders and high levels of solidarity from their Egyptian hosts. In addition, the relatively cheaper cost of living in Egypt compared to Lebanon and Jordan meant many Syrians saw it as a preferable final destination. The overthrow of Morsi, however, ushered in a dramatic change of fortunes for Syrian refugees. After some hesitation, the interim government declared that it would continue to extend national treatment in terms of education and healthcare for Syrians. Yet the borders were closed to Syrian refugees, and in general, entry into Egypt for holders of Syrian passports—refugee or otherwise—became much more difficult.

Syrian refugees, as well as Palestinian refugees from Syria, suffered from the backlash against the Muslim Brotherhood, and there have been numerous reports of assaults and mistreatment, at the hands of both mobs and the police. Many Syrians have been desperately trying to leave Egypt, in some cases undertaking risky and occasionally tragic boat journeys across the Mediterranean.

Lebanon on the Social Precipice

Before the summer of 2014, Lebanon was the only country to maintain a fully open border despite overwhelming numbers of refugees. However, during the -summer of 2014, attacks by groups such as the Nusra Front on the Lebanese Army led to violent reprisals against Syrians throughout the country, with vigilante groups physically assaulting Syrians at random. This shift in the mood precipitated an equally hostile official response. Starting in fall 2014, the borders have been managed with a sort of class profiling. Poorer-looking refugees are often sent back, and only middle- or upper-class Syrians are allowed through. Although many Syrians have resided in informal tented settlements, they have not been in official refugee camps because of the government’s explicit rejection of the idea. Yet, there were signs in fall 2014 that the government had decided to establish at least one camp to manage the very large overflow and housing shortage.

Lebanon had a caretaker government for most of 2013, which meant an inability to carry out major developmental decisions at a time when the refugee population was increasing by several hundred thousand and affecting the poorest communities in the country. Even if a fully functioning government had been formed, the central state is notoriously weak and incapable of addressing the crisis without external support. The direct involvement of two major political blocs, the March 8 group and the March 14 alliance, in the Syrian civil war has ramped up anxieties, sectarian cleavages, and the fear of conflict spillover. Within the overall refugee population, there are uniquely vulnerable communities including women and Palestinian refugees from Syria.

The number of refugees in proportion to the local population, weak central state, and regional inequalities, along with the unique way in which Lebanon’s internal political and social issues are interconnected with the ongoing civil war in Syria, make the crisis there particularly dangerous.

Social Tensions and Sectarian Divisions

Many unofficial estimates place the actual number of Syrians in Lebanon at 1 million more than the official number of registered refugees. The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia put the number of Syrians in Lebanon before the crisis at 300,000.5 Though most Syrians have fled from devastation and war, many move back and forth between the two countries even while registered as refugees. Conversely, many Syrians are now residing in Lebanon as a result of the conflict or economic disruption in Syria without registering as refugees. As a result, the UNHCR decided by fall 2013 to decrease its direct ration support to only the 70 percent of registered refugees it deemed the most needy. None are in official refugee camps, which as of early 2014 have been explicitly proscribed by the government, which fears the creation of refugee enclaves. The lack of camps complicates the work of many international agencies and leaves many refugees stranded in the bitter cold without shelter and proper hygiene and other facilities. But it also affords thousands of refugees a rare mobility. Though hard to quantify, it helps many refugees retain a sense of self-worth and autonomy despite the harsh conditions.

A World Bank report found that the total economic impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is devastating, with cuts in real GDP growth by 2.9 percentage points each year from 2012 to 2014, pushing 170,000 Lebanese into poverty. Given the strain on everything from roads, healthcare, and electricity to solid waste management, it estimated that $2.5 billion would be needed to bring the Lebanese economy back to its pre-crisis position.

The presence of Syrians has undoubtedly increased social tensions, particularly as the two main political movements, March 8 and March 14, have backed differing sides of the uprising. Since most refugees are concentrated in the poorest regions in Lebanon, such as Akkar, Wadi Khaled, and the Beqaa Valley, they have exacerbated the ongoing difficulties in those regions. Paradoxically, the situation is so dire that the Lebanese population is grudgingly trying its best to adjust to the reality, given that even small incidents might swell into a social explosion. But a spate of car bombings in 2013 indicated that a more sinister shadow war is more likely than all out civil strife.

The sectarian issue should not be pushed too far. Large numbers of refugees also exist in the south of Lebanon, in areas heavily populated by Shia or people who are otherwise sympathetic to the Syrian regime. Even though Hezbollah has publicly entered the Syrian war, for example, it has hosted and distributed aid to Syrian refugee populations with clearly differing political sympathies. Meanwhile,s areas that were initially enthusiastically supportive of the Syrian uprising and embracing of the refugees have seen complaints and an erosion of sympathy.

Vulnerable Populations: Women and Palestinian Refugees From Syria

Refugees are breaking down under the daily struggles and tensions, and the worst-off are increasingly confined to small, unsafe, and unsanitary spaces. They complain of exploitation in the form of higher prices for rent, food, and medicine. Many refugees, particularly women, express a desire for return or resettlement because they cannot bear to remain in Lebanon in what they call tough and humiliating conditions. Women and young girls in Lebanon are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, including forced prostitution, early marriage, and other gender-based and sexual violence. In a 2013 study conducted by Oxfam, many women reported high emotional and psychological stress given the new tasks they have had to undertake and the almost daily harassment they suffer.6

With the newly displaced refugees have come large numbers of Palestinians who had been residing in camps and towns in Syria since 1948. As officially registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, they are legally prohibited from formal employment in many professions, and they must deal with their own vulnerability on top of the overall challenges for new refugees. There is a trend (or at least a perception) that aid organizations have transferred expenditures from existing Palestinian refugees to newly arrived Syrians and Syrian Palestinians. These hardships are increasing tensions within the existing Palestinian communities, and the Palestinian refugees from Syria fear being permanently shut out of the country even if a political settlement is reached.

Healthcare and Education

A consistent complaint relates to education. To give a sense of scale, it was estimated in 2013 that there were over 300,000 Syrian children between five and seventeen years of age in Lebanon, while the total number of Lebanese children enrolled in public school in the whole country was about 300,000. The Lebanese government has instructed public schools to accept Syrian children, but only about 30,000 of them are in fact receiving an education. Some Syrians are returning home, braving the war just to be able to enroll themselves or their children in school or university. In 2013, only 10 percent of refugee children in Lebanon were estimated to be receiving a formal education.

Furthermore, multiple curricula are emerging. For example, in Syria there is the traditional Syrian curriculum both in areas under regime control and in some areas outside of it; Lebanese and Jordanian school curricula; informal NGO curricula; and other, more conservative or religiously oriented schools. The lack of a standard curriculum increases social fragmentation on top of the contrasting experiences in the different countries, or even within the same country.

The older the children, the less likely they are to remain in school for two main reasons. First, they lack the basic language skills to enroll in Lebanese public schools with an English or French curriculum. While younger children can catch up relatively quickly through an accelerated learning program, this is more difficult for older students. Second, the attraction of the informal job market is greater for older children. Therefore, this fragmentation is likely to continue.

All this contributes to the development of lost generations of illiterate or semiliterate Syrian children and teenagers, who are otherwise the most ready in terms of age to participate in the rebuilding process. In order to solve the double problem of access and fragmentation, an important initiative labeled the Syrian Virtual School seeks to digitize the entire Syrian curriculum and introduce a hybrid (online and in person) learning model to reach tens of thousands of Syrian children both inside and outside the country.7

The crisis’s effects are felt across the board of course, not just in education. The healthcare industry in Lebanon is largely private, with costs too high for most Syrians, and government hospitals are out of beds in some areas such as the Beqaa Valley. Health workers are worried that a public health catastrophe could break out at any moment, especially in the informal tented settlements in the Beqaa Valley. The polio outbreak in Syria and its possible spread to neighboring countries shows that such fears are warranted. Mental health is a topic of particular concern for both adults and children who have suffered traumatic episodes before and during their journey to Lebanon. Organizations such as International Medical Corps, which specialize in primary and mental health, have had to introduce minor user fees and are moving to supply some Syrians with basic training to address the gaps in their respective communities.

Given its geography and social ties, Lebanon cannot extricate itself from what takes place in Syria, and it was bound to pay a high price for the tragedy unfolding there. However, a passive approach to the refugee crisis is likely to be costly. While many Lebanese politicians fear publicly initiating discussions about long-term solutions, inaction is also damaging, and it hurts ordinary and poor Lebanese who are exasperated with the status quo. With support from international organizations and donor countries, there is no reason the negative aspects of the crisis cannot be mitigated.

Conclusion: Recommendations and Long-Term Solutions

As demonstrated throughout this study, the complexity of the refugee problem requires coordination on multiple fronts. Host countries must continue to allow entry to legitimate refugees. However, the international community cannot press this demand without also providing support and assistance in finding solutions. These must come through a combination of investment in longer-term development and attention to immediate humanitarian needs in an effort that involves host countries, Syrian and host-country civil society, relief organizations, and multinational institutions. In some countries, the economic downturn preceded the refugee influx and there are underdeveloped regions hosting large numbers of refugees in desperate need of infrastructure upgrades and job creation. Finally, when the peace process is under way, full voluntary repatriation for refugees must be included in any solution.

State Involvement and International Coordination

In all the host countries, the role of international relief organizations should ideally be to assist and complement the role of the state, not to replace it. In Lebanon, large and well-respected international NGOs such as the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils are straining under the pressure of providing logistical and daily support to the refugees, and they would prefer more direct state involvement. While that happens in countries with higher state financial capacity such as Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey, in Jordan and Lebanon it has proven to be a challenge. However, the current crisis presents an opportunity in both Jordan and Lebanon to strengthen state capacity and work toward positive involvement in developmental initiatives that will ultimately benefit their own citizens.

In Jordan and Lebanon, the two fiscally weakest states, economic challenges preceded the refugee crisis. For example, in Jordan, the onset of the Arab uprisings resulted in a reduction in foreign direct investment and a sharp decline in tourism. Gas inflows from Egypt to Jordan were sharply reduced through most of 2012, resulting in increased fuel costs. In Lebanon, infrastructure and services were poor, and there were large regional disparities. The huge influx of Syrians has increased consumption and investment spending in many neighboring countries including Turkey and Jordan. There certainly have been substantial money inflows into the host countries, while trade from Lebanon to Syria has increased with the decline in Syrian manufacturing. For the first time in a long period, Lebanon has a positive trade balance with Syria. A late 2013 survey estimated average cash expenditures for Syrian families in Lebanon to be approximately $520 per month, covered by savings or international organization support. Given that the UNHCR has registered over 184,000 households as of this writing, the contribution to consumption is substantial, and many Syrians are middle-class professionals who have moved substantial assets.

However, the benefits and costs are not distributed equally in Lebanese and Jordanian societies, whether by region or economic class. Most of the refugees in both countries are in the poorest regions, and the capital and labor flows are overwhelmingly benefiting businesses and landlords while negatively impacting the middle and lower classes through decreased wages and increased rent costs. The rent money alone represents a substantial transfer of wealth from Syrians and the international community to Lebanese and Jordanian landlords. Moreover, the net economic calculation does not take into account social and other tensions. At this point, there is likely to be little sympathy from many Lebanese and Jordanians that Syrians are also contributing to their economic prosperity.

What is more useful moving forward is to think through the long-term solutions to these issues that will benefit both the refugee and local populations. Innovative solutions such as conditional cash transfers (like those in Mexico and Brazil), administered by the state to refugee and host families tied to certain performance criteria, are one possible area of further exploration, especially as the UNHCR increasingly moves toward cash transfers. Some of these initiatives have already been implemented, like one by the Polish government in the Akkar area, which provides cash assistance to Lebanese families in order to host Syrian refugees.

Close cooperation between host governments, the UNHCR, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund can help host governments maximize the developmental and growth impact of expenditures. It is essential that the efforts of multinational institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, complement the efforts of host countries, the UNHCR, and other relief organizations rather than work at cross-purposes.

The continuation of preexisting policy goals like fiscal consolidation and lowering debt-to-GDP ratios must be weighed against needs for development and infrastructure investments. Though the UNHCR has put forward a shift toward development in its sixth Syria Regional Response Plan, this cannot materialize without buy-in and cooperation from all parties. Both the academic and policy literature on economic policies in conflict and postconflict situations has shown that traditional economic policy that focuses on austerity or state retrenchment is inadequate or even counterproductive. In such situations, political goals must take precedence over economic ones. Though these countries are not in a state of war—the shock to their economies is temporary, and there has been no destruction of infrastructure—the intersection of the regional political and economic crises implies that they are experiencing the contagion of regional upheaval.

Developmental initiatives administered by the state, such as infrastructural investment in services, healthcare, education, job creation, and targeting host communities as well as refugees, have the benefit of strengthening state capacity and relieving tensions along with the goal of assisting refugees. Though large-scale initiatives carry certain risks, so does inaction, particularly as both refugee and host communities become increasingly restless. Increased local input, transparency, and media outreach are also key to getting local and national communities onboard with these projects and to better inform refugee communities of their rights.

Syrian Civil Society

The story of the Syrian refugees in the region is not just one of people passively needing assistance. The displacement of Syrian society en masse means there are now Syrian refugees from across the ethnic, sectarian, and socioeconomic spectrums. Included in this group are large numbers of people with relatively high human capital, entrepreneurial abilities, and different political projects, lest it be forgotten the Syrian uprising brought about a flowering of civil society throughout the country. Many of the organizers turned to relief when the uprising became militarized, and then they left the country when the security or economic conditions became too difficult. Plenty of those same people are now running relief efforts and forming or joining nongovernmental organizations that are either exclusively Syrian or that include members of the host country, and the projects they lead or join often reflect their political bent. Through their differing orientations—religious or secular, working in transitional justice, advancing civic values, or focusing on education, relief, or healthcare—one can see a microcosm of Syrian society.

For example, in Lebanon, many of these organizations work with Lebanese counterparts; they are well attuned to the situation on the ground, particularly with regard to host community–refugee relations. One organization in Tripoli led the Bread and Salt campaign, which was a series of initiatives to give back to the local community. Others, in the Shatila camp, dedicated large parts of their relief efforts to local cleanup and hygiene initiatives. Almost all such efforts are run by middle-class Syrians who are themselves refugees. Their intimate knowledge of Syrian society suggests a role for them in the long run, as they have experiential knowledge of the challenges and potential of refugee populations.

Though some such organizations receive funding from international organizations, many important projects lack support. These organizations help provide employment for young Syrians, sustain them in the region, and build their capacity to assume future leadership roles once they return to Syria. Host governments and international relief organizations should continuously target and work with these groups to support their initiatives.


The needs and rights of refugees should be a priority for the regional and international communities, and they should not be forgotten while the other aspects of the crisis such as combating terrorism or the civil war itself take precedence.

Millions of registered refugees worldwide are in protracted refugee situations without serious prospects for durable solutions. It took over twelve years for almost half of the 2 million displaced Bosnians to return to their former places of residence, when the UNHCR declared in 2004 that returns had passed the 1 million mark. Unless explicit mechanisms are undertaken to ensure voluntary repatriation when feasible, many Syrians are likely to remain in long-term limbo as well.

The stated desire of most refugees, and the ideal solution, is what the UNHCR labels voluntary repatriation, as long as it is truly voluntary. Several studies done in Jordan and Lebanon, as well as field research by the author, confirm that most refugees envision a return to Syria sooner or later. A survey by the Syrian Medical Committee in Zaatari camp indicated that people’s preferences are to return to their homes and not to other camps or safe havens inside Syria. Many refugees may be hesitant to return immediately to areas they deem unsafe, and the amount of destruction may make it impossible at any rate. Actual return is likely to be influenced by other factors, including economic prospects, education, and the policies of host countries.

Therefore, return must be voluntary, when feasible. However, a key point will be whether the combatants—whether the government or opposition fighters—who control the areas that the refugees are from will allow them to return. An explicit clause in the peace treaty guaranteeing the refugees’ right of return to their villages, towns, and cities, along with a precise mechanism and timetable for return, would be a first step. Such a clause should also state that Palestinian refugees from Syria will be permitted to return to areas in Syria from which they were displaced and allowed the same rights they enjoyed before March 2011. Finally, if local and regional elections take place in Syria, refugees must be allowed to cast absentee ballots so that they can be represented even while not physically present.

The crisis in all countries shows the need for holistic approaches and long-term planning. It cannot be solved through humanitarian assistance alone. There are too many refugees, and they are likely to stay for a long time, particularly in the absence of a negotiated settlement and political transition accompanied by ceasefires and an improvement in the security situation. The continuation of the armed conflict means that the refugee outpouring will persist, and increased militarization or the opening up of new battlefronts carries the danger of expanding the war to previously safe areas.

1 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines “protracted refugee situations” as those in which refugees have lived in exile for five years or more with no serious prospect of finding a “durable solution,” meaning repatriation, integration into the host country, or resettlement in a third country.

2 There are five criteria for declaring a Level 3 emergency: scale, urgency, complexity, capacity, and reputational risk. Scale reflects the size of the affected areas, the number of people affected, or the number of countries affected. Urgency indicates the importance of population displacement, the intensity of armed conflict, and crude mortality rates. Complexity means a multilayered emergency, multiple affected countries, the presence of multiple actors, a lack of humanitarian access, high security risks to staff, and so on. Capacity reflects a low national response capacity, or a weak or fragile state. Reputational risk indicates attention and visibility from the media and the public, as well as expectations of the humanitarian system by donors, the public, national stakeholders, and partners. “Humanitarian System-Wide Emergency Activation: Definitions and Procedures,” Inter-Agency Standing Committee, April 13, 2012.

3 Interview with Senay Ozden, professor at Koç University in Turkey.

4 Keith David Watenpaugh, et al., “Uncounted and Unacknowledged:Syria’sRefugeeUniversityStudentsandAcademicsin Jordan,” University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative and the Institute for International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund, April 2013.

5 Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, “Impact of the Syrian Crisis on the Lebanese Economy,”the United Nations,  July 2013.

6 Roula el-Masri, et al., “Shifting Sands: Changing Gender Roles Among Refugees in Lebanon,” ABAAD-Resource Center for Gender Equality and Oxfam, September 2013.

7 For more information on the Syrian Virtual School, visit or contact Milad Sebaaly at