Syria’s Refugee Crisis Threatens Regional Stability

On February 21, the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and Mercy Corps hosted a discussion to analyze the impact of Syrian refugees on countries in the region, and discuss the way forward in this crisis. Speakers included Ambassador Antoine Chedid of Lebanon; Kelly Clements of the U.S. Department of State; Ambassador Lukman Faily of Iraq; Brookings Senior Fellow Kemal Kirişci, director of the Turkey Project; and Dina Sabbagh of Mercy Corps Jordan.

Brookings Fellow Megan Bradley, who moderated the discussion, opened with the observation that “there’s no end in sight to the humanitarian crisis facing the region” considering the currently estimated 6.5 million Syrians displaced in their own country and 2.4 million refugees to other countries. “When I had the chance to meet with Syrian refugees in the region,” she said, “I was, like many visitors to the region, really struck by the depth of hospitality in the neighboring countries.” Event audio is now available.

“My thought this morning is a very painful shout on behalf of Lebanon and the Lebanese to be heard in this international capital of Washington and by the international community. It is indeed a shout of pain.” — H.E. Antoine Chedid, Ambassador of Lebanon to the United States

Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States, H.E. Antoine Chedid, spoke candidly about the serious impact that over 900,000 Syrian refugees are having “in this tiny Lebanon.”

My thought this morning is a very painful shout on behalf of Lebanon and the Lebanese to be heard in this international capital of Washington and by the international community. It is indeed a shout of pain.

The refugees’ numbers, the statistics, the amount of the valuable assistance doesn’t matter that much anymore to us in Lebanon. What really matters is that the actual Syrian refugee crisis became obviously an existential problem for Lebanon. What matters really ladies and gentlemen is how to stop this hemorrhage; how to come to Lebanon’s need to help her cope with the huge impact of the Syrian refugees problem is important of course, but over and above, to improvise new realistic solutions to solve the Syrian refugee problem in Lebanon is the, the most important issue to us. We need solutions.

Ambassador Chedid described the “severe stress” that the Syrian presence is having in his country, including economic losses, higher unemployment, negative growth, and additional hostility in local communities. “The impact to the country,” he said, “is deep and dangerous and threatens to unravel the country economically, politically and socially.” He proposed three points as a means to address the crisis:

1. To provide sufficient funds. Human and financial resources in order to put frames and regulations [around] the presence of the incoming Syrian refugees.

2. To consolidate frameworks and spaces to lodge Syrian refugees on Syrian territories, to lodge them on Syrian territories, in safe zones of course, outside the reach of the ongoing conflict, knowing that the area of Syria is 18 times that of Lebanon.

3. To agree on holding an international conference on the issue of Syrian refugees, which does not merely call for financial assistance but begins to search for ways to share the burdens and numbers among states based on common responsibility and in light of historical precedents to provide support from all the concerned and capable states for the works of the International Support Group for Lebanon.

Concluding, the ambassador described “the most dangerous repercussion of the Syrian crisis in this area”:

By assisting the neighboring countries of Syria to cope with the refugees problem, the international community will enhance the security and the stability of these countries. The spillover of the Syrian situation to these countries, Lebanon included of course, is capable of destabilizing the regional stability, thus creating a conducive environment for terrorism and terrorist organization as we in Lebanon are witnessing terrorist acts almost daily. … This issue of terrorism should be addressed not only by Lebanon or Iraq or the other neighboring countries but by the international community, thus enhancing to seriously help reaching a political solution to the Syrian tragedy.

“We need to look at the longer view rather than just addressing the immediate issues of the refugees, from an Iraqi perspective.” — H.E. Lukman Faily, Ambassador of Iraq to the United States

Iraq’s ambassador to the United States, H.E. Lukman Faily, contrasted his country’s more successful ability to deal with Syrian refugees to Lebanon’s, and therefore emphasized less the humanitarian crisis and more the regional, longer-view crisis. Without discounting the severe human costs, he described “a more successful story” in comparison to Iraq’s neighbors, since there are fewer Syrian refugees in Iraq, which has more area, and also the fact that a majority of refugees are Kurds and are in Iraq’s Kurdish areas. “Life is much more bearable for them” and also “more manageable for us” he said.

Therefore, he said, “our concern is not dealing with the refugees but how long will this be.”

Ambassador Faily sat down with Megan Bradley after the event to share additional perspectives on the issues:

“Our hospitals are overwhelmed. Our schools are overcrowded. Garbage in the streets is piling up. Our sewage systems are being overrun.” — Dina Sabbagh, Mercy Corps Jordan

Ms. Sabbagh spoke both as a representative of Mercy Corps, which co-hosted this discussion, and as a Jordanian citizen. She described Jordan as a “magnet for refugees” in the region, including Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians and explained the “profound impact” that refugees are having on Jordan. “Some cities now have more Syrians than Jordanian,” she said. “Our hospitals are overwhelmed. Our schools are overcrowded. Even garbage in the streets is piling up. Our sewage systems are being overrun.”

Sabbagh detailed one particularly pressing challenge for Jordan: the water sector. She described how Jordanians get a water delivery about once per week and store their water in tanks on rooftops. “In some areas,” she said, “water doesn’t arrive for a few weeks.” Yet Jordan “has a very weak water infrastructure” and “with the onset of the Syrian crisis the problems in the water sector have accelerated.” And the problem is only exacerbated, she observed, by the fact that “Syrians come from a water-wealthy country have have a different pattern of dealing with water,” including using a water hose rather than a bucket, as Jordanians do. Such patterns increase “the tension because we don’t have enough resources to drink.”

“So how do we move forward?” Sabbagh asked.

The refugee needs are huge and they need international support but we also need to invest in the long-term needs of Jordan. Specifically infrastructure, demand reduction, and building the community resilience.

In this unstable region, we want Jordan to remain stable, and the stability of the country is at risk. With the continued support of the U.S. and international community, and focusing on the long-term challenges facing Jordan, we can start to address these challenges. We are thankful for the support of the congressmen, the U.S. government, the U.S. people for all what they provided us so far to help us face these challenges. [But] the needs are still great and the challenges are even greater.

“The way I approach it is that refugees, at least as far as they go in Turkey … are there to stay.” — Kemal Kirişci, TÜSİAD Senior Fellow, Brookings

Kemal Kirişci, TÜSİAD Senior Fellow at Brookings and director of the Turkey Project, focused on the long-term status of refugees, noting that those in Turkey are likely “there to stay.” Having himself visited refugee camps in Turkey and noting that the New York Times has praised Turkey for “how to build a perfect camp,” complete with air conditioning, TV, laundries and clean streets, refugees “want to get out.”

Despite these more positive conditions, Kirişci pointed out that more and more Syrian refugees in Turkey are leaving camps, but “outside camps life is tough” for them. Children have difficulty accessing education and adults have problems getting work permits. At the same time, while Turkish border communities have been receptive, “resentment is also increasing.” He cited a poll in which 86 percent of those polled want no more refugees in Turkey, and a third of those want the refugees in Turkey to be sent back to Syria. “Yet repatriation is not an option,” he said, “and doesn’t look like it will be an option in the near future.”

I hope I am utterly wrong, but my sense is that if a political solution emerges from the Geneva II process where in one way or the other the regime, or elements of the regime, stays behind in power, I am quite convinced that the likelihood that Syrian refugees, at least the ones in Turkey returning, or being able to return, is going to be highly unlikely.

Kirişci offered two options for Turkey: resettlement or integration. But “so far the resettlement option has not been particularly forthcoming and generous.” And on integration, he said, “most refugees end up staying where they are.”

In the end, Kirişci noted that burden-sharing among governments is going to be a critical factor in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis.

“This is a regional crisis of stability, one the U.S. government has at the top of its agenda.” — Kelly Clements, U.S. Dept. of State

Kelly Clements, deputy assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, spoke to the broad range of U.S. concerns and interests in the region and worldwide. But in terms of the Syrian refugee crisis, she said that:

it’s very important to get beyond the numbers, which are mind numbing in terms of their magnitude and their scope, and think about each of these 9.3 million people who are affected by this crisis in Syria and in the region as people, as individuals, as people who have gone through an incredible ordeal in terms of this crisis that has been going on for three years.

“Each country in the region is affected,” Clements said, adding that “this is not just a humanitarian crisis, this is a regional crisis of stability, one the U.S. government has at the top of its agenda.”

She proposed four United States government humanitarian objectives related to the crisis, noting “that one cannot divorce what is happening in the region from what’s happening inside the country of Syria”:

  1. Get as much humanitarian assistance into Syria as we possibly can.
  2. Make sure that we’ve got sufficient humanitarian assistance going to those neighboring countries to keep borders open, because it is far easier to protect people in the neighboring countries currently than it is in Syria.
  3. Stabilize the neighborhood … in terms of having this wave of additional people to support in addition to host governments’ citizens.
  4. To meet very important protection needs in and outside of Syria.

On this fourth point, Clements added:

I don’t want to neglect the issue of, in terms of burden-sharing, resettlement. Now this is not something that is a solution for a vast majority, but is a very important part of burden-sharing. And we, the United States as the largest resettlement country of all other countries combined, will be taking significant numbers of Syrians before this crisis is over, there is no doubt.

The deputy assistant secretary concluded her remarks by noting that “Our support has been vast, it’s been broad, it’s gone beyond humanitarian to development and economic and that’s something that we will continue.”

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