Nearly four million Syrians – around one-fifth of the country’s population – have either fled the war or been born to displaced parents over the last four years. Most are temporarily hosted in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and many face escalating hardships. Adequate shelter and education are hard to come by, and finding the means to live is becoming increasingly difficult.
Mobilizing resources to address the Syrian refugee crisis has not been easy: the host countries - with the exception of Turkey − were already facing significant economic and political challenges of their own before the conflict, and international appeals for aid for refugees have typically only been about half-funded. Although the current picture is bleak, doing more to develop refugees’ long-term capacities could help their current situation and also mean that, when the war ends, returning refugees could be a boon to the country’s reconstruction and recovery.
Experts on post-conflict transitions advise that in the initial period after a war ends, economic reconstruction should focus on humanitarian assistance and job creation, as mentioned in a 2012 paper by Dutch think tank Clingendael. Some refugees are already building experiences and skills that will contribute to job creation and facilitate investment in reconstruction.
Syrian refugees run small shops and factories, usually without legal permission, in addition to working informally in the construction, agriculture and hospitality sectors of host countries, among others. The commercial street in Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp has been so bustling that it became known as the ‘Champs-Élysées’. Refugees who engage in similar activities upon return to Syria will create jobs in small- and medium-sized businesses.
This impact might seem too small to be significant, but by comparison, Syrians who remained in country during the war will have had far fewer opportunities to attain the same level of skills, particularly in the most war-torn parts of the country. A 2014 UN report found that Syria’s human development indicators have regressed by more than four decades during the conflict.
Certain refugees also have access to types of training and education that are rare in Syria. In Lebanon, for example, French and English are the primary teaching languages in many schools, and in Turkey, Syrian children are often taught in Turkish. It is crucial that Syrians also be educated in their native Arabic, but provided this is the case, Syrians who have studied in Lebanon or Turkey would be valuable additions to businesses or public sector projects working on reconstruction. Their language skills, contacts abroad and greater understanding of neighbouring countries’ cultures and practices would go a long way to improving the business environment in Syria for Lebanese, Turkish and even Western investors. Channelling aid for the Syria crisis to improve the education systems in host countries can also have immediate benefits to local children as well as refugees.
In addition to economic reconstruction, post-war Syria will need sustainable political reform and some form of reconciliation and dialogue process. Regardless of what type of post-war government is set up, rebuilding the social contract will require leadership and support from Syrians with experience in civic participation, inclusive decision-making, peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Syrians, particularly youth, are currently developing these skills through involvement in civil society-led projects in both host countries and within Syria.
Much more could be done to enable Syrian refugees to build these capacities, including temporary work permits, increased support for civil society-led projects and greater openness to resettlement or humanitarian admission programmes in Western countries. Taking these steps would not be politically easy: in neighbouring countries, the presence of Syrian refugees can make life more difficult for locals, particularly for those who were already the poorest. In the areas where refugees are living, rents have gone up, wages for unskilled labour are down, schools and hospitals are overcrowded and rubbish goes uncollected. In order to take in more Syrians, countries such as the UK and the US would have to manage rising anti-immigrant sentiment and fears raised by attacks from extremist jihadi groups in Paris and elsewhere.
But the alternative scenario would eventually be worse: not enabling refugees rebuild their homeland would have long-term economic and security costs at both the regional and international levels. Instead, positive policy responses addressing the situation of refugees could help contribute to post-war efforts to secure the long-term reconstruction and stability of the land they were once forced to leave.
This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.
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