16 December 2013
Abdullah Ali

Abdullah Ali

Academy Fellow (2013-14)


Winter 2013 in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, where new arrivals are still living in tents in the cold in harsh desert conditions. Zaatari holds more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam
Winter 2013 in Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan, where new arrivals are still living in tents in the cold in harsh desert conditions. Zaatari holds more than 100,000 Syrian refugees. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam


Faced with the ongoing destruction and displacement in Syria, the international community has an obligation to help the more than 2.2 million registered Syrian refugees through supporting the neighbouring countries that are hosting them – especially the three where the potential for conflict is highest, namely Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

As well as increased funding for humanitarian needs, there should be a longer term, more comprehensive approach to strengthen the ability of host countries to accommodate refugees from the Syria conflict. This would help to prevent a further steep rise in social and political tensions.

Having absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Lebanon and especially Jordan are now sending refugees back to Syria in violation of international law. This is partially due to fear of the local political effect of the influx of refugees. The international community can help to calm these fears by providing assistance that is better targeted towards improving the host countries’ own resilience, as well as looking after the humanitarian needs of the increasing numbers of resettled refugees in Europe and America. (As a new report from Amnesty International highlights, European countries could also be taking in more refugees themselves. Currently they host less than one per cent of them.)

Lebanon is the smallest of these neighbouring countries and the one hosting the largest number of refugees. The UNHCR estimates the total at one million, of whom 773,694 are registered, which makes them almost a quarter of the Lebanese population. 

Statements from the international community have largely focused on preventing the Syrian conflict from spilling over into Lebanon and other neighbouring countries. But in fact, the conflict has already spilled over: just in a different form. The latest symptom was the bomb attacks on 19 November, when 22 people were killed and more than 140 injured outside the Iranian embassy in Beirut. This attack was probably retaliation against Iran and its ally Hezbollah for sending fighters to Syria to back the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Western governments and Gulf countries who have backed the Syria uprising  should recognize their obligation to provide various forms of assistance to help Lebanon tolerate the intense situation economically, politically, security and, most importantly, socially.

Discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon is not a new issue – tensions arising from Syria’s 25-year occupation of Lebanon mean Syrians are routinely stopped at checkpoints and subjected to questioning. But it is now more acutely on the rise.  International actors must work with the government to enhance the internal grassroots dialogue between Syrians and local communities to ensure growing tensions do not spill over into inter-communal violence.

Like Lebanon, Jordan, a country with limited resources (especially water and energy) is coming under increasing strain from the Syrian refugee crisis.

Jordan is hosting more than one million Syrians. Many are living under difficult conditions, lacking immediate needs, especially the more than 117,000 in Zatari camp. Efforts to provide basic sanitation, whether done directly by international NGOs, such as UNHCR, or by the Jordanian government with international support, would help to support stability in Jordan and could encourage the country to be more flexible in facilitating the entry of refugees.

More broadly, increasing international support for Jordan’s efforts to boost the productive sectors, either private or public, would create new employment opportunities in a country that already has a high percentage of unemployment (officially 14 per cent and probably higher). Specifically, supporting NGO grant and microcredit programmes, as advocated by the International Rescue Committee, could help both refugees and their hosts build small- and medium-sized businesses.

Another area where international assistance could be of great value would be in helping Jordan to set up a strategic plan for implementing a solar power system to diversify its limited sources of energy. 

The political and humanitarian situation in Iraq is also precarious.  Iraq has a fragmented society and a weak government internally and externally. One of the few stable regions, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, is coming under intense pressure, first, because it is hosting more than 207,000 Syrian refugees, and second, because of the fear of radical Islamist elements jeopardizing what has been a fairly stable security situation in the region.

The international community should be aware of the huge potential for the conflict in Iraq to grow: violence has already risen over the past year, partly because of the Syria spillover. Iraq’s international allies should be trying to increase stability by encouraging national dialogue including major Iraqi political and religious players. Diplomatic contacts between Iran and some of the Gulf countries would be most useful here, and should aim to find common ground on Iraq as well as discussing Syria.

The international community can do a lot to help prevent new conflicts from arising in the Middle East and should not delay providing greater support to Syria’s neighbouring countries. But these countries have obligations as well. They should try to show more willingness to assist international NGOs in helping to meet the basic needs of the three million refugees they host.  As Lebanese and Iraqi militias are fighting with the Syrian army there is a strong likelihood that Syrians in neighbouring countries will face increasing numbers of acts of ‘retaliation’ by non-state actors, particularly in light of the weakness of the central states of Lebanon and Iraq. 

A combination of efforts from the international community and the host governments could help ensure that the countries who have taken in the millions of refugees from war-torn Syria do not end up in civil war themselves.

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