Dismantling the Syrian refugee narrative: why can’t they just stay in the Middle East?

Several months ago, the haunting photo of a drowned Syrian boy off the coast of Turkey renewed international concerns over a worsening migrant crisis; however, in the wake of the Paris attacks and other tragedies around the globe, a pernicious refugee narrative is being established.

The current sociopolitical climate, driven largely by concerns of national security, continues to raise questions on Syrian refugee intake in developed countries. At the crux of this issue, an important question persists: why can’t the refugees just stay in the Middle East?

A recently published study on the welfare of Syrian refugees, released two weeks ago to little public notice, seeks to answer this weighty question. Conducted by the World Bank Group and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (WBG/UN), the report provides a statistical look at the Syrian refugee situation in Jordan and Lebanon — two countries that have taken in 633,000 and 1.07 million refugees, respectively.

The study’s primary finding is unequivocal: the refugees have little to no chance at a good life in their current situation.

Syrian refugees often arrive with very little and are unable to secure jobs due to local rules and stigmatization, amid other barriers. As a result, immense strain is placed on the social services of these countries.

Whilst international aid efforts have been very effective in addressing poverty in the short run, the study notes that such programs are unsustainable in the long term. As refugees become poorer and poorer in their host countries, the risk of a humanitarian disaster — in a region already rife with political and economic instability — becomes apparent.

The study observed a 90 per cent poverty rate for Syrian refugees in these countries, compared to national rates of 14.4 per cent in Jordan and 28.6 per cent in Lebanon. Indeed, the influx of refugees are driving up the poverty rates in these countries, neither of which was particularly wealthy from the onset.

For further insight into the massive social and economic consequences, consider that Syrian refugees now comprise 25 per cent of Lebanon’s population — the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, according to the U.N. refugee agency. In Jordan, it’s approximately 10 percent.

Photo Courtesy of: theglobeandmail.com

Photo Courtesy of: theglobeandmail.com

In the context of the welfare, education, and health care systems which are unable to address the growing needs of refugee populations, concomitant with economic stagnation and rapidly increasing poverty rates, it’s clear that these countries are overburdened.

The study also debunks a commonly cited myth among anti-refugee sources: that refugees are mostly young males. UN/WBG data suggests that a slight majority of refugees are female, and boys and girls under the age of 18 also comprise a slight majority.

Many countries are only accepting the most vulnerable refugees. For instance, the Canadian government’s refugee plan only includes children, women, and families at this time — a far cry from the influx of unaccompanied young males that various sources purport.

“The Syrian refugee population is much younger, the level of education is marginally lower, there is a much higher proportion of children and female head of household, and Syrian female refugees are also more likely to be married under the age of 18,” the report explains.

While the prospect for refugees is bleak at this point, the report alludes to some good news: even in spite of poor funding, international aid efforts have been highly effective in mitigating poverty among refugees.

The study examined the effect of direct UNHCR cash transfers and the World Food Program’s voucher program on refugee poverty rates. Whilst the UNHCR defines poverty more rigidly than Jordan or Lebanon, the poverty reduction of the aid programs is still striking: 69.4 per cent of refugees were in UNHCR-defined poverty before aid, compared to 16.6 per cent in poverty after aid.

If all programs were funded, the report concludes that this figure could be reduced to as little as 6.9 per cent. However, there is also mention of an important stipulation.

“These programs are not sustainable,” the UN/WBG report states. “They rely entirely on voluntary contributions and, when funding declines, fewer of the most vulnerable refugees are able to benefit.”

With the Syrian conflict entering its fifth year, aid agencies such as the UNHCR, World Vision, and UNICEF continue to struggle for donations.

A survey conducted by World Vision may offer an explanation: when presented with a list of prominent crises from the past two decades, four out of five Americans did not believe that the Syria crisis affected the most people.

Ultimately, the report is suggestive of a harsh reality: if the Syrian refugee crisis loses prominence for long enough, if governments and private donors move on, and if the enormity of loss is forgotten, then the poverty-reduction successes of the international aid efforts will almost certainly fall, and the situation will fade into obscurity.

Zak Haj-Ahmad

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