Since 2011, the civil war in Syria has killed more than 470,000 people, mostly civilians. Millions of people have been displaced, and nearly five million Syrians have fled, creating the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. By far the greatest burden of receiving Syria’s refugees has fallen not on the United States or on Europe, but on Syria’s neighbors: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Together, these countries are hosting most of the five million Syrians.
Each is coping with huge challenges, with different degrees of success. In my visits to those three countries, I‘ve been struck by how much more dignity has been accorded to Syrian refugees in Turkey than in Jordan, and especially in Lebanon.
Lebanon, with a population of six million, has long given refuge to Palestinians. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, some 450,000 Palestinian refugees are registered in Lebanon, most of them in camps. Even third-generation Palestinians born in Lebanon retain refugee status and live in refugee camps without a pathway to citizenship — almost 70 years after their ancestors arrived. Lebanese law even excludes refugees from most jobs.
To this refugee population, Lebanon has now added an estimated 1.5 million Syrians. Many live in plastic tents in crowded camps with scarce access to clean water, surviving on aid from nongovernmental organizations. Because the Lebanese government doesn’t want the Syrians to become permanent residents as the Palestinians have, the camps are not officially recognized or managed by the United Nations. Resentment toward Syrian refugees has reached alarming levels. With elections next year, some Lebanese politicians are promising to deport the refugees once the war in Syria has been fought to a standstill. For the time being, Syrians receive charity, not dignity.
Over the last 10 months, I visited several of these camps. In a camp in the Bekaa Valley, I met 12-year-old Nour and her sister, Aya, outside a bakery. As I stopped to buy sweets to celebrate the end of Ramadan, I asked Nour about her family. She told me that she and Aya had lost everyone. She now lives with her only remaining relative — an impoverished elderly aunt who has five children of her own.
Nour hasn’t been to school since the outbreak of the war. In Lebanon, she spends her days in the street with her sister, begging. Nour and Aya are among thousands of Syrian children who have to roam the streets selling napkins, candies and bottled water. Others work on farms to support themselves and what is left of their families.
At the Tal Sarhoun refugee camp, also in the Bekaa Valley, by government decree Syrian and Palestinian children go to United Nations schools only in the afternoon. This policy is a deliberate attempt to segregate refugees from Lebanese children. I saw many boys who, instead of going to school, were playing in the street with toy guns. What future is there for these young people?
Jordan has shown a more welcoming attitude toward its 1.3 million Syrian refugees. The largest camp, Zaatari, sits close to the northern border, where it is managed by the Jordanian Ministry of Interior and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and financed by a consortium of international aid agencies.
Still, up to 60,000 people are trapped at the Syria-Jordan border. After Jordanian security officials were killed by an Islamic State car bomb in 2016, the government closed down access to another camp, Rukban, and banned border entry to Syrians. That has left Syrians camping in the desert in a no man’s land, an area called “the berm.” There, thousands are vulnerable to airstrikes, living in desperate conditions and subsisting on scarce rations. Disease is rife, but the Jordanian authorities have blocked access to aid and medical treatment, designating the area a closed military zone.
Amid this suffocating humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration has threatened to cut funding to international aid agencies that are assisting Syrian refugees. As the United States slouches away from its global leadership role, regional powers like Turkey are stepping in to fill the vacuum. Turkey and its 80 million people have welcomed more than three million Syrian refugees.
“Syrian refugees are not a problem to solve,” the head of the Turkish emergency relief effort told me. “They are a reality to manage.”
The Turkish city of Gaziantep sets an example in treating refugees humanely. A beautiful city on the Syrian-Turkish border, Gaziantep is said to house 600,000 Syrians, approximately 40,000 of which live in the city’s five camps, which are administered by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency. The rest — the vast majority of them — live in the city itself. Refugees are allowed to work and have access to free health care and schools, and the government has repeatedly committed to creating a pathway to Turkish citizenship.
Gaziantep’s mayor since 2014, Fatma Sahin, has made the safeguarding of refugee rights a signature policy. Her city has become a global model on how to embrace the survivors of a war. I accompanied Ms. Sahin to see some makeshift homes in the city’s camps, where the Syrian refugees greeted us as though we were long-lost relatives. It was inspiring to see hope alive for an otherwise humiliated people.
Turkey’s refugee policy does not stop at its border. I visited Jarabulus in Syria, a town liberated from Islamic State control last year by the Turkish military. While Ankara’s motives are many, one concrete result is a reduction in the flow of refugees across the border and the possibility that many refugees can return to their homes. In place of the Islamic State’s summary justice and public beheadings, there is now a hospital with a maternity ward. The schools are being rebuilt, and the city has formed a new local council.
Though facing difficulties of its own — the attempted military coup was little more than a year ago — Turkey has managed to pursue a far more humane refugee policy than its neighbors. Europe has been happy to let Turkey play this leading role in refugee relief. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government struck a deal with the European Union in which Europe is funding Turkey’s refugee program in exchange for preventing migrants from reaching European shores.
Turkey’s response to the refugee crisis has considerably enhanced the regional prestige and power of its president. Mr. Erdogan has long cherished a dream of building a new Ottoman Empire, with Ankara as its capital. Turkey’s robust refugee policy has materially advanced that ambition.
Meanwhile, the war in Syria is winding down and Syrians are starting to go home. The International Organization for Migration recently reported that 600,000 Syrians have returned home this year. But this process remains reversible. President Bashar al-Assad’s merciless violence may yet produce another wave of refugees, since he plans to retake, among other contested areas, the city of Idlib. Last April, he again used sarin gas on civilians there; his next assault could be just as deadly.
Even if some form of interim agreement is reached, no one yet has proposed a satisfactory plan for the safety of Syrian refugees — including those who return and those who cannot. With the aid of his foreign allies, Iran and Russia, Mr. Assad will be the de facto winner of this grisly conflict, and he plans to stay in power. For many refugees, even after the war concludes, a return to Assad-controlled Syria is a death sentence. Given the regime’s atrocities, it seems certain that Syria’s neighbors will host large refugee populations for years, and possibly generations, to come.
Most Syrians I spoke to during my travels in the refugee camps told me of a common culture of abuse by their host country’s military and police. In Lebanon especially, generations of Syrians — broken women, men and children — may be forced to live under a state with little means or patience to deal with the long-term reality of their presence. People forced to flee from their homes and then rejected will be ripe for radicalization unless the world turns its attention to helping them rebuild their lives, with real homes, some honor and at least a little hope.
Rula Jebreal is a journalist, foreign policy analyst and autor.