In recent months, the Syrian government has stepped up its assault on Idlib province, the last rebel-held area in the country. Turkey and Russia have implemented a fragile cease-fire, but the onslaught has already displaced nearly 1 million Syrians toward the Turkish border. As many as 3 million people are at risk of further displacement should the violence resume. While the latest battle makes it clear that the war is far from over, the Syrian government’s gains raise a pressing question: What is next for the 5.6 million Syrian refugees already in neighboring countries?
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has periodically issued plans for “durable solutions” to the Syrian refugee crisis since at least 2017. Generally, the United Nations considers three options to be “durable solutions” for refugees: third-country resettlement, voluntary repatriation and local integration. But UNHCR has acknowledged that keeping refugees where they are now is unlikely to work. Few third countries have offered to accept the refugees, and only 23,625 Syrian refugees were resettled in 2019 — less than .005 percent of the total displaced in Syria’s neighboring countries. Although increasing numbers have been returning to Syria, only 5.9 percent of refugees surveyed by UNHCR between 2018 and 2019 said they intended to return within the next year.
Turkey’s recent decision to allow refugees to migrate toward Europe — while keeping its own border with Syria closed — illustrates Syrian refugees’ precarity in countries neighboring Syria. Despite international efforts to contain refugees to the Middle East, neighboring countries have offered refugees extremely different levels of protection and socioeconomic rights. Syrian refugees are at risk of being marginalized further — or worse, sent back to Syria under pretense of the conflict’s end. Here’s why keeping Syrian refugees in neighboring countries isn’t working.
Sharply different conditions for refugees
Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are the three countries primarily hosting refugees. Their policies vary sharply and have changed over the course of the nine-year Syrian civil war.
Turkey initially welcomed Syrian refugees, opening its doors and granting access to health care and education. The 2016 European Union-Turkey deal traded containment of refugees in Turkey — through border enforcement and the promise of increased socioeconomic rights for refugees — for billions of dollars in financial assistance and favorable economic policies for Turkey. As the war persisted and public opinion shifted against refugees, however, the government has become increasingly hostile toward Syrians. Human rights observers have reported on mass deportations. The government has also repeatedly advocated for refugee transfer to a “safe zone” inside Syria, despite research by scholars such as Katy Long that safe zones have historically failed to protect civilians. Last week, the Turkish government suspended the E.U.-Turkey deal, sending refugees toward Europe, where they are being met by tear gas and violence.
Jordan widened Syrian access to public services and employment opportunities through the 2016 Jordan Compact in exchange for billions of dollars in grants, loans, and preferential trade agreements with the European Union. The agreement was hailed by some as a landmark achievement for refugee rights. Yet the government rolled back health subsidies for Syrians in 2018 and has refused to allow in more refugees. Nor have conditions for refugees improved. Eighty percent of Syrians still live under the poverty line.
The Lebanese government has adopted increasingly restrictive policies toward Syrians. In 2014, Lebanon accepted international funding to expand refugee access to education and health care, but it has limited Syrians’ access to employment. Meanwhile, the national government has allowed local governments to target refugees through policies such as curfews, and government officials have actively fueled toxic anti-refugee public discourse by using harsh rhetoric.
What drives the policies?
The approach by the United Nations and Western donors assumes that governments will adopt favorable policies toward refugees when humanitarian aid serves hosting countries’ economic goals. In the Jordan Compact and the March 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal, Europe offered billions of euros in assistance in exchange for the promise of improved refugee conditions and preventing onward migration to Europe. Nevertheless, Turkey has pushed forward with increasingly hostile policies toward refugees.
Here’s the problem. Host governments’ refugee policies are not just about economics, as political scientists Christopher Blair, Guy Grossman, and Jeremy Weinstein show in a recent working paper. Earlier work by political scientist Karen Jacobsen identified a number of factors that also affect these policies, including economic and infrastructural capacity, the level of international assistance, international relations, security and refugee ethnic identity. Lebanon’s delicate sectarian political system may predispose it to hostility toward the majority Sunni refugees, while researcher Victoria Kelberer finds that Jordan’s strategy has been driven primarily by economics. Researchers N. Ela Gökalp Aras and Zeynep Şahin Mencütek find that Turkey’s policies are shaped in large part by its foreign policy goals.
Finally, countries such as Turkey may be less inclined to support refugee rights when Western countries are themselves unwilling to take in refugees. Gerasimos Tsourapas has argued that Turkey has used the threat of refugee migration to “blackmail” European countries for foreign policy and economic concessions. Such a policy does not require Turkey to safeguard refugee rights, but only to prevent them from reaching Europe.
An uncertain future
Turkey so far has kept its border closed to those fleeing Idlib and has advocated for establishing a safe zone to avoid accepting any additional refugees. Instead, Syrians are trapped under dire conditions at the border, unable to seek refuge or return to their homes. Even if the latest cease-fire holds, Syrians at the border remain at risk.
Refugees outside Syria are also not protected by international law and are subject to the whims of each host country’s government. International efforts to support refugees in neighboring countries are failing, and refugees are being turned away at Europe’s borders. As international funding lags and the economic situations in neighboring countries grow more desperate, expect the conditions for refugees to worsen.
In March 2019, the United Nations released an updated framework for returning refugees to Syria. It outlined a planned large-scale, facilitated refugee return. Such a return would depend on guaranteeing returnees’ rights and access to international support, local security, as well as active refugee desire. Seventy-five percent of refugees surveyed by UNHCR reported that they want to return to Syria one day, but the media has reported that returnees are being detained or conscripted into the army. The security situation in areas retaken by the regime remains highly unstable.
Many Syrian refugees will never voluntarily return to a country controlled by Bashar al-Assad. Short of drastic political change, resettlement and local integration remain the only viable options for them. If the international community wants to help refugees remain safe, it may wish to pay attention to what lies behind each host government’s policies — factors that are not just economic, but political and social. Efforts that focus on just one factor are likely to fail. And without a real international commitment to dramatically increase third-country resettlement, neighboring countries may continue to take their cues from developed countries willing to risk refugee safety rather than take them in.
Reva Dhingra is a Ph.D. candidate in government at Harvard University, where she researches migration and the political economy of international aid.