FEATURE STORY

Syrian Crisis Casts a Long Shadow over Refugees and Neighboring Countries

January 23, 2014

The nearly three million Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries struggle to meet their needs and confront rising social tensions.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrians caught in the conflict face a difficult choice between the clear risks of staying or fleeing to an uncertain future
  • Nearly 3 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries, putting immense pressure on basic services and exacerbating social tensions
  • The World Bank Group has provided emergency assistance to bolster social services in Jordan and on behalf of Lebanon conducted a comprehensive assessment of the impacts of the Syrian crisis

Al Abdeh, Lebanon – Late last year, Ali Mohamad Abdallah and his wife Abeer hunkered down in their home in the northern Syria city of Aleppo and faced a stark choice: Should they stay and risk getting caught in the crossfire? Or should they flee, even though Abeer was nine months pregnant?

They fled.

“The fighting was so close that we could have died if we stayed – bombs hit the second floor of our building,” said Abdellah, 22, sitting inside a tent in an informal Syrian refugees camp outside this city on a thin strip of land next to the Mediterranean Sea.  “So this way we had a chance, even though it was hard for Abeer.”

Abeer, 21, lay down next to him. Wedged in between them was their sleeping infant boy, born just two days before, stateless for the moment.

Their choice, unfortunately, was not unusual. In the last two years, the war in Syria has forced nearly 3 million people to leave their homes, often in great danger, to enter other countries, with Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey bearing the greatest brunt of the massive influx. Another 3.5 million people are estimated to be displaced inside Syria.

On the world stage, the response to the Syrian crisis is being discussed in capitals hundreds of miles away – in Kuwait City last week where donors grappled with the humanitarian crisis, and in Geneva this week as global political powers seek ways toward a peaceful solution.  

All the while, though, refugees continue to pour out of Syria, with the greatest numbers flowing into Lebanon. In just one UNHCR registration camp in Tripoli, Lebanon, 15 kilometers south of Al Abdeh, officials have been registering 1000 Syrian refugees each day – and there’s a three-week waiting list for an appointment. It is one of five UNHCR registration points in the country.

The question for leaders whose countries border Syria is: How long can this continue without a major backlash and a serious deterioration of services to citizens?

And what will the world do to help?  

Lebanon alone is hosting roughly 1.2 million Syrians, more than a quarter of its population. If the United States took in the same proportion of refugees, it would mean 70 million people flooding the country in 18 months, or double Canada’s population.

The World Bank Group, on the request of the Lebanese government, completed an economic and social impact assessment last fall that found the refugee population could reach 1.6 million in Lebanon, or 37 percent of the overall population, by the end of this year.

The report, which was completed in cooperation with other development partners, including United Nations agencies, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, found that the demand on public services has surged along with the population. It estimated that this rising demand could drive up government expenditures by an estimated US$1.1 billion over the 2012 to 2014 period. At the same time, government revenues are expected to drop by US$1.5 billion, due to interrupted trade and an erosion of business and consumer confidence.

Ali Mohamad Abdallah and his wife Abeer.

Open Quotes

I thank God that we have come here. Close Quotes

In Jordan, the World Bank Group approved two emergency projects to help the country bolster strained services to Jordanians: $150 million in emergency aid to support Jordan’s health care system as well as helping households facing rising prices for food and housing; and $50 million in grants to local municipalities to help them strengthen service delivery.

In Mafraq, a city just south of the Syrian border which has swelled from 80,000 people in 2011 to more than 200,000 today because of the refugees, Mayor Ahmad Hawamdah said the funding would go immediately toward the rental and eventual purchase of garbage compactor trucks. He said just three of the municipality’s 11 compactors were working, and they weren’t picking up garbage fast enough.

“The situation is really bad,” Hawamdah said. “As mayor, my main concern is the cleanliness of the community. We’re concerned now about the possible outbreak of disease.”

In both Jordan and Lebanon, officials and residents are reporting increasing tensions between the Syrian refugees and the citizens of the countries, stemming from overcrowded schools, competition for jobs, and stresses on services such as electricity, water and sanitation. But that is balanced against uncounted instances of generosity from Lebanese and Jordanian families toward Syrians. No one disputes that the refugees’ plights are often heart-breaking.

Outside Mafreq, Alaa Bargout, 31, a mother of two stopped at a blanket giveaway organized by the Jordanian Red Crescent Society, and said that Jordanians have generally been very sympathetic. “There’s a lot of kinship between the two people,” she said.

But Bargout also said while that helped, her situation was extraordinarily difficult. Her husband, an accountant in Syria, could not look for work – it’s illegal. That has put pressure on all members of the family to work, including their two children, ages 7 and 6.

“They are collecting scrap metal,” she said, putting her hand to her mouth, which quivered. She walked away, hiding her tears.

In Lebanon, at the UNHCR refugee registration center in Tripoli, Oum Ali, the mother of 10 children, said her family had moved from one difficult situation to another, although she felt blessed that all arrived safely in Lebanon. “It’s a miracle how we managed to leave Aleppo – there are so many troubles there that it’s no longer sustainable.”

One of her daughters, Batoul, 22, said on one day recently she traveled to a university to apply for admission “when fighting started on the street. … Fighting had become very intense and I lost all hope. Going back home was extremely difficult. Thank God I made it safely. My father told me that day that I should forget about pursuing my studies.”

She said, though, she hopes to return to Aleppo and “that things would go back the way they were.”

Not many refugees hold strong hope for that, and many said they were consumed with trying to surmount hurdles in Lebanon. For Ali Mohamad Abdallah and his wife Abeer, who had just given birth, they had been unable to register as refugees because they did not take identification documents with them when they fled Aleppo. They also had failed in telling their parents about the birth. Their relatives had scattered inside Syria and to Turkey.

At least they had done one thing, even if it was their secret. They had named their son.

“He is Ahmad,” Abdallah said, looking down at his newborn, still asleep. “I thank God that we have come here.”