Syrian Refugee Crisis: What we watch in horror on the nightly news has been unfolding for years in the Middle East

September 15, 2015

Ferid Belhaj, Country Director for Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria Daily Star

Today, the world has woken-up to the reality that some countries in the Middle East have been living through for the past three years. The unbearably tragic picture of the Syrian toddler, Aylan, lying face down on a beach in Turkey has driven home the tragic fate of millions of refugees fleeing the unspeakable violence caused by the Syrian war. It is a crisis of civilization and humanity. 

When violence in Syria erupted about four years ago, people started moving from their country to neighboring lands, mainly to Jordan and Lebanon, two countries with their own economic, demographic, social and political woes.  These two countries have taken the incredibly bold decision to not turn their heads away and pretend they don’t see anything wrong. Neither country has signed the Geneva Convention on refugees, but both are abiding by it.

Lebanon, for example, a country of 4.2 million people, has received and sheltered close to 1.5 million refugees—more than a quarter of its population. This is unthinkable anywhere else. It’s a decision that has already provoked what is possibly an irreversible shift in this delicate country's social balance. The same openness and generosity go for Jordan.

One pauses to think, therefore, about the public turmoil that a few thousand refugees have provoked in rich and vast Europe. But now the question is: what can be done? 

Conflict, violence and international sanctions have not allowed the World Bank to engage in Syria. We have, however, been focusing on the mitigation of the impact of the war on the host countries, primarily Lebanon and Jordan. We have developed analytical tools to measure the impact of the Syria situation on the two countries. We have engaged in emergency operations to reduce the adverse effects of the crisis, like establishing financing mechanisms and rapid responses to help municipalities cope with the additional pressure on infrastructure. We supported the host governments to allow refugee children access to schools and education, and gave support so that health facilities could keep serving citizens and refugees alike. And we have expanded existing poverty targeting programs to include the communities that are hosting Syrian refugees. 

Our work has complemented that of UN humanitarian agencies and other donors, and has offered a new dimension to the international community's approach, enlarging the discussion from a purely humanitarian one—addressing the needs and challenges of the refugees—to one that takes the plight of the host communities very much onboard. The world has moved from a purely humanitarian approach to one that stresses the resilience and development.

At the beginning of the crisis, the refugees were welcomed in Lebanon and Jordan. Their numbers were relatively small, and they did not present an immediate challenge. There was a solid sense of solidarity. With time, however, and with the growing number of refugees, the interaction between the host and refugee communities became more difficult. Looking ahead, we will need to focus on maintaining social cohesion in order to ensure smooth co-existence between refugee populations and host communities.

The situation in Syria has now deteriorated and has become so complex that no one can predict when the conflict will end, or when the refugees will be able to return. International experience shows that refugees fleeing conflict spend an average of 17 years before starting to return home in small numbers. Some never leave their host countries. The prospect of this becoming reality is starting to trickle down into the discourse of policymakers in Jordan and in Lebanon.

In Jordan, the Syrian refugees are not just settled in camps—the Zaatari camp being the most well-known—but are spread throughout the country. Syrians in the north of Jordan are even starting micro and small businesses allowing them to subsist, and contributing to an interesting economic dynamic. The same can be witnessed in Lebanon with the pressure the refugee influx is putting on the labor market, housing and basic services. Could we be so bold as to observe that the de-facto incremental weaving of refugees into the economic fabric of both countries could lead to the transition of "refugees as a liability to refugees as an asset"? From a purely economic point of view, possibly. But other considerations are to be looked at, which makes the situation more complex than what meets the eye.

The fact remains that these countries are hosting dramatic numbers of refugees—potentially altering an already delicate political and social balance, and threatening to reverse hard won development achievements—and they are not supported in a way commensurate with the immediate needs of their tremendous effort to alleviate the plight of human beings fleeing a brutal war.

Think about it: by welcoming the refugees, these countries are providing the international community a generous public good. And we are asking them to pay for it. The Bank and other donors and partners should think seriously about identifying new, creative financing schemes for these middle income countries to cope with such crises and manage their own development agendas at the same time. 

Let’s remember that the refugee crisis that we see in horror on the nightly news has been unfolding for years in the Middle East. Countries that have experienced their own conflicts are now in unsustainable situations as they cope with the consequences of this war. It is time for Europe, and indeed the world, to pay much closer attention, lest they see this wreck drift toward their shores. Working to settle the conflict in Syria, and helping the host countries, is the only way to first contain, and then resolve, this human tragedy. 

First appeared in Daily Star.