On the Syrian Refugee Crisis: A View from Jordan and Lebanon
It is difficult to write about the Syrian refugee crisis at this moment while the U.S. and the international community are drowning in endless debates about how to deal with the horrifying August 21 chemical attack in Goutah, Damascus. It seems that the debate is ever so easily trapped between two options: “to bomb or not to bomb” and the fact that people’s homes, neighborhoods, bodies and lives are still at the end of these decisions is somehow bypassed and treated as a casual afterthought. Suddenly, the discourse about Syria has become one about foreign military intervention, “punishment”, and U.S. President Obama’s “red line” while the question of the human cost has only been used and manipulated to serve this discourse. The conflict’s human cost does not only include the 1400 people who were killed in the chemical attack, it also includes the estimated 100 000 that have been killed since 2011, and it includes the over 2 million refugees and asylum seekers scattered across the region mainly in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. It also includes the millions of internally displaced Syrians, and the Palestinian refugees who have now become doubly displaced.
In the camp and on the street
The situation in Syria is terrifying, and the ensuing refugee crisis is immense. In Jordan, the Zaatari refugee camp holds over 130 000 registered refugees making it the fourth largest “city” in the country – and plans are underway to construct a second one. The exact number of Syrian refugees living outside of this camp is unknown, but UN agencies serve a total of half a million Syrians in Jordan at the moment. For a country of 6 million, growing by half a million in the matter of months causes immense pressure on all services and infrastructure, and significantly restructures the economy.
For example, a 4-bedroom apartment in downtown Irbid (largest closest city to Syria) would have cost 100 JD (about 100 euros) only a few months ago, but is now rented to 4 Syrian families for 300 JD. While Jordanian renters complain about the hike in rent prices across the board, it is no question that Jordanian apartment owners are making profit off of the higher demand for housing caused by the influx of Syrians into Jordanian towns.
In contrast, the negative economic effect of the Syrian war is felt strongly in some Jordanian border towns such as Ramtha whose residents depend heavily on business with their Syrian counterpart Daraa (a Syrian border town where the first protests against the Assad regime took place in 2011). This is to say nothing at all of the Syrian economy itself and people’s daily struggles to fend for themselves especially in areas that fall directly in the line of fire – they are caught between the reality of food and medicine shortages, and the threat of bombings, kidnappings, torture and rape.
Particularly worrisome, however, are reports coming from inside the Zaatari camp describing trying living conditions: from flooding in the winter, disorganized housing, electricity cuts, to issues with accessing water, and even securing a way of leaving the camp. Despite UNHCR’s and other NGOs’ on-ground efforts to sustain the refugee camp in Jordan and provide the necessary services for those seeking help, the camp has gained a bad reputation among many Syrians who prefer to try their luck in the cities and risk homelessness and unemployment instead.
In Lebanon, the situation is different due to the fact that the state has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention thereby complicating the status of those seeking refuge in the country, and often leaving Syrian refugees at a risk of detention and deportation. The UNHCR runs several operations in Lebanon (not refugee camps) for the registered 740 000 Syrians, and works on reaching an understanding with the Lebanese government about the status of Syrians and Iraqis seeking shelter in the country. In Beirut, the toll of the crisis is evident everywhere: women sit with their newborns in busy street corners begging for food, parents tuck-in their children at night time on sidewalks and on shop steps, while other children join their poor Lebanese counterparts and sell roses, tissues, and gum on the streets. Many Syrian men leave to Beirut in hope of finding a source of living so they can support their families and relatives back home. Very often the places where they find work – such as in hammams, in construction, or as delivery men – also become the only roof on their heads (which is often the case for poor Lebanese and Palestinians as well).
Victims in the role of perpetrators
The immense scale of the refugee crisis in both Jordan and Lebanon has also been met with a rise of discrimination against Syrians in both countries. People blame the lack of job opportunities and sharp rises in food and rent prices on Syrian and Iraqi refugees before them. Some towns in Lebanon have even implemented a 7 pm curfew for Syrians justifying it as necessary for maintaining public order. Lebanon’s internal political map already includes a division over the place and influence of the Syrian regime in Lebanese politics, which has only been sharpened since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, and more so since Hezbollah's public announcement a few months ago that its men are fighting inside Syria alongside the Syrian regime.
It is clear to any observer that the Syrian conflict is not to be resolved in the near future which only means that the refugee crisis is a long term one. In the mean time, however, the urgency of the Syrian refugee crisis remains overshadowed and normalized as the natural outcome of yet another conflict in the Middle East.
Adriana Qubaiova is a PhD candidate at the department of Gender Studies in the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary, and is currently conducting research in Beirut, Lebanon.