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Syrian Refugee Crisis Threatens Stability in the Middle East

refugee camp

SOURCE: AP/Bilal Hussein

Syrian refugees walk outside their tents at a refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Majdal Anjar, June 2014.

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The risk of instability in the Middle East has increased as Syrian refugees continue to flee to neighboring countries in order to escape the civil war at home. These countries are experiencing economic and political pressure due to the massive refugee influx that has dramatically increased their population sizes and strained their resources.

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 with a series of peaceful protests and has since resulted in the death of more than 170,000 people and uprooted an additional 9 million. The latest figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, show that approximately 2.9 million refugees currently reside in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. An additional 6.5 million remain internally displaced. These numbers continue to grow at a rate of around 100,000 people per month.

Syria’s neighboring countries are reaching their limits. They may no longer be able to accommodate the flow of refugees, having already placed themselves at risk for political violence and economic decline. There is an urgent need for international assistance—not only for the refugees escaping violence but also for the host countries protecting them.

An international refugee crisis

While the proliferation of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, and other ramifications from the Syrian conflict—including increased sectarian violence and radicalism—have disrupted stability in the region, it is the refugee crisis that has perhaps the most achievable solution. If international donors contribute money to the cause, much of the economic and political strife would be mitigated. The UNHCR has called for $3.74 billion in assistance this year. However, donors have so far contributed only 30 percent of that goal. The United Nations has warned that a lack of funds will result in severe consequences, including serious regional security threats.

Syria’s neighbors have almost single-handedly taken on the burden of caring for its refugees. But this is an international problem. Wealthy, able nations such as the oil-rich Persian Gulf states need to provide their fair share of assistance. These states—particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—have continuously failed to deliver on their financial pledges. According to The Independent, Qatar has spent billions of dollars preparing to host the 2022 World Cup but has contributed only $2.7 million of its $100 million pledge to help Syrian refugees.

The refugee crisis has caused severe overcrowding in hospitals and schools, increased unemployment and poverty levels, weakened infrastructure, and social and political instability. Syria’s neighboring countries have experienced an over-exhaustion of their social and health services, and water, sanitation, and energy shortages are affecting all areas of life. Unsurprisingly, resentment and discrimination toward Syrian refugees is rapidly increasing.

The impact on Lebanon

The refugee crisis has taken a particularly heavy toll on Lebanon’s delicate political balance and economy. Lebanon is particularly ill suited to absorb the 1 million refugees that currently reside within its small territory, as it was already experiencing high levels of poverty and strong sectarian tensions before the Syrian conflict.

It’s estimated that the crisis’ total cost on Lebanon will reach $7.5 billion by year’s end; this is far greater than the amount of humanitarian aid currently being provided. Lebanon’s labor force is oversaturated due to the population increase, which has doubled unemployment and reduced wages. Regional economic decline is making the situation worse, as foreign companies pull their investments from Lebanon, fearing market insecurity as a result of the conflict. The country is losing foreign capital when it needs it most, and the growing flow of refugees will continue to compound the problem.

Earlier this year, Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States, H.E. Antoine Chedid, spoke at the Brookings Institution about the crisis’ impact on his country. Chedid said he was deeply concerned that the conflict would unravel Lebanon socially, politically, and economically, creating a “conducive environment for terrorism and terrorist organization.”

Refugees in Jordan

Jordan has also been feeling the economic and political pressure of hosting more than 600,000 Syrian refugees. Since the start of the conflict, Jordan has maintained an open border policy with Syria and has provided refugees generous access to its public services. This has placed severe stress on its weak economy—one of the smallest in the world—worsening the country’s existing 30 percent unemployment rate.

Refugees have moved to areas in Jordan where existing poverty and unemployment rates are high, primarily in the poorer areas of Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq. Medical facilities are dangerously low on supplies and classroom space is limited; a significant portion of the Syrian population is unable to receive schooling. Compounding the problem are the demographics of the arriving refugees: Nearly half of them are children, one-third are women, and the rest are mostly old, ill men. In addition to increased unemployment and poverty among Jordanians—now forced to fight the refugees for jobs—the country has experienced serious water and energy shortages.

Conclusion

The international community has a vested interest in a stable Middle East. The potential for political insecurity and conflict became very real with the onset of the Syrian crisis, and a united effort to offset it is needed now more than ever. The UNHCR stated that the enormous economic and social costs brought on by the crisis “cannot be addressed by conventional emergency relief measures.” The international community needs to invest in the long-term development of refugee host countries.

One way to encourage long-term development within these countries is to provide incentives for foreign private investments. Increased investments would produce jobs, reduce competition in the labor market, and improve salaries. Investing in infrastructure, health, and education would strengthen structural stability and reduce resource strain. Instability and insecurity within these regions would then decrease, further bolstering consumer confidence and economic activity.

Syria’s neighbors opened their borders to refugees expecting that the conflict would soon end and that the massive population increases would be temporary. However, after more than three years of violence, Syria’s civil war shows no signs of abating. Global assistance must be directed toward bolstering the host countries’ economies and infrastructures in addition to providing aid for displaced refugees. Only then can the international community enable the Middle East to independently cope with the crisis.

Shiva Pedram was an intern with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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