By Matthew Timmerman
Lebanon recently announced it will further curtail the flow of Syrian refugees across its border. With these refugees numbering half the size of the country’s indigenous population (by the government’s estimate), occupying 60% of the labour market, and the total cost of their accommodation estimated at $3bn – it’s a calculated decision to combat what can best be described as overwhelming destabilisation.
In the media, the destabilisation emanating from Syria is largely referenced in relation to heightened sectarian tension or geopolitical volatility. To the Lebanese – as well as Turks, Iraqis, Jordanians, and Egyptians – now living aside 3.2 million Syrian refugees, the word carries different meaning. Destabilisation denotes sharing – space, resources, education, and upward mobility. It means the double-edged sword of increased strain and competition to alleviate it: rent soars as competition for a job increases.
Contrary to popular perception, most Syrian refugees do not reside in camps. Many are scattered throughout the region in urban environments, a situation that the benevolence of Syria’s neighbours has kept tenable. But facing limited resources, concern that refugee assistance is creeping from the realm of temporary to permanent, and pressure to address rampant poverty among local citizens – the governments of the region are not an indefatigable stalwart against the destabilisation originating from Syria.
To address this refugee challenge various organisations and experts have advocated for third country resettlement, more specifically, that developed nations take Syria’s refugees from strained states in the region. Such appeals are grounded in the logic that distributing, rather than concentrating, the destabilisation of Syria’s refugee outflow makes its effect less acute.
This is a commendable pursuit, but it’s a systematically limited approach for addressing the scope of the regional refugee challenge. Even if the international community meets the most ambitious objectives for such resettlement, Syria’s neighbours maintain a cold realism that the burden will remain largely on their shoulders. Oxfam’s well publicised appeal that rich countries take 5% of Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, constitutes just 179,500 individuals.
It’s no wonder a Turkish official recently confided to an US diplomat that he considered third country resettlement a mere “drop in the pond”. Reflecting this sentiment, Professor Michael Kagan stated to the Guardian in October: “Historically the world does a terrible job of resolving refugee crises. What’s scary when you look at the Syrians is that it’s certainly possible that many of these millions of refugees could still be in limbo years or decades from now.”
Inevitably, this leads to the conclusion that the host communities where Syrians have settled will have to be strengthened. The UN clearly recognises this point. Both of its prominent aid resolutions on Syria reference “burden-sharing”, followed by calls for “direct support” to host countries. A primary focus of UNHCR’s refugee response is livelihood promotion among Syrian refugees outside camps; the objective is to relieve tension between refugees and locals by fostering sustainability. With the UN’s refugee regional response plan only 52% funded, clearly more contributions can back this undertaking.
Over a century ago, Lebanon was one of the first beneficiaries of global aid. In the iconic text, A History of the Arab Peoples, Albert Hourani notes that funds sent from Europe and America to victims of the Druze-Maronite conflict of 1860 constituted one of the earliest examples of coordinated international assistance. It came at a time when the notion of global responsibility was gaining momentum, and as Hourani states: “The idea of human identity and equality, beneath all differences, did sometimes break through.”
This ethos has purpose today. The complexities of Syria’s war have left donors wary; the spirit of a human identity needed to stimulate giving has at times proved elusive. The plight of Syria’s neighbours and the refugees they host should represent a unifying cause around which the world can mobilise. The narrative of destabilised host communities absorbing Syria’s refugees may not be the first to garner headlines, but it’s one with which the world should be able to identify.
Matthew Timmerman is a Program Associate at Syria Relief and Development in Washington DC. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.