As the Syrian Civil War drags on, the situation for most Syrian refugees is continuing to get worse. There is some hope, though. Just before the new year, Russia and Turkey announced that they had brokered a cease-fire agreement in Syria. It’s fragile, but perhaps it will lead to a peace settlement. Considering the Syrian Civil War has caused one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century, it can’t hurt to root for them.
One of the worst humanitarian crises?
That does sound like a lot. How many people were there before the war?
According to the CIA Factbook, in July 2010 22.2 million people lived in Syria. As of July 2016, there are approximately 17.1 million left.
So 5.1 million people have fled the country. Where are these Syrian refugees now?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where everyone is. According to Amnesty International, in the Middle East five countries are giving shelter to approximately 4.8 million registered Syrians. These are:
- Turkey: 2.8 Million People (Country population of 77.8 million)
- Lebanon: 1 Million People (Population 6.2 million)
- Jordan: 665,000 People (Population 9.5 million)
- Iraq: 228,000 People (Population 38.1 million)
- Egypt: 115,000 People (Population 92.3 million)
There are also 8.7 million people internally displaced. These people have fled their homes, but still live somewhere in Syria.
These numbers don’t add up. 4.8 million in the Middle East, plus 1 million in Europe and 400,000 casualties should mean that there are over 6.2 million people fewer.
I know, and just to complicate things a little further, the numbers above only count registered refugees. Al Jazeera believes there are 1.5 million refugees in Lebanon. Since many refugees reside in Lebanon illegally, this may very well be true. And then there’s the Saudi government, which claims that it has let in 500,000 Syrians since 2011.
“Claims it has let in 500,000 Syrians”?
Françoise de Bel-Air, of the Migration Policy Centre, estimates that there are at least 420,000 Syrians living in Saudi Arabia. However, some of these people were there before the war started. The Saudis may have let 500,000 Syrians in since 2011, but many Syrians have left Saudi Arabia during the same period. Letting in 500,000 Syrians doesn’t necessarily mean they’re harbouring 500,000 refugees.
And what about the rest of the Gulf States? They’ve got loads of money, and they’re nearby. Why aren’t Syrian refugees heading for Abu Dhabi?
It’s true that per capita the Gulf states are very wealthy, and per capita they are one of the most important sources of cash for humanitarian relief for Syrians. Yet Saudi Arabia is the only one of them that’s part of the top 20 economies in the world. (With almost four times the people, Saudi Arabia’s GDP is falling just short of Switzerland’s GDP.)
Saudi Arabia is also the only Gulf State that borders Syria, whereas Abu Dhabi is actually farther away from Damascus than Athens. Nonetheless, there are many Syrians working in the Gulf. Some sources estimate the total number of Syrians in the Gulf at 1.4 million, others at 2 to 3 million, but lacking accurate statistics it’s impossible to verify these claims.
Syrians in the Gulf are economic migrants rather than refugees?
The Gulf states haven’t signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees, nor its 1967 Protocol. This means that they do not recognise the concept of refugees.
Sounds like a technical detail.
It is, but it’s an important one. Like with Germany’s subsidiary protection status, the devil is in the details.
No matter how long the war drags on, it’s unlikely that Syrians in Gulf states will ever receive citizenship or permanent resident status. (The general reluctance of Gulf governments to give permanent residency to anyone beyond a small pool of citizens, is an important reason why the Gulf states haven’t signed the Convention.)
While Syrians in the Gulf have more rights than normal migrant workers, many Syrians still face severe restrictions, and employers say it’s almost impossible to hire Syrians. But I feel like we’re drifting off topic. Perhaps we should save the situation in the Gulf for a different article?
Okay, let’s go back to the refugees. What’s a refugee camp like?
To give you some idea, the picture on the right is showing Zaatari refugee camp. It’s 5,2 km2 and 80,000 people live here, which makes it Jordan’s 4th city. (There used to be 125,000 people, but many have left for Europe – legally or illegally.) Most people survive on humanitarian aid, or try to work illegally. Some are driven out of the camp by other refugees.
57% of the population is under 18, and 20% is younger than 5. According to the UN it takes 17 years on average for refugees to return home in protracted crises like this, so these children could reach adulthood in the camp.
Do they go to school?
At the moment about half of them do. Some don’t see the point; they have little hope of leaving the refugee camp. Others have to work to earn a living. Many girls are kept at home by their parents, before they are married off to secure a dowry, money needed for basic amenities.
Any bright side?
For a refugee camp, there are quite a few important community based services. There are 2 hospitals and 9 health care centres. About 20.000 children are enrolled in the 9 schools that are present in the camps, which is a much higher number than it was three years ago. (I don’t know about the quality of the schools.). There are also 27 community centres where psychosocial support is offered and recreational activities are organised. Toilets used to be all communal, but now they are many in the caravans.
The people are starting businesses where they can – according to the UNHCR there are about approximately 2500 at the moment. There’s a pizza delivery service and a guy who rents out wedding dresses – not just for little girls. There’s even a store that sells sweets.
As a matter of fact, one could argue that these people are the luckier Syrians living in refuge in the Middle East.
How do you mean?
Six months ago, Jordan shut its borders to refugees – leaving 75,000 Syrians stranded in the desert. But for the refugees who’re in Jordan, life isn’t easy either. Around 85% of them live outside the camps. Their homes are in cheap neighbourhoods where rents are skyrocketing; work permits cost between $170 and $1200, and three quarter of the Syrian population in Jordan is heavily in debt.
In Lebanon, formal refugee camps for Syrians aren’t allowed. If the Syrians were allowed to actually start building a new life in these countries, this might not be a bad thing. Unfortunately, reality is different. Syrians have to renew their residency permit every six months. This costs $200, yet at the same time they have to sign a pledge not to work and show a rental agreement with their landlord. One can imagine that as the war drags on, paying rent becomes increasingly difficult.
In Turkey around 90% live outside the camps, trying to eke out a living. (Turkey has announced that before spring starts, it will have built a wall on its border with Syria to prevent more refugees from coming in.)
In Iraq, Syrian refugees have simply found themselves from one civil war in the next, and in Egypt too, Syrians are discovering that life in Cairo is nothing like what they’ve seen in Egyptian movies.
What about the refugees who’ve made it Europe? Surely their circumstances are better…
For many that’s true, definitely. But there are also many who are still stuck in Greece. Refugee camps there are no picnic either, and recently Syrian refugees have been facing attacks from extreme right groups.
The road to Western Europe is perilous, and although life in refugee camps in countries like Germany and The Netherlands was never easy, over the last couple of years the attitude towards refugees has been growing increasingly hostile. In the words of one of the refugees:
So that peace settlement… Should we be optimistic?
The short answer is no, but you never know. I mean, who would have thought three years ago that Donald Trump would actually become president of the United States? It can’t hurt to root for Putin and Erdogan here. (Or pray, if that’s more your kind thing.)
And the long answer?
The situation is very complicated, and this article is already quite long. I’ll save that for another time.