Syria’s neighbors are suffering refugee fatigue

Syria’s neighboring states are reaching the point of refugee fatigue

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

From the worst man-made calamities often stand out the actions of individuals that manage to reveal a better side of humanity. That is the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of Hotel Des Mille Collines in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, who hid more than 1000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutus during the genocidal mass slaughter of 1994. After making sure his wife and children escaped, Rusesabagina stayed in the hotel during the onslaught to take care of the people he was sheltering. He risked his life, bribed Hutu militiamen and used his connections with local officials to protect the hotel.

At least 800,000 people died in Rwanda between April and June that year. The ensuing refugee crisis saw about two million people (mostly Hutus fearing reprisal from the Tutsis) flee to eastern Zaire. Hundreds of thousands went to neighboring Tanzania and Burundi. The destabilizing effects of the refugee wave in eastern Zaire and President Mobutu Sese Seko’s support for extremist Hutus paved the way to the first Congo War.

Social tensions and resentment against Syrian refugees are on the rise

Manuel Almeida

Twenty years on, the conflict in Syria and now the ISIS offensive in Syria and Iraq have generated the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis that the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees has ever dealt with. Official figures point to over three million registered Syrian refugees in neighboring countries and over 180,000 awaiting registration. Even more worrying are the 6.5 million displaced people inside Syria that are vulnerable to the ongoing brutality of the Assad regime and the various extremist groups.

Refugee fatigue

Syria’s neighboring states are reaching the point of refugee fatigue. Lebanon, with a population of less than five million, has now 1,175,504 registered Syrian refugees, according to U.N.’s refugee agency. Lebanese authorities estimate the overall figure to be much higher.

There is an ongoing debate about the financial impact of Syrian refugees on the Lebanese economy, used to perform in a problematic atmosphere. The governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh, revealed a few months ago that the cost for Lebanon is $4.5 billion a year. Also in Lebanon, the refugees take on jobs that would previously go to Lebanese because they are willing to work for lower pay. Others note the pressure that a sudden population rise of over 20 percent is putting on energy distribution, hospitals and schools.

Social tensions and resentment against Syrian refugees are on the rise. Thousands wander homeless in the streets of Beirut. The spectrum of the destabilizing effects that Palestinian refugee camps have had in Lebanon and the role that played in its civil war is ever present.

A week ago, the Lebanese government officially confirmed that it is restricting the entry of Syrian refugees to exceptional cases. Soon Turkey (with over one million registered Syrian refugees) and Jordan (over 600,000), also worrying about the economic burden, integration problems and potential political instability caused by the presence of Syrian refugees, could follow suit. Then what?

Risking stability

Unsurprisingly, Syria’s neighbors are not willing to further risk their own stability for stepping in where the international community is failing miserably.

Far more could and should be done on the financial front to support Syria’s neighbors and the huge number of NGOs on the ground dealing with the refugee flow to ensure a suitable integration for Syrian refugees. According to deputy foreign Minister Naci Koru, Turkey spent $4 billion with refugees but has only received $250 million so far.

But the fact is the refugee crisis is a consequence of a larger problem caused by the ongoing disintegration of Syria, a brutal and illegitimate Assad regime and an international deadlock among those who have the power to shape the outcomes on the ground.

One of the most powerful criticisms of both American and Russian inaction on Syria came this August from Navi Pillay, the departing U.N. Human rights chief. “I firmly believe that greater responsiveness by this council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” she said while addressing the U.N. Security Council for the last time. She also noted pertinently that “short-term geopolitical considerations and national interest, narrowly defined, have repeatedly taken precedence over intolerable human suffering and grave breaches of and long-term threats to international peace and security.”

The immediate concern with the ISIS expansion in Syria and Iraq and the last stage of the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and its looming deadline of November 24 are grabbing the center stage. The hope is that when and if an agreement is reached, the diplomatic focus turns to resurrecting the defunct Geneva peace conference on Syria.

It is obvious that ISIS will not be defeated without reliable and legitimate governments in the eyes of the Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis. A potentially positive step was given with the replacement of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. Yet Syrians will not see better days until Russia and Iran concede that the route they have chosen for Syria is disastrous for the region. All those who support the Syrian opposition should also realize that no lasting solution will come without a compromise.

By now the Syrian death toll has gone over 200,000 and probably more than 10,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the beginning of the ISIS offensive in June. There are over 12 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees and displaced people scattered across the region and the winter is coming. After the Rwandan tragedy, the international community pledged “never again.” That pledge was recently renewed in the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide this year. “We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again’, again and again,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the occasion. Surely, Syria was on his mind.


Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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