US Foreign Policy

Refugees Fleeing Syria May Become a Regional Problem

in Program

By Craig Cangemi – One year after the beginning of the Syrian
revolution, Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on his people shows no signs of
slowing. As the violence has intensified and started to spread, Syria’s neighbors
have experienced a surge in refugees crossing their borders recently, raising
concerns of a potential refugee crisis. Currently, numbers are manageable, but governments
and aid organizations claim to be preparing for the worst. Should the situation
in Syria spiral into a protracted civil war, however, an exodus of refugees
into Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan could unfold, with serious security
implications for these countries and the region as a whole.

The United Nations
estimate that the current total number of Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey,
Lebanon, and Jordan is approximately 34,000. Activists and humanitarian
officials claim figures are far higher, as many cross Syria’s borders illegally
or decline to register with the UNHCR due to security concerns. According to
data released by the Turkish Prime Ministry’s Disaster and Emergency Management
Directorate on March 21, the number of Syrian refugees in that country had
grown to more than 16,000. In Lebanon, estimates released by the UN, local
relief organizations, and security officials place the number of refugees
within the country at anywhere from 7,000 to 14,000. In Jordan, numbers range
from 5,000 to 7,000, though Jordanian officials have claimed that nearly 80,000
Syrians have crossed into the country since March 2011.[1]

In response to mounting
fears of another refugee influx similar to the Iraqi refugee crisis that they
experience from 2006-2010, the Jordanian government has recently completed its
first refugee camp in the northern outskirts of Mafraq, with plans to construct
two more in the near future. In Turkey, the majority of Syrians are set up in
eight camps in the southern provinces of Hatay and Gaziantep, and the
government soon plans to transfer most of these refugees to a purpose-built
container city in the Kilis province. This measure – along with Jordanian plans
to construct “more permanent structures” for refugees equipped with
electricity, water, and roads – reflects a growing sentiment that refugees are
unlikely to return to Syria in the near future.

Though these camps may
prove useful in absorbing refugees, capacities will not withstand an influx of
hundreds of thousands. Neither Turkey nor Jordan has established a clear
long-term strategy for handling an extensive, sudden displacement. The Lebanese
government has declined to provide accommodations for incoming Syrians and has
similarly not developed an approach for the situation.  

Current numbers are
manageable according to the UNHCR and its local partner organizations that are
providing the majority of aid and supplies to refugees. Nevertheless, these
organizations concede that they will be unable to sustain relief services in
the long-term without extensive international assistance. Additionally, most aid
organizations have yet to develop long-term plans, despite that awareness that numbers
may reach crisis levels.

Given the uptick in
violence between government forces and the Syrian opposition, as well as the
spread of unrest to major cities such as Aleppo and Damascus, the situation
seems to be deteriorating at a rapid pace. Should this trend continue, the
number of refugees fleeing Syria may reach levels that could prove disastrous
for Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. 

In this instance,
Turkey likely would receive the largest number of Syrians, as it shares the
longest border with Syria and has received the largest substantiated numbers to
date. If numbers reach into the hundreds of thousands as many fear (the Turkish
Red Crescent said it expects up to 500,000), Turkey may be compelled to create
humanitarian corridors or buffer zones within Syria. Troops required to protect
these safe areas may be forced into fighting, drawing Turkey further into the
conflict and striking a blow to its “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine in
the region. This deepening involvement may also ignite a conflict with the
Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as Kurdish militants recently threatened to turn
all Kurdish populated areas into “war zones” should Turkish forces enter Syria.

Jordan maintains an
open door policy towards Syrian refugees, and may experience an influx that would
place an enormous strain on the country’s already fragile economy and political
environment. The areas in which Syrians have already settled are extremely
under-resourced and are experiencing housing shortages, as well as overcrowding
in schools and hospitals. If refugee numbers grew significantly, this issue
would not only be exacerbated, but the economy and its already limited
resources would also come under further strain as result of heavily subsidized
water, gas, and electricity. Though Jordanians are generally welcoming toward
their Syrian neighbors, if it’s economic climate were to worsen as a result of the
mounting Syrian presence, such an attitude may quickly change, and add to the
deteriorating political situation facing the Kingdom.

Finally, Lebanon – the
least prepared of Syria’s neighbors in terms of handling massive refugee inflows
– could be easily destabilized, given the country’s uneasy sectarian and
political balance. Already in Tripoli, a Sunni dominated city with a large
Alawite minority, violent flare-ups have occurred between the two sects,
serving as a cautionary example of how sectarian tensions may escalate. Support
for refugees remains divided on political grounds between the government and
opposition parties. Should a crisis occur, this fracture may serve as a key
factor in rupturing Lebanon’s political balance. This political division has
also contributed to the lack of response to the current refugee situation there.
The influx of refugees in the north has placed severe economic burdens on local
communities, igniting protests from local leaders. Should massive refugee inflows
take place in the coming months, without an adequate response, these
communities may collapse economically, further contributing to unrest within
the country.

The threat posed to the
stability of Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon from a looming refugee crisis adds
even more urgency to the need for a solution in ending the violence in Syria. The
international community must increase its efforts to aid these countries in
preparation for a worst-case scenario or otherwise face a crisis much more
substantial than the one already at hand.

number is likely inflated to increase the amount of international aid sent to

Photo Credit: Freedom House, via Flickr,

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