Hussein Ibish

The world must act on the Syrian refugee crisis

Jordan and Lebanon cannot continue to shoulder the financial and political burden of the Syrian refugee crisis relatively unaided

A young Syrian refugee boy sells canned tuna and other food items in the Zaatari refugee camp, now Jordan

Jordan, it would seem, has had enough. Amnesty International has accused the Jordanian government of illegally deporting Syrian refugees, and the government has said it has decided to begin forcibly expelling Syrian guest workers. Having passed the point of 600,000 officially registered Syrian refugees, the Jordanians clearly feel they simply cannot bear any more.


They are not alone.


Lebanon, too, has been overwhelmed by the humanitarian disaster unleashed by the Syrian meltdown. Between refugees, migrant workers, and others, it is estimated that Lebanon, a country of 4 million citizens, now also includes 1 million Syrians.


The UN reckons the cost to Jordan last year was $5.3 billion, a budget allocation the Kingdom can scarcely afford. The costs to Lebanon are even greater and its ability to deal with those financial burdens less.


Lebanon has formally complained to the rest of the Arab League that while the multinational group is obsessed with the specifics of the conflict and its outcome, they pay inadequate attention to the refugee question. The unstated or understated complaint is that wealthy Arab states are leaving much poorer countries, specifically Jordan and Lebanon, to deal with the burden insufficiently aided.


In both states there are many registers of the crisis, which includes millions of displaced citizens inside Syria itself as well as the burgeoning refugee populations in neighboring states, also including Turkey and Iraq.


First, there is the obvious financial burden. Particularly with winter coming, the great masses of Syrian refugees are facing a grim situation which is being addressed by the states that harbor them along with multilateral institutions and NGOs. But the correct fear, and indeed the warning of some of the governments most directly responsible and affected, is that, under the current circumstances, the means simply do not exist at present to properly care for these particularly vulnerable victims.


Not only the Arab states, but also the international community as a whole, has a strong moral and legal obligation to help alleviate the suffering of the Syrian refugees in countries like Jordan and Lebanon and, insofar as possible, the massive numbers of internally displaced Syrians who also face a harsh and brutal winter. It's not true that nothing is being done. But it is true that not enough is being done.


Second, there is the political fallout from the refugee crisis. In both Jordan and Lebanon, there are already significant numbers of Palestinian refugees. And both countries have gone through difficult, and at times bloody, processes of coming to terms with this long-term "foreign" presence. In Lebanon, in particular, the solution has been not only violent, but also systematically discriminatory in an outrageously shameful manner.


The Syrian refugee crisis was and, to a certain extent, is still seen as far more temporary and, in that sense, politically tolerable. Syrian refugees, it was thought, would be able and eager to return to their own country as soon as the conflict was resolved.


The problem is that the Syrian conflict shows no sign of resolution. On the contrary, it appears to be an open-ended war based on a relative stalemate. Indeed, many Syrians who used to go back and forth between Lebanon and Syria, depending on how grim the situation has become in the areas they are fleeing, are now staying in Lebanon for the meantime.


Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are beginning to look much more like a semi-permanent feature of the landscape, even though they clearly wish to return to their own country and would do so if possible. But the Syrian war looks set to drag on for years. And that means the refugee crisis will only intensify, possibly exponentially, particularly if sectarian "cleansing" or other atrocities proliferate.


Therefore both Jordan and Lebanon, having borne the burden of large numbers of Palestinian refugees for many decades, are now dealing with what looks like an open-ended Syrian refugee crisis that is transforming the demographic makeup of their societies. In Lebanon, particularly, large numbers of Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees, migrant workers and others – now constituting at least 20% of the country's total population – alter the delicate sectarian political equation.


The longer they stay – and there is no sign of them leaving en masse and every reason to believe the numbers will simply keep growing, possibly at an accelerated rate – the more they will complicate the already fraught Lebanese political balance.


The international community has a profound moral, legal, and political obligation to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis both in its immediate, humanitarian terms – particularly with the harshness of winter now descending – but also to change the circumstances that have made people who used to happily live in their own country seek wretched refuge in neighboring states that cannot afford, financially or politically, to harbor them for long.

A young Syrian refugee boy sells canned tuna and other food items in the Zaatari refugee camp, now Jordan's fifth most populous city. (AFP Photo/Khalil Mazraawi)

”Both Jordan and Lebanon, having borne the burden of large numbers of Palestinian refugees for many decades, are now dealing with what looks like an open-ended Syrian refugee crisis that is transforming the demographic makeup of their societies.”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    But, according to Baathist, Nationalist Syrian (Qawmiyyeh) and other Arab Umma ideologies, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan were once a unified country that the malevolent French colonialists separated. In fact, in the United States where Mr. Ibish makes a living, his Arab-American groups reject any notion of separate Lebanese, Syrian, and Jordanian identities because we are all "Arab". So these refugees are not really a problem - it is Mr. Ibish who is exaggerating the problem just to provoke a sympathetic reaction from super-confused and sentimental Americans and have them rush to invade Syria. The Syrian refugees are at home wherever they may be in the Greater Syria of Baath lore, which encompasses Iraq, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and... yes, Cyprus. I think the Syrian refugees should settle permanently in Lebanon, just like the Palestinian refugees, and the world should give money to the corrupt Lebanese government to pocket half of it and use the rest of it to build shantytowns right next to the Palestinian shantytowns. This will add to the diversity and charm of the Lebanese demographic landscape. In fact, everyone in Lebanon (except maybe the Sunnis) comes from a refugee population that migrated and settled here over history. Even long-time Lebanese residents are refugees in their own country: Christians who cannot return to the Shouf; Shiites who were evicted from Jbeil and Kesrouan by Sunni Mameluks in wholesale massacres in 1305-1308, then by Palestinians fighting Israel in the south... Nothing new to us Lebanese. Refugee is our identity! We have so many refugees that we send the excess to other countries, even to Israel where 5,000 Lebanese refugees have been living since 2000 our of fear of Hezbollah.

    November 6, 2013