Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey feel the strain of 5.6m Syrian refugees

Economic crises in all three countries, plus chronic shortfalls in donor funding, are fuelling resentment among citizens with increased pressure on Syrians to leave

Syrian refugees remove a corrugated metal as they dismantle their shelters at the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Photograph: Reuters/Hassan Abdallah

Syrian refugees remove a corrugated metal as they dismantle their shelters at the Lebanese border town of Arsal. Photograph: Reuters/Hassan Abdallah

 

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the three regional countries hosting 5.6 million Syrian refugees, are struggling under the burden.

Economic crises in all three, plus chronic shortfalls in donor funding for the refugees, has intensified resentment among the citizens of these countries and increases pressure on Syrians to leave.

This week the Lebanese army demolished Syrian refugee shelters in the northeastern village of Arsal because they were not “temporary”. The Lebanese government had issued an ultimatum to refugees to destroy permanent construction before July 1st or risk demolition. Some complied, others did not.

Shelters made of plastic sheets stretched over wooden frames are approved by the authorities as “temporary”, but housing built of cement blocks and mortar are considered permanent and banned.

Despite protests from aid groups, including Save the Children, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Oxfam, more demolitions can be expected. Beirut refuses to permit 1 million Syrian refugees to settle in Lebanon, which gave sanctuary but not nationality to Palestinians driven from their homes during Israel’s 1948 war of establishment and refuses to allow Syrians to stay on.

Since both Palestinians and Syrians are overwhelmingly Sunni, granting them citizenship would destroy Lebanon’s fragile communal balance among Sunnis, Shias and Christians.

Poor resources

Lebanon’s collapsing infrastructure and shortages of water and power cannot meet the needs of the country’s people, who resent the refugees. President Michael Aoun claims that 169,000 have gone home while security chief Abbas Ibrahim puts the number at 100,000. A poll conducted by the UN found 83 per cent of Syrians want to repatriate but only 5 per cent plan to do so soon.

Jordan, with 1 million Syrians, is in an equally precarious position. About 20 per cent of Syrians live in organised camps while the rest are scattered across the country. Only 10,000 Syrians have gone home since the main border crossing between Jordan and Syria opened last October, although most are from the Daraa area in the south where Syria’s government re-established control a year ago.

Jordanians resent the resources consumed by Syrians at a time when popular protests against the government have erupted over an austerity plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund to rein in massive public debt.

Camps closed

After war erupted in Syria in 2011, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Syrian refugees. Some 200,000 were housed in well-ordered camps, and some 3.4 million settled in cities and towns, particularly in the south.

Since the end of last year, Ankara has closed down six camps, forcing refugees to relocate or return home. While Mr Erdogan pledged to grant Turkish citizenship to Syrians in the expectation they would support him politically, over the past three years antagonism toward them has risen in the country’s main metropolitan areas.

Last weekend clashes broke out in Istanbul, where half a million Syrians live, after a Syrian boy allegedly verbally abused a Turkish girl. The city’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said that the “refugee problem affects the society from its deepest roots” and pledged to register and supervise the Syrians and encourage them to go home.

Turkey has closed its border to Syrians and Erdogan has declared that 2 million will be settled in Turkish-occupied enclaves in northern Syria. This means, however, they will not return to areas under government control and will remain uncertain of their future.

Syrians have braved exile for several reasons. Some fear arrest and interrogation by Syrian security, some conscription by the military, and others no longer have homes, land, or jobs in Syria.