The Middle East’s refugee burden

Most displaced Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis remain in the region and it’s not the West that shoulders most of the refugee burden.
Sunday 24/06/2018
Syrian refugees queue to register their names at a job centre at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. (AP)
Syrian refugees queue to register their names at a job centre at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. (AP)

The annual global migration trends report published by UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, shows the number of displaced persons is growing rather than falling. At nearly 69 million, the 2017 figure is nearly 3 million more than the year before. Every 2 seconds, there’s one more person displaced, mostly because of wars and conflicts, many of which rage in the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly then, Syria, in its eighth year of war, accounts for the single largest group of displaced people (12.6 million). Neighbouring Iraq accounts for 3.3 million displaced and Yemen for 2.1 million.

Despite the ugly rhetoric in Europe and the United States over refugees and their rights, the truth is most displaced people stay fairly close to home. As the UNHCR report says: “Over four out of every five refugees were located in a neighbouring country to the one from which they fled.”

This means most displaced Syrians, Iraqis and Yemenis remain in the region and it’s not the West that shoulders most of the refugee burden. Two Middle Eastern countries — Lebanon and Jordan — are under considerable socio-economic strain from the responsibility of hosting millions of displaced people.

The recent unrest in Jordan pointed to the enormous pressure of supporting refugees even as it struggles to provide public services to its own citizens. In 2017, Jordan hosted 653,000 Syrian refugees. Lebanon had 992,100. Compare that with the 496,700 Syrian refugees in Germany and it is clear the region bears the brunt of the crisis.

The number of refugees hosted by a country also must be seen in the context of its own population. In Lebanon, there are 164 refugees per 1,000 locals; in Jordan it is 71 refugees per 1,000 Jordanians and in Turkey, 43 per 1,000. Add in Palestinian refugees, long-displaced and scattered around the region, and the figures are as high as 250 refugees per 1,000 Lebanese (one-in-four); and 310 per 1,000 Jordanians (one-in-three).

Other countries in the Arab world are assuming their share of the burden. In recent days, the United Arab Emirates has adopted a resolution granting foreign nationals from countries “affected by wars and disasters a one-year residency visa, regardless of their residency conditions.”

The UAE pointed out this is “part of the country’s principles and responsibility to support the most vulnerable people of the world as an active supporter of international peace and stability, especially in the Arab and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] region.”

Perhaps this type of greater regional contribution could be part of the solution but for that to happen, those that have the most onerous responsibility — Jordan and Lebanon — must receive more tangible support from the wider world. They are also entitled to greater recognition of the immense contribution they make every day, every month, every year. They are going to need all the moral and monetary support they can get.

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