Syrian refugees come with a cost for Middle East hosts

Friday 01/01/2016
Heavy load

AMMAN - Lebanon and Jordan, two small Middle East coun­tries with limited resourc­es, have been dramati­cally altered by the Syrian civil war.

Both have steadily taken in Syr­ian refugees since the outset of the revolution to topple President Bashar Assad began with peaceful demonstrations in 2011.

For Jordan, the Syrians are also sharing a precious, yet scarce com­modity: water.

The parched kingdom said Syr­ian refugees have increased water demand nearly 40%, forcing the government to tap non-renewable resources from a southern aquifer as a short-term solution while in­vesting billions of dollars in new desalination projects for the long term. The bill is more than $14 bil­lion.

Electricity demand went up 50%, driving Jordan’s energy bill to about 60% of the budget, where the deficit has swollen to unprece­dented levels because of increased spending that reached 82% of gross domestic product. Jordan’s foreign borrowing also reached a record $30 billion.

Health care and education ser­vices have been drained in both Jordan and Lebanon due to the in­flux of refugees.

In Lebanon, the Syrians are rub­bing shoulders with the locals in every aspect of life. In the labour market, they are pushing Lebanese aside and taking over their jobs. For some of the natives who remained on the job, they are settling for meagre wages, only slightly higher than those offered to cheaper Syr­ian labour.

Voicing frustration with the heavy load, Jordanian Planning Minister Imad Fakhoury said the kingdom has been “shouldering the burden of the Syrian refugee crisis on behalf of the region and the world”.

The direct and indirect costs of the Syrian civil war, now into its 57th month, have hit the Jordanian treasury by nearly $7 billion, Fak­houry said. He said there were 1.5 million Syrians in the country, who now make up about 20% of the population.

Of the total Syrian refugee popu­lation in Jordan, only 628,867 are registered with the UN High Com­missioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The rest slipped into local com­munities across Jordan, mostly in northern towns near the Syrian border.

UNHCR says of those registered, 79,709 live in Jordan’s north in Zaatari Camp — a tent encamp­ment set up in 2012 that grew into a bustling city. Another 30,000 live in two other camps elsewhere in Jordan.

Indeed, northern Jordan has been dramatically altered by the Syrian civil war.

Approximately 80% of the Syr­ian refugees live in urban areas in the north, while 13% live in central and southern regions, according to government data. The rest are in refugee camps, with Zaatari being the largest.

In Mafraq, a northern Jordanian governorate bordering Syria, the number of Syrian refugees exceeds 90% of the local population, said Mafraq Governor Qasim Muheidat.

“Mafraq is no longer the same. It has a different face,” he said. “The accent and dialect of many in the street is Syrian. The labour force is Syrian. The schools and apart­ments are overcrowded with Syri­ans. The health clinics are jammed with Syrians. Even the bakeries, supermarkets, restaurants and sweet shops are as well.”

In Lebanon, 1.1 million Syrian refugees are registered with UN­HCR, although many more are thought to be in the country, and thousands have entered Lebanon through illegal crossings. Unoffi­cial estimates put the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon at 1.5 million.

Unlike Jordan and Turkey, Leba­non declined to create refugee camps, which allowed the refugees to disperse throughout the coun­try. As a result, Lebanon has the highest per capita concentration of refugees in the world. One in every five people in the country is a Syr­ian refugee.

The World Bank estimates that the Lebanese economy incurred losses of $7.5 billion due to the repercussions of the Syrian crisis. That has put pressure on public fi­nances, various sectors and public services.

UNHCR suspended new registra­tions of refugees in early May un­der instructions by the Lebanese government, which said it would allow in more refugees as of this past January. Exceptions are grant­ed on a case-by-case basis, specifi­cally for treatment, education or onward travel.

The previous influx strained the country’s already scarce resources, including its infrastructure, edu­cation and health systems, and contributed to rising tensions in a country vulnerable to security breaches and instability.

With donations of $94 million through UNHCR, the United Na­tions’ children’s agency UNICEF, the World Bank and bilateral do­nors, Lebanon’s Ministry of Educa­tion launched a nationwide “Back to School” campaign in Septem­ber, inviting all parents to register their children in school.

The purpose of the initiative among the ministry, UNHCR and UNICEF is to maximise access to certified education for all children on Lebanese territory. This allows 200,000 Syrian refugee children between the ages of 3 and 14 to access certified basic education — nearly double the 106,000 children reached in 2014.

With refugees having exhausted their resources and savings, many refugee parents are left with no choice but to send their children to work. Over the past school year, about 6,000 families withdrew their children from school as a re­sult, according to UNHCR.