Syrian refugees come with a cost for Middle East hosts
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.