Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in March 2011 and the ensuing civil war, an estimated 12 million people (about half of the country’s population) have been forced out of their homes. The number of Syrians who have fled across the border to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq stood at 4.18 million in October 2015, according to figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Hundreds of thousands more have applied for asylum in Europe – almost 138,000 in 2014 alone. In total, Europe received 512,909 applications between April 2011 and September 2015.
While the flow of Syrian refugees to neighbouring countries, and increasingly, to Europe, has been widely covered in the international media, other groups of refugees in the Middle East and North Africa have been largely overlooked. The war in Syria has resulted in the growth of these existing refugee populations and increased the challenges prevailing in the host countries.
One of the ‘oldest’ groups of refugees are Palestinians, who from 1947 onwards (with a peak after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949) fled their homes in Palestine to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and to a lesser extent to the Gulf states. Most of them ended up in refugee camps set up by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), where they and their descendants still live. Their legal status varies from foreigner (Lebanon) to citizen (part of the Palestinian refugee population in Jordan).
Iraq and Afghanistan have also been a major source of refugees in the region, as have sub-Saharan countries such as Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea. The war in Yemen has so far produced mainly internally displaced persons (IDPs), currently numbering around 420,000, but it is widely feared that it too, if it continues long enough, will give rise to the next great international refugee crisis.
Other countries with a high number of IDPs are Syria (7.6 million), Iraq (3.6 million), Sudan (2.19 million) and Libya (363,067).
Socio-economic impact of refugees
The map above shows the socio-economic impact of refugees on the host countries, as defined by the number of refugees per $1 GDP per capita.
GDP per capita is the most widely used measure of a country’s wealth. In this context, comparing the refugee population with the GDP per capita of the host country results in a measure of the relative burden of providing protection. If the number of refugees per $1 GDP per capita is high, as is the case in Lebanon (90), the socio-economic burden can be considered high. In contrast, if there are few refugees per $1 GDP per capita, like Qatar (less than 1), the burden is considered small.
Other ways to measure the burden of refugees on host countries – e.g. comparing the refugee population with the total population or the country’s surface area – may provide a skewed picture. In many host countries, refugees are concentrated in camps or cities, rather than being evenly distributed over the national territory, like in Jordan. Comparing the number of refugees with the total surface area does not take into account the fact that large areas of a country may not be available for productive use, like the deserts in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.
As seen on the map above, the countries that bear the highest refugee burden are Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen. At the same time, these countries have a low GDP per capita, which makes the socio-economic impact of refugees there high.
In contrast, the richest countries in the region – Gulf states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – host the smallest number of refugees. In Qatar, refugees have the least impact, with less than one refugee per $1 GDP per capita (the latter is exceptionally high at $146,178). Being located further away from the conflict zones, these countries have traditionally accepted far fewer refugees than others in the region. However – and this is still the case with the Syrian refugee crisis – they are also less willing to give refuge to those fleeing war or oppression, which has drawn criticism from human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
None of the Gulf countries has signed the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, so they are not obliged to accept refugees. However, other countries that have not signed the convention – Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Libya – have accepted refugees.
Some of the reasons these countries have put forward for their reticence are fears of (further) demographic imbalance, sectarian unrest or terrorism and job competition for their own populations. Saudi officials have said that their country has accepted some 2.5 million Syrians since 2011, not as refugees nor under the auspices of the UNHCR but as “guests”. In fact, Syrians can only enter Saudi Arabia on the invitation of family members already living there.
It has to be noted, however, that refugees not only represent a burden to the host countries, but can also contribute to the economy if they are allowed to integrate into society. Although the Lebanese economy has suffered from the implications of the civil war in Syria, the presence of Syrian refugees has partly compensated for the economic loss, according to the Brookings Institute. The Lebanese economy has grown beyond expectations in the years 2014-2015; the World Bank estimates a 2.5 per cent growth for 2015, the country’s highest growth rate since 2010. Refugees have been an important source of demand for local services, which has boosted sectors including trade, real estate and tourism that have been adversely affected by the spill-over from the civil war. Likewise, a UN report published in June 2015, concluded that humanitarian aid spent in Lebanon and the growth of aid agencies have had a positive impact on the economy, creating new jobs for the Lebanese and boosting trade for local businesses.
These benefits do not necessarily guarantee a warm welcome, however. The Lebanese government, like the Jordanian government, has stressed the negative impact of Syrian refugees and introduced measures to curb the flow.