The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Regional and Human Security Implications

Syrian refugees on the Syrian border with Lebanon

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Syrian refugees on the Syrian border with Lebanon
Syrian refugees on the Syrian border with Lebanon

The Refugee Population: An Overview

Defined as the “worst humanitarian disaster since the end of the cold war,” the Syrian civil war has to date claimed over 200,000 casualties, including over 8,000 documented killings of children under eighteen years of age. In a country of approximately 22 million people, the bloody and prolonged conflict has resulted in 7.6 million internally displaced persons and an additional 3.2 million refugees, as well as approximately 12.2 million people (more than 1 in 2 Syrians) in need of humanitarian aid to survive. Over 700,000 Syrians have registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2014 alone, with an average of approximately 70,000 Syrians fleeing their country every month. Even though the average monthly number of new refugees has declined since 2013, the regional crisis is by no means subsiding, especially as it becomes clear that returning to Syria will not be a viable option in the short or medium term.

To date, the humanitarian cost of the crisis has been paid mainly by Syria’s neighbors, with Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey currently hosting over 600,000, 1.14 million, and 1.6 million refugees, respectively, and with a smaller number of Syrians seeking shelter in Egypt (over 140,000) and Iraq (over 220,000). In reality, the number of Syrians present in these countries is higher than the official UNHCR figure of registered refugees, as a number of Syrians choose not to register, for reasons that range from fearing the consequences of having their names in official records, to lacking either proper information or access to the registration points.

The regional refugee crisis has indisputable and far reaching political, social, economic, and security implications. First, the dire conditions facing a large part of the refugee population directly undermine all dimensions of their human security (from the personal, to economic and environmental, to health and food security). Second, the refugees’ problems and hardships cannot be seen as self-contained. On the contrary, they deeply affect their host countries’ resilience and domestic stability, to the detriment of the host societies’ human security. Indeed, the study emphasizes how the refugee crisis has severely undermined the host countries’ resilience, as well as their economic performance, while also furthering social tensions. Clearly, each host country’s preexisting social, political, and economic context equips it in a different way to deal with these destabilizing trends, but the fact that even the more prosperous and resilient Turkish state is starting to face significant pressure in tackling the refugee crisis demonstrates the magnitude of the challenge.

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The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Figures for 2013
The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Figures for 2013

The cumulative effect of the ongoing crisis on the main host countries should be seen as a potential source of short term domestic and regional instability at the economic, political, and ultimately security levels. And if in the short term the failure to tackle the crisis only adds pressure to an already shaky regional security landscape, the lack of serious investments in the long term integration or resettlement of refugee communities could lead to the rise of a new group of economically deprived and politically marginalized second class citizens throughout the Levant, with negative consequences in terms of human development, political stability, and security.

To respond to the ongoing humanitarian emergency, the international community has relied on an inter-agency Regional Response Plan (RRP) that brings together over 100 stakeholders between UN agencies and NGOs, as well as on bilateral and multi-lateral assistance to the host countries and communities. The RRP appeal for 2014, set at $3.7 billion to sustain the emergency assistance and relief efforts, is one of the largest ever presented in United Nations history. When adding appeals from other agencies and host governments, the sum rises to a staggering $7.7 billon. The 2015 UN appeal for the sum of $8.4 billion (with $5.5 billion earmarked for the regional refugee and residence plan) similarly shows that the emergency is far from subsiding.

Another indirect way to reduce the pressure of the regional crisis is for the international community to substantially step up its commitment to resettlement. UNHCR has expressed hope to resettle an estimated 130,000 Syrian between now and 2016, but to date that seems a particularly elusive goal. With the exception of Germany and to a lesser degree Sweden, European countries in particular lag behind, with countries like France having pledged to resettle only 500 refugees. Indeed, by and large European governments, with increasingly more securitized immigration policies and facing a generally reluctant public opinion when it comes to refugee absorption, have taken only small steps with respect to resettlement. Given the general political climate in Europe, it is unlikely this policy stance will change substantively in 2015.

In dealing with the Syrian civil war, the international community seems to have split the focus between the “military-security” dimension of the conflict and the “humanitarian” aspect, with the regional refugee crisis largely analyzed through the humanitarian lens. While understandable, this approach has de facto created an artificial separation between regional and human security concerns.

Put simply: the economic, political, and social impact of the ongoing refugee crisis should not be seen solely through the humanitarian lens. Successfully tackling the emergency and boosting the long term resilience of both refugee and host communities is also a vital strategic priority to prevent the long term destabilization and implosion of the entire Levant. The relative lethargy with which the international community has reacted to the challenge reflects a fundamental underestimation of the nature of the crisis and its long term regional repercussions in terms of regional stability and resilience, but also in relation to issues such as radicalization and the rise of uncontrolled migratory flows, two issues that have been at the forefront of the European security agenda for the Mediterranean.


Written by: Benedetta Berti