The Syrian refugee crisis is considered one of the most critical issues related to the on-going crisis in Syria due to the social, economic, educational and humanitarian impact it has had on the refugees and their families and the impact it has had on the host countries. This gives the crisis regional and international dimensions, unlike the other violations committed that have been ignored by the international community and which mainly affect the Syrian people only.
The refugee crisis illustrates the severity of the violations committed by the regime while the recent unprecedented numbers and size of the refugees represent the level of brutality exerted on the Syrian people which has forced millions to abandon their homes to live elsewhere; in some cases unliveable areas.
This report will present the main reasons behind the immigration of Syrians and the impact it has had on the refugees and their host countries in addition to the Syrian government’s response to the crisis. The report will conclude with results and recommendations.
This report does not address Syrians who have been displaced within Syria.
The crisis began in the first few months following the start of the revolution when the Syrian authorities used excessive violence in civil areas. Heavy weapons were used in Latakia and Daraa two months after the revolution in April and May 2011, which forced the residents of those areas to flee to other areas in their governorate or to neighbouring governorates. However, the increasing use of force by the regime led to the first cases of immigration, the first of which was recorded in May 2011, following the Syrian army’s wide attack on the bordering city of Talkalakh forcing hundreds of Syrian families to leave their homes to Wadi Khaled in Lebanon, near Talkalakh. The exact number of families is unknown as the Lebanese authorities did not announce their numbers and because they were not registered as refugees with any international organisation.
On 7 June 2011, the first numbers of refugees were recorded when a group of 122 people illegally arrived in Hatay, southern Turkey. Most of them were refugees from Jisr al-Shughur who arrived during the broad attack on the city in which helicopters were used. By the end of the second week of June 2011, the number of refugees in Turkey reached 8500 people.
Due to the large numbers of Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey, the first refugee camp was built in the first week of June 2011 in Altınözü in Hatay with a capacity of 5000 people. However, the camp was full within a few days of its construction as the number of refugees in Turkey reached 8500 people by the second week of June. As a result, a second camp was constructed in Yayladagi.
Several press and humanitarian reports mentioned that 3000 refugees fled to Jordan from May to October 2011, specifically from Daraa, following the wide attack on the city by the regime’s forces. However, at that time Syrian refugees did not live in camps as the Jordanian authorities allowed them to live with their relatives in specific apartments or to live in donated apartments, especially in the bordering cities Mafraq and Arramtha. This continued till the Zaatari refugee camp was opened on 29 July 2012.
The displacement began following the excessive force used by the Syrian authorities against the areas which witnessed protests against the regime and which were shelled arbitrarily, forcing the residents to flee to other areas within their governorates or to other governorates and neighbouring countries.
However, the systematic violations committed by the regime led to a large increase in the number of displaced people. The violations mentioned below are among the main reasons behind the large influx of refugees since 15 March 2011 till the time of this report:
– Excessive violence: Excessive violence has been used in the areas which witness protests against the regime. This includes arbitrary shelling and the use of heavy weapons which has continued increasingly since the second month of the revolution. The number of refugees increased depending on the size of the attack and its duration. The on-going shelling has led to civilian deaths and the demolishment of a large number of homes which are no longer liveable. In addition, many buildings are expected to fall at any point.
– Systematic massacres: The massacres committed in the surroundings of Homs, Daraa and Aleppo forced the residents to flee to neighbouring areas in order to avoid more massacres.
– Systematic besiegement: This was used since the second month of the revolution when Daraa was besieged on 4 May 2011. Banyas, al-Rastasn and Talibiseh were also besieged following that. Then, this method was used widely in Homs, Rif Dimashq and Aleppo. This method increased the residents’ suffering and forced them to escape to other areas.
– Sexual assault: This includes crimes of systematic rape, kidnapping girls and sexual harassment which were committed by members of the security forces and the Shabiha. This method was used systematically in several areas in 2011 and 2012, forcing a large number of families to leave Syria to in order to protect their family members from becoming victims of these crimes, especially that this issue is very sensitive in the Syrian society.
– Conscription and calling reservists: This occurred specifically following the presidential decree 104/2011 which forced a large number of families to leave the country in order to avoid having their sons risk their lives serving in the reserve forces or to avoid having their sons serve in an army fighting its own people.
– Poor economy: This factor has forced a lot people to leave the country even if their lives were not directly threatened. The state of the economy in Syria is ailing, unemployment has reached 80%, general services have stopped and the prices of goods have increased.
The Syrian government’s response to the refugee crisis
The Syrian government has completely ignored the refugee crisis, similarly to how it has ignored the other violations committed against the Syrians. No official announcements or releases have been made to address the size of the problem. During the first year of the revolution, the government either undermined the problem or denied it completely.
In the beginning of June 2001, Reem Haddad, the director of Syria’s state TV, told the BBC in an interview that the Syrian refugees in Turkey were not fleeing the country but were visiting their relatives there.
On 20 June 2011, Walid Muallem, Syria’s foreign minister, told Jacob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the time, that hundreds of families which fled to Turkey from Jisr al-Shughur started returning home after what he described was the establishment of security there. But in reality, the security operations had not ended there at the time and the government has not been able to have full control over it since. The official Syrian media channels and pro-regime channels spread this news as an end to the refugee crisis.
On 1 October 2012, Muallem spoke about the refugee crisis live for the first time when he said in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly that some countries were supporting armed forces to terrorise civilians in bordering areas which has forced them to flee to neighbouring countries, and that these armed forces are placing the refugees in barren areas in order to exploit their situation and get hold of the aid they receive and spend it on non-humanitarian services. In his speech, he also pleaded the refugees to return home telling them the government will guarantee them a good life.
However, deputy foreign minister Faisal al-Miqdad confirmed on 5 May 2011 that what is being described as the “refugee crisis” is in fact a fabricated story used as an excuse to allow the US, Western Europe and other regional countries to intervene in Syria.
Conditions in the host countries
The refugees’ conditions vary from one country to another depending on three main factors: the number of refugees, the host country’s policy towards the crisis in Syria in general and the refugee crisis in specific and the financial abilities of that country.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees till this day (20 November 2013) has reached 2,244,760 refugees; 824,288 in Lebanon, 553,311 in Jordan, 521,493 in Turkey, 202,976 in Iraq and 127,733 in Egypt.
However, the numbers recoded by the UNHCR do not include the refugees who fled to neighbouring countries without being registered as refugees, especially refugees who entered these countries legally. Entering these countries, including Egypt till June 2013, does not require a visa. In addition, the numbers recorded do not include refugees who fled to other countries in the region or in the word. If included, then then number of Syrian refugees can be estimated to reach 5 million people.
Despite the fact that the largest number of refugees is in Lebanon, Lebanon does not have an official camp for refugees. With the increasing number of refugees however, tens of small camps randomly emerged in different areas of the country.
Each refugee registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon receives $27 a month while a several thousand of them receive shelter only.
Syrian students are allowed to enrol in Lebanese state schools for free. However the problem lies in the schools’ lack of ability to contain the number of Syrian students at school age. As a result, the Lebanese government opened evening classes in approximately 70 schools around different areas in the country.
In Jordan, the majority of refugees reside in one camp which is Zaatari camp which was established on 29 July 2012. They are provided with food and medical and educational services inside the camp. Refugees who reside outside the camp are allowed to enrol their children in state schools and are treated similarly to Jordanian school children. However, state schools are no longer able to contain the growing numbers of refugees; therefore the UNHRC has decided to use state schools to in the evenings to provide evening classes. In addition, a Saudi and a Bahraini school have been opened in Zaatari refugee camp.
Refugees in specific suffer from lack of adequate medical services, especially refugees with chronic diseases such as renal failure and thalassemia.
In Turkey, the number of refugee camps has reached 22 camps with a population of 225000 refugees. The status of refugees in Turkey is considered the best among all the hosting countries. In addition, the Turkish government distributes bank vouchers to all refugees which are topped up on a monthly basis by the Turkish government. It also provides them with seasonal bonuses such as giving them a certain amount to buy clothes in the winter or a specific amount to buy school stationary. This initiative is the first of its kind in the world.
Syrians residing outside the camps in different areas around Turkey are estimated to have reached 400000 people whose permits have been extended to allow them to stay and work in Turkey. The Turkish government dealt with all the financial fines which have been issued to latecomers.
The government has also provided Syrians inside and outside the camps with medical services and has allowed the construction of approximately 60 schools which teach the amended Syrian curriculum. It also supported these schools with stationary and other necessities. In addition, it opened health centres in which patients can recuperate until they are completely healed. Syrian doctors have also been permitted to practice their profession in these camps despite the fact that Turkish law bans non-Turkish doctors from practicing medicine on Turkish lands.
Furthermore, the Turkish government has offered scholarships to Syrian university students and has permitted students who do not possess their official university documents to continue their studies in six universities in southern Turkey.
No refugee camps exist in Egypt; Syrian refugees live in rented houses there and can afford the basic services on their own either through work or through money transfers they receive from their relatives abroad. Those who cannot afford the basic services receive help from some charities which have provided them with housing units, food, clothes and financial support.
The previous Egyptian government issued a law which stated that Syrian students are to be treated similarly to Egyptian students. This law, which has not been amended thus far, has helped Syrian school and university students despite the administrative and bureaucratic barriers they are facing as a result of the absence of their needed documents.
Syrian refugees in Egypt are facing a vicious campaign ran by the local media since the removal of former president Mohammed Morsi. Anti-Morsi movements consider the presence of Syrian refugees a reminder of Morsi’s government policies and therefore have targeted them after his removal. This was documented in a special report by SHRC about the conditions of Syrian refugees in Egypt. These campaigns have created social tensions between the Egyptian people and the refugees and have increased their suffering. Since 8 July 2013, Syrians have been required to obtain a visa in order to go into Egypt.
Tens of thousands of Syrians managed to find their way into other countries in the Gulf and the Maghreb. Others are still attempting to reach Europe, the US and Canada to apply for political asylum there. In the last few months, several incidents of boat drowning have been recorded in which illegal immigrants attempted to cross to Europe. The last of these was recorded on 25 September 2013 when a boat drowned near the Italian cost, around 700 people were rescued.
Several European countries have opened camps for refugees to shelter them upon their arrival. These countries include Bulgaria, Italy and Greece. Many violations have been committed in these camps, especially in Italy where soldiers guarding the camp brutally beat up the refugees, separate children from their parents and attempt to force the refugees to return to their country.
The impact of refugees on host countries
Displacement in general creates economic, social and political problems in host countries; a problem that is studied by specialists in the field of refugees due to the impact it leaves on the refugees, the host countries and the international organisations addressing the issue.
The large influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries for two and a half years has escalated many economic, social and political problems in the host countries, which varied from one country to another.
From an economic perspective, the presence of these refugees has placed a large burden on the shoulders of lower income countries in the region such as Jordan and Lebanon which host nearly 2 million refugees alone. It has also affected job opportunities significantly due to the refugees’ participation in the job market at competitive rates.
In Iraq, Egypt and Turkey, the severity of the problem is less compared to Jordan and Lebanon due to the lower numbers of refugees there. Lebanon’s population is 4 million people and Jordan’s population is 6.5 million people while both host nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. On the other hand, Egypt’s population is 85 million people and Iraq’s population is 35 million people, and both host nearly 400 thousand Syrian refugees. Finally, Turkey’s population is 77 million people and it hosts nearly 1 million Syrian refugees.
The most prominent economic impact has occurred in cases where the local government has provided specific resources to support the refugees, which happened mainly in Turkey. In Jordan and Lebanon, this responsibility was left to international aid organisations which cannot cover the necessary resources, especially indirect general services such as education, security and infrastructure.
According to statements given by World Bank president Jim Yong Kim in a meeting to support Lebanon on 23 September 2013, international statistics estimate that the crisis in Syria will cost Lebanon $7.5bn from 2012 to 2014. He also stated that by 2014, the number of unemployed people in Lebanon will rise from 200 thousand to 300 thousand which will double the level of unemployment and make it reach 20%. This will lead to an increase in social tension (see: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=46019#.Upz1cMR7Iuc).
On 28 October 2013, the governor of the central bank in Jordan expected the GDP growth rate to decrease by two points due to the presence of refugees in the country. In addition, a study made by the Oxford Business Group shows that Jordan has witnessed an increase in prices as a result of the hundreds of thousands of refugees there. It also mentioned a few positive impacts refugees have had on the Jordanian economy such as the drop in unemployment rate, contradicting the several reports circulated by the Jordanian media which state otherwise. For example, unemployment has dropped from 12.9% to 12.2% in 2012 following the injection of $1b of capital into the Jordanian market by the Syrians, which is expected to grow by 3% this year (see: http://www.oxfordbusinessgroup.com/economic_updates/impact-syrian-refugees-jordan%E2%80%99s-economy).
In addition, the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon has been socially and politically problematic due to the divided stance toward the crisis in Syria. For example, in Lebanon, forces affiliated to the Hezbollah, which constitutes part of the Lebanese government, are fighting alongside the Syrian regime and are using their security forces to harass Syrian refugees and detain them, causing a social and political tension in the country.
Furthermore, the presence of Syrian refugees in Jordan has also caused social and political controversy. This crisis has become an issue discussed on a daily basis; especially that some members of the Jordanian Parliament support the regime and therefore spread hateful campaigns against the refugees. For example, in Parliament on 27 March 2013, MP Myassar al-Sardiyye accused Syrian women in Jordan of prostitution (see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z9yG1KJnbzM) .
In Turkey, the number of refugees and the level of support they receive from the government have caused an on-going social and political debate. The sectarian variety in Turkey, similarly to that in Lebanon, has left a great impact on the manner in which the refugee crisis is being addressed. This can be seen in the attitude of employees in the public sector and that of the Turkish people in general, depending on their sectarian backgrounds.
The presence of refugees in Egypt has not had as big an impact on the Egyptian society due to the small number of refugees compared to the population on the one hand and to the large number of refugees who are financially stable on the other. However, Egyptian reports mentioned that the prices of properties for sale and rent have increased as a result of the money injected into the economy by the refugees. Many of the refugees are holders of contraband money from Syria.
The impact on refugees
Syrian refugees in different parts of the world face social and economic pressure which affects them on both the short term and long term. The impact this has varies depending on many things such as: the host country, the social circumstances, having rich family relatives, having a skill or job that is desired in the host country, the ability to obtain official personal documents and certificates and the education and experiences that the refugees carry. All these factors determine each refugee’s ability to adapt into a new environment.
One of the main problems that Syrian refugees face is similar to that faced by refugees anywhere which is social stereotyping. Syrian refugees are usually seen as inferior people who need help and support and who lack the social security they once enjoyed in their own country. The severity of this problem is increasing in the light of the political and media campaigns launched by the regime’s supporters in the host countries, especially campaigns which target the ethics and manners of the refugees which are considered sensitive issues in Arab societies.
In addition, refugees face a problem with education. Despite the fact that most host countries allow school children to join state schools, these overcrowded schools are struggling to contain the large number of students. Most refugees have not been able to obtain their children’s official school documents from Syria; as a result most children in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan missed an entire academic year of studying.
In Turkey, school children were not enrolled in state schools due to the language barrier. Therefore, special schools were founded in the camps and pupils need to dedicate one year to learn Turkish. As a result, a lot of children had to skip school. Without a doubt, the lack of education, which tens of thousands of Syrian children and currently suffering from, will have a great impact on the future of their entire generation.
Syrian refugees also suffer from health problems especially in Lebanon and Jordan where the medical services provided by local and international organisations do not cover all their medical needs, which has led to the spread of diseases, deaths and increasing daily challenges. The tents used are too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. On 4 December 2012, three children died in Zaatari camp due to the cold. On 9 January two children died from the floods in the camp.
In Iraq and Lebanon, Syrian refugees also face security problems. Arbitrary arrests and deportations have been made by the authorities and in Lebanon some refugees were kidnapped by members of militias following the kidnapping of Lebanese fighters who were said to have supported the regime.
In the camps, Syrian children face educational problems which affect their system of values. School management in the camps have noticed the pupils’ increasing use of violence and lack of obedience. Furthermore, the international community’s negligence toward the crisis in Syria in general and the refugee crisis in specific has led to the popularity of radical and extreme beliefs amongst refugees and Syrians in general, which in turn will have an impact on the Syrian society in the future.
Based on the dangers and difficulties which Syrian refugees are currently facing and based on the critical impact the refugee crisis has on approximately five million Syrian refugees, the Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) has reached the following conclusions:
• The refugee crisis should not be separated from the main causes which have forced Syrians to leave their homes and seek refuge in neighbouring and other countries. Without addressing these causes by putting an end to the regime’s violations against human rights in Syria, the crisis will continue and escalate.
• The international community needs to fulfil its responsibility towards the refugees by providing them with better services, especially following its lack of response towards the violations committed by the regime and its lack of effective attempts to prevent them, which has led to the escalation of the refugee crisis.
• More efforts need to be made by local and international human rights organisations in documenting the violations committed against the refugees in different countries in addition to documenting their daily conditions and circumstances, especially those of women, children and the elderly.
• Documenting oral testimonies is a vital step in documenting the violations committed against the refugees, which have forced them to leave their homes and live a difficult life in camps. Documenting these violations is essential and vital for transitional justice. It is also the right of future generations to realise the level of brutality which Syrian civilians have gone through.
• Political parties in the Syrian opposition, especially the National Coalition for Opposition Forces and the interim government, need to shed more light on the refugee crisis and provide more resources to support them.
• SHRC appeals to all Syrian and international civil society organisations to carry out educational and development projects aimed at the refugees in general and children in specific in order to provide them with a set of experiences and skills that will help them invest their time as refugees productively, whilst providing them with the tools to do so at a later stage.
Syrian Human Right Committee (SHRC)
23 November 2013