There are many reasons why foreign governments are displaying great unease over the terror that explodes inside Syria on a daily basis. While the rhetoric on human rights protection and critical humanitarian needs saturate international discourse on the matter, this crisis, in particular, features a corresponding anxiety toward the regionalised aspects of the conflict and the migration consequences of a steadily rising refugee population throughout the Middle East and beyond. The international aid community has recently warned of the ‘permanency’ of regional demographic shifts prompted by the flight of nearly two million Syrians spilling across borders. Without question, the mass population mobility emanating from the Arab Spring – with the largest influx related to Syria – is posing a sustained, formidable challenge to border integrity, national security and stability for Middle East and western governments alike, especially those in closest proximity to recent events of conflict and violence. Although much has been made of the USD 5 billion required for immediate life-saving support to Syrians, the inconvenient truth is that this ever-growing refugee population may, over the long term, never desire to return back to a nation shattered by mass physical destruction, economic devastation, and a tenuous political future.
Who is responsible for the refugee population streaming out of Syria and for how long? Times are changing in humanitarian terms: unlike other major refugee crises of the past, only one third of Syrians are hosted and provided services inside the contained parameters of refugee camps. Indeed this may be a positive sign, given that refugee camps are quintessentially harsh environments providing little opportunity for livelihoods and usually exposing women and children to the worst forms of violence and abuse. That the majority of the refugee population is benefitting from the (highly under-reported) hospitality of host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey is, however, a concern without a sufficient public audience. These population influxes, especially under more permanent conditions and in often dense urban areas, have tangible consequences for the running of daily public services, community stability and local governance, and the provision of sufficient employment in hosting communities. Egypt has been sanctioned by Human Rights Watch for its recent actions in detaining, arresting, or deporting groups of Syrian refugees, including children, despite earlier gestures to welcome in those fleeing the crisis. Lebanon has experienced a similar public backlash to government-led refugee assistance for close to a million Syrians. In a recent survey, more than 90% of Lebanese citizens expressed their frustration that humanitarian spending redirects aid otherwise intended for their own local needs, with high rates of the respondents articulating the desire for Syrians to leave or face confinement in designated refugee spaces. Jordan, at a time of extremely high inflation in the housing market amongst other indicators of tremendous population strain, has seen a similar drop in public acceptance for its large refugee population alongside reports of rising crime, joblessness, and social tensions. More than 70% of Jordanians in a recent poll called for the overall closure of borders to Syrian refugees.
Under these circumstances, financial aid alone on the part of western governments is simply an inadequate response to the burgeoning refugee population. Despite a recent plea from the UNHCR High Commissioner for a more robust resettlement response by the US, UK, and other EU Member States, slow movement has been made on the part of Western governments since 2011 to relieve some of the burden created by mass population pressures on Syria’s neighbours. Various academics and UNHRC have articulated the necessity of EU Member States in particular to ensure access to territory, asylum, and resettlement places for Syrians and other refugee populations previously hosted by Syria. But when the politics of aid to refugees continued to be framed and discussed merely in humanitarian, rather than migration terms, global governments are losing the ability to manage some of the worst outcomes for human suffering and individual well-being. How much longer governments can skilfully avoid the question of international burden-sharing remains to be seen. There may be some positive signs that countries, such as Germany, are shoring up their commitments to taking in Syrian refugees – to the credit of significant lobbying by the UN and other aid groups. Unless this becomes a stronger trend, however, international aid and foreign policy rests on the unrealistic expectation that refugees and hosting communities can bear the brunt of a conflict that, at the moment, has no end in sight.