Why Syrian Refugees Matter to You

With a population of about 5 million, Lebanon has about 300,000 Palestinians in refugee camps that are more like densely built-up neighborhoods and an additional 1.5 million Syrian refugees. These are round figures* but the proportions give a sense of the scale of the migration to Lebanon. Refugees from the war in Syria live very differently from the Palestinians. They are housed in white tent settlements that are dispersed through the country. Many are families and relatives of agricultural and construction workers who have long worked in Lebanon. They are drawn from groups other than Alawite/Shia Islamic confessions. The makeshift rural accommodations of these workers have been doubled or tripled in size, generally on private land. There is scant planning or services. Refugees are registered with UNHCR and supported by other countries that are donors to the United Nations, which is to say that they are supported by taxpayers.

It is essential to connect questions of migration and refugee issues to urban planning to offer services, housing and jobs to migrants. Seeking work and better futures, migrants are moving to cities, globally.

The influx of refugees are tolerated as they have become a cheap source of labour in agriculture, retail and the hospitality and food industry. This particularly benefits small entrepreneurs. However, it has created a number of demands on the country while the economy as a whole has suffered due to the Syrian conflict and the loss of, for example, trade into Syria via Lebanon’s ports. Tax revenues are distributed in ways that don’t respond quickly to rapid population change, creating deficits, especially in large cities. Coordination across agencies, national and municipal authorities is fraught with difficulties.

As the war changes, an impending crisis threatens on several fronts.

The largely Sunni refugees are regarded with suspicion and hostility by the Syrian regime. It is difficult to imagine their return to their original places of residence; there appears to be a form of genocidal ethnic-religious cleansing taking place in Syria.** An example of the burden faced by Lebanon has been the doubling of the traditionally French or English school day to offer instruction in Arabic during a “second shift.”

About 300,000 children are estimated to have been born in the informal camps of Syrian refugees.  Many are without documentation.***  Official statistics record reported births and those in hospitals, so it is a challenge to precisely state how many are without birth certificates.  The number may be as small as 20,000 or ten times as much.   Lacking birth certificates or nationality, they cannot travel and cannot return to Syria.  Reproductive rates amongst Syrians have traditionally been amongst the highest in the world, with large families as a cultural norm.  Birth control is unaffordable for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.****  This new generation of excluded ‘sans papiers’ poses the risk of future unrest amidst a democratic deficit between those who are recognized citizens and those who have a non-status although they will be seeking their own futures and fortunes in Lebanon and other countries surrounding Syria. The loss of talents and the negation of human capacity is astonishing.

It is essential to connect migration to cities and then to citizenship.

The connection to citizenship extends or understanding into the future and allows a more comprehensive time-space understanding. Without bringing this triad into perspective, even distant countries will continue to suffer present and future costs of instability and grievance in the Middle East: new terrorisms, epidemics, trade disruptions and refugee cycles. This is especially significant for not only Europe that has become a destination for migrants but countries such as China and Russia that have sought to extend trade networks and benefit from a political and economic ‘rearranging of the deck chairs’ that Middle Eastern conflict and changing reliance of its oil exports have allowed. Settler societies such as Canada and Australia that have traditionally been built through migration are also inheritors of sectarian rivalries and surrogate stages for future cycles of conflict.

Syrian refugees, even far away, matter to you. Think of migrants’ human rights and citizenship together with housing and cities. Whether acknowledged or not, responses such as ‘the war on terror,’ withdrawal from international agencies and refusal to accept refugees (e.g. USA), mean relying on military solutions to cycles of conflict. Excluded, vulnerable and/or recalcitrant populations will be dealt with through force. This rebounds on economies, the tone of politics, and risks of terrorism. Instead, encourage responses that are more likely to reduce conflict. Communicate your concern to your political leaders, sponsor a refugee, get involved.

-Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

* I have redacted the sources and source agencies in Lebanon for these estimates. All photos Creative Commons Non-Commercial Copyright by the author 2018. Compare the current situation with the screenshot from Nov. 2018 above which lists documented Syrian refugees only at 952,562: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/71

** See the United States Holocaust Museum statement https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide/syria. See also: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/02/international-open-letter-calls-syrian-genocide-180227155538993.html and https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/20/its-not-a-war-its-a-massacre-scores-killed-in-syrian-enclave-eastern-ghouta

*** Other sources put the rate at a comparable 40,000 per year. The high refugee birthrate is in part linked to the status of women, but also the expense of birthcontrol in Lebanon. See: T. Kabakian-Khasholian et al ‘Perspectives of displaced Syrian women and service providers on fertility behaviour and available services in West Bekaa, Lebanon’ in Reproductive Health Matters 2017 pp.75-86.

In 2010, prior to the conflict, Syria had the sixth highest total fertility rate in the Arab World. This study explored the perspectives of women and service providers about fertility behaviour of and service provision to Syrian refugee women in Bekaa, Lebanon. The findings indicate that the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon had implications on the fertility behaviour of the participants. Women brought their beliefs about preferred family size and norms about decision-making into an environment where they were exposed to both aid and hardship. The unaffordability of contraceptives in the Lebanese privatised health system compared to their free provision in Syria limited access to family planning services.

**** See https://www.newsdeeply.com/womenandgirls/articles/2017/07/07/for-refugees-in-lebanon-giving-birth-comes-at-a-high-price-2