Over 5.6 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced from Syria to neighboring countries in the Middle Eastern region. This has resulted in a major regional and international humanitarian emergency affecting the lives of millions of Syrians and their respective host communities. This explainer is the first in a TIMEP series unpacking the context for refugees in their host countries, the push and pull factors facing Syrians inside Syria and others who may be considering or faced with return, and the role of the policy community in moderating the conversation on refugee return. In addition to providing an update to TIMEP’s previous brief on refugee return, this explainer focuses on the conditions of Syrians in three neighboring countries that host the largest number of Syrian refugees: Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. In doing so, this piece outlines some of the challenges faced by refugees and looks at trends in attitudes and policies toward refugees in host country contexts.
The first influx of Syrian refugees fleeing from persecution by the Assad regime arrived to Turkey in April 2011, shortly after the beginning of the Syrian uprising. By April 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey had exceeded 700,000 and continued to rise in the following months. It was in this year that the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which grants Syrian refugees legal status in Turkey as well as basic rights and access to services, was implemented. The law designates a “temporary protection” status, given to Syrian asylum seekers who are otherwise not eligible for refugee status. Even though refugees under temporary protection are protected against forced return, they are subject to a number of limitations, including freedom of movement within the country and access to employment. Despite Turkey’s role as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it limits its application of the Convention to refugees originally from European countries. As a result, Syrian refugees remain an exception.
As the Syrian conflict continued to escalate, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey almost doubled, reaching 2.8 million by the end of 2016. Subsequently, Turkey ended the free-visa agreement with Syria, signed back in 2008, and enforced more challenging conditions for Syrians to obtain a visa. In March 2016, the European Union (EU) and Turkey reached an agreement, under which the EU paid Turkey about 6 billion euros to curb the flow of refugees crossing into Europe.
Continuing its strict measures, Turkey enforced a policy in July 2018 to stop registering new refugees in the country’s biggest city, Istanbul, and nine other provinces, including provinces on the border, which were host to the majority of Syrian refugees. In the summer of 2019, the Ministry of Interior announced that unregistered Syrian refugees in Istanbul and other provinces should leave and return to the provinces in which they were first registered. The announcement was followed by a wave of detention and deportation of Syrian refugees, particularly in Istanbul where Turkish police roamed neighborhoods with dense Syrian populations, ultimately arresting and transferring many refugees to detention centers—and in some cases, even back to liberated areas in northern Syria. The introduction of such measures to reduce the number of refugees in Istanbul and other provinces came after opposition parties in Turkey used the Syrian refugees’ issue as a major point of contention in the parliamentary election and after the polls showed a general displeasure among the Turkish population toward refugees. In January 2020, the governor of Istanbul announced that since July 2019, the police had transferred up to 98,000 Syrian refugees from Istanbul to other provinces and that the overall number of Syrians refugees residing in Istanbul had decreased since 2018 from 580,000 to 480,000. In 2019 alone, Turkey deported around 60,000 Syrian refugees to Idlib in northern Syria, while in 2020, another 16,000 Syrians were reportedly deported.
Among the many challenges facing Syrian refugees in Turkey—including unemployment, barriers to education for Syrian children, and rising racism and hostility—the lack of legal documents and bureaucracy has been a major hurdle for years. This became worse with the new Turkish measures that forced refugees to move to different provinces as well as the implementation of a travel ban.
In order to register in the temporary protection system, refugees need to have a legal Syrian document such as an ID, passport, or a civil registry record—and obtaining these documents is extremely difficult, sometimes even impossible, for the majority of refugees. Many of those who are unable to gain their documents from Syria, mainly because of the conflict and Syria’s broken civil registry system, must do so through the Syrian consulate in Istanbul using services that most refugees cannot afford. Prior to 2019—and to the establishment of the appointment system that enables refugees to register online for an appointment—getting an appointment at the consulate required paying bribes up to $300 to a middleman, which also exposes refugees to potential exploitation.
Furthermore, obtaining permission to travel between cities and travel to the consulate is itself another burden for many Syrians. In 2015, Turkey imposed a travel restriction on Syrian refugees who have temporary protection IDs. Travelling between provinces became illegal unless refugees obtained a travel permission from the Immigration Office in their area. Prior to 2020, refugees needed to go to the Immigration Office in-person to obtain travel permission, issued only for specific cases such as hospital visits, death of a first-degree relative, or an appointment at the consulate. Although refugees can now request permission through a website, the Immigration Office in many cases does not issue permissions or restricts the amount of accompanying family members. Syrians traveling to other provinces without permits could get charged fines or arrested in violation of these restrictions.
Another major struggle for Syrian refugees relates to families who lost their fathers due to the war or following forced disappearance. These families cannot register in the temporary protection system—which requires the presence of the father or a valid death certificate, which most Syrian families do not have—and are therefore unable to receive financial assistance or send their children to schools. Such bureaucratic hurdles increase school dropout, child labor for Syrian refugees, and are likely to lead to the return of many refugees.
Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Syrian refugees in Turkey into an even more desperate situation. The pandemic has had a significant impact on access to employment for Syrians, as many work without insurance or work in low-wage positions—such as in factories or restaurants. Studies show that Syrian refugees face dismissal or unpaid leave twice as much as Turkish citizens. Yet, many Syrian refugees do not have access to state support packages because they are likely unregistered or lack access to information about their legal rights and benefits.
Over 659,000 Syrian refugees are officially registered in Jordan, but estimates which include unregistered refugees total over 1.3 million, nearly 15 percent of the country’s total population. The majority of Syrian refugees (81 percent) live in urban areas throughout the country. The remaining live in three main camps across Jordan, including Za’tari (12 percent), Azraq (6 percent), and the Emirati Jordanian camp (1 percent). With over 255,000 cases of COVID-19, 1,360 of which were reported among persons of concern living in Jordan’s main refugee camps, the country continues to place increasingly restricting measures to quell the spread of the virus, often at the expense of those most vulnerable.
Despite its status as a non-signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Jordan has traditionally hosted refugees from across the region, including nearly 2 million Palestinian refugees, 10,000 of which are Palestinian refugees from Syria. Jordan has also played a significant role in hosting Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict in 2011. The country has since experienced significant strains on its development and socioeconomic growth—leading to a 56 percent increase in the unemployment rate between 2012 and 2019—and significant environmental changes, including shortages in water, electricity, and reports of increased pollution and energy consumption. These demographic pressures have tangible impacts, including increasing tensions between host communities and refugee populations throughout the country, threatening social cohesion and the safety and well-being of refugees in the long-term. Over the years, increasing pressure on infrastructure has led to increased restrictions against refugees entering the country. This includes the suspension of Asylum Seeker Certificates (ASCs) issued by UNHCR to refugees seeking asylum, which is essential for accessing services provided by UNHCR as well as the Ministry of Interior service card which provides refugees living in Jordan access to legal employment, education, and the ability to live outside of refugee camps and travel freely throughout the country. Further changes, such as the 2015 suspension of the “bailout” process, which initially allowed eligible refugees to apply to leave camps for urban areas throughout Jordan, continue to place restrictions on particularly vulnerable refugee populations living in camp settings across Jordan.
Specific challenges faced by refugees in Jordan include legal uncertainty, lack of mobility, closed jobs and quotas, and negative perception. This is similar to barriers to accessing economic opportunities in other host countries, but is facilitated by access to language and residency permits otherwise unavailable in other contexts (i.e., Turkey and Egypt). As of 2020, Jordan has issued over 150,000 work permits to refugees (similar to the over 132,000 work permits issued by Turkey). However, these are limited to low-skilled jobs in construction, agriculture, and service jobs. According to the 2019 Vulnerability Assessment Framework for Jordan, nearly 40 percent of Syrians interviewed have debts of over 100 Jordanian dinar (over $140) and 76 percent fall below the minimum expenditure for households to meet basic needs. According to UNHCR, 34,000 registered Syrian refugees have returned to Syria from Jordan since October 2018, mainly because of the lack of economic opportunity and a “dead-end job market.” Given the increasingly challenging circumstances in their host countries, Syrian refugees may be incentivized to return to Syria, despite concerns to personal security and reports of arrest and interrogation, which are addressed in more detail in Part 2.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that about 400 registered Syrian refugees were being deported per month by Jordanian officials. More recent deportations were reported in August 2020, when 16 Syrian refugees, including children, were forcibly transferred from Azraq camp to Rukban camp following arbitrary arrests. Rukban, which is an informal camp between the Syrian and Jordanian border, is host to nearly 10,000 people. At its peak, the camp hosted about 60,000 people, many of whom returned to government-controlled areas due to lack of access to food and livelihoods and following suspensions of aid provision from Jordan in 2016. There are growing concerns that there could be more deportations from Jordan to Rukban, and as such, concerns that COVID-19 could reach the camp, where poor conditions and lack of access to healthcare could be catastrophic for populations living there.
Conditions in Jordan that had placed significant constraints on the Syrian refugee population have only been exacerbated with the arrival of COVID-19. In March 2020, the Jordanian government placed temporary restrictions on refugee camps across the country, suspending travel in or out of the camps. As such, COVID-19 has substantially impacted the livelihoods of refugees in Jordan, particularly those living outside of camps, who spend over two-thirds of their monthly household budgets on shelter. In Jordan, almost six in ten Syrian refugees of working age are unemployed and are now facing even greater difficulties in accessing employment or earning income due to the country’s strict COVID-19 guidelines.
Jordan has received significant support from humanitarian donors and neighboring host countries in order to respond to the Syrian Regional Response effort, which describes the broader humanitarian initiative supporting the displacement of Syrians across the region. Jordan is particularly favored by donors due to its overall stability in comparison to other countries in the region and its positive relationships with both regional and international stakeholders. Last year, Jordan received over 2.2 billion dollars in support for the Syrian Regional Response effort. Jordan’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation also released a comprehensive Jordan Response Plan (JRP) for the Syrian Crisis (2020-22) outlining its approach to addressing the refugee crisis in the coming years and indicating a renewed commitment to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis. The JRP does not address return outrightly, but mentions that it would support “voluntary returns in safety and dignity.”
Lebanon has the largest refugee population per capita in the world. As of 2014, it was hosting at least 1.1 million Syrian refugees in a country of 4 million Lebanese citizens. There is no single legal category for refugees in Lebanon. Not all Syrians who fled the conflict are officially registered or have the same legal residency status. Their treatment, legal status, and future prospects are linked to their economic status and their registration status.
Until October 2014, the Lebanese government had little regulation of its borders or of Syrians in Lebanon, known as its “policy of no-policy.” This led to ambiguous legal status for Syrians in Lebanon leading to an indistinguishable difference between labor migrants (300,000-700,000 already in Lebanon before the Syrian conflict) and those fleeing the conflict. Since Syrian refugees began entering Lebanon, the country has legally refused to use the word “refugee” and preferred the term “displaced” because it required fewer legal obligations toward refugees according to international law. The Lebanese government also refused to build refugee camps. The absence of a comprehensive refugee policy opened the door for municipal authorities to step in with their own solutions. For example, as of 2017 at least 142 municipalities enforced nightly curfews on Syrians.
In October 2014, Lebanon unveiled the first policy on Syrian displacement, known as the October Policy, which aimed to reduce the number of Syrians in Lebanon. This included severely limiting the number of Syrians entering Lebanon, encouraging Syrians to return by all possible means, and suspending the ability of Syrians to receive UNHCR documents. Syrians not registered with UNHCR had to be sponsored by a Lebanese national or entity in order to maintain residency. Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that some Lebanese were charging Syrians up to $1,000 for a single sponsorship. A 2015 study estimated that 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon did not have valid residence permits, and by 2017, a study found that 60 percent of Lebanese over 15 lacked legal residency. Furthermore, the World Bank estimated that 92 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are working without an employment contract, likely due to a requirement imposed on Syrian nationals to sign a pledge not to work as a measure to appease Lebanese who accuse Syrians of taking limited jobs for lower salaries. Additionally, in 2016 HRW found that nearly 500,000 Syrian children in Lebanon were not enrolled in schools. The inconsistency of residency laws and enforcements across municipalities and throughout the years has led to Syrians’ own ambiguity about their legal status in Lebanon. A survey by the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD) found that only 9 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon felt settled. Not being legally registered can lead to arrest by the state and exploitation by employers. Within a span of three months in 2019, Lebanese authorities deported over 2,700 Syrians who did not have proper documentation.
Though widely inconsistent, most Lebanese policies have been put in place to disincentivize Syrians from staying in Lebanon. Beyond policy, the Lebanese military has demolished multiple Syrian refugee shelters and forced refugees living in concrete structures to demolish their shelters and replace them with less protective materials or face demolition. In 2018, Lebanese authorities began arranging the return of refugees, claiming the Syrians who returned did so voluntarily. It is however the demolition of camps and “rampant discrimination” that pushed Syrians out of Lebanon, according to Amnesty International.
Syrians in the agricultural sector have found a separate set of opportunities and challenges in Lebanon. Tens of thousands of Syrians who are now registered as refugees have for decades worked as seasonal labor migrants in Lebanon. They operate through a shaweesh, a person who buys a plot of land and sets up tents and employment opportunities between Lebanese landowners and Syrian farmworkers. The arrangement between the farmworkers and the shaweesh works through a credit-debt system where newly arrived migrants go into debt to the shaweesh in exchange for guaranteeing labor. Because of low salaries and limited skillsets of these farmworkers, the majority remain indebted and their debt ensures that they remain in the shaweesh camp, a tented settlement that looks not so different from the makeshift refugee camps on the side of the road. Since 2011, shaweesh camps have expanded and registered with UNHCR as refugee camps, with many workers no longer periodically returning to Syria. Prior to 2011, Syrian farmworkers were permitted to spend six months in Lebanon, returning frequently to Syria for health care, schooling, and subsidized goods. But the inability of workers to return to Syria has increased their cost of living and separated them from their families in Syria, some of whom were reliant on the workers’ remittances. Furthermore, inflation in Lebanon has severely affected Syrian farmworkers, as the value of their daily work decreased from $4 to now $1. Many are also facing eviction and hundreds of these camps face the threat of collapse.
As Lebanon’s economic situation deteriorates, evictions have increased for all Syrians. In just the first half of 2020, over 27,000 Syrians were at risk of eviction and 4,613 were evicted. This is an increase even when compared to the entirety of 2019 when over 8,500 Syrians were under eviction notice and 4,409 were evicted. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, 90 percent of Syrians in Lebanon reported losing their incomes or having their salaries reduced, while 76 percent of Syrians in individual housing and 81 percent of those in collective housing were unable to pay rent. Furthermore, many Syrians have reported that landlords are using the need to reconstruct their properties after the August 4th Beirut blast as a pretext eviction.
Multiple Lebanese municipalities have tightened curfews and travel restrictions specifically on Syrians to combat COVID-19. Lebanese Forces Party leader Samir Geagea implied that refugees were spreading the disease in Lebanon and called on the Lebanese army to tighten security around their communities. The High Commissioner for Refugees in Lebanon found that 61 percent of Syrian refugee women and 46 percent of refugee men in Lebanon had lost their jobs since the onset of COVID-19 in March.
As of September 2020, the Syrian Network for Human Rights estimated that 12 percent of the Syrian refugees who were in Lebanon have returned to Syria. This is the highest ratio of returnees from a host country. The lack of stability, rampant inflation in Lebanon, and discrimination against Syrians have led to increased returns of refugees from Lebanon to Syria.