The Syrian Humanitarian Disaster

Understanding Perceptions and Aspirations of Practitioners and Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey

Twice in modern history, Greater Syria (Bilad al –Sham) and its peoples have experienced massive displacement. In the 100 years between 1850 and 1950 Syria received several million forced migrants from the contested borderlands of the Imperial Russian and Ottoman Empires. Then, a decade into the 21st century, Syria disintegrated into extreme violence triggering a displacement crisis of massive proportions.  The speed with which the country emptied of nearly 30 % of its population shocked the world and left the humanitarian aid regime in turmoil as agencies struggled to respond to the growing displacement crisis on Syria’s borders. Each country bordering on Syria has responded differently to this complex emergency: Turkey rushed to set up its own refugee camps for the most vulnerable groups, but generally supported self-settlement of Syrians; Lebanon refused to allow the international humanitarian aid regime to set up formal refugee camps preferring to encourage multiple informal settlements near areas of labour shortages; and Jordan openly accepted Syrians to self-settle for nearly a year then reversed its policy and insisted upon the setting up of a massive United Nations refugee camp thus distancing  Syrians from urban areas and opportunities to establish livelihoods. And Europe, after 2015, sought to contain these nearly 5 million displaced people in the region. This study addresses the disparities in perceptions and aspirations of practitioners and displaced Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. It also seeks to identify what measures and conditions – if any- are regarded as critical by the three target communities for a safe and secure future.

Across the board, what emerges is that history matters. Much of the discrepancies and in consistencies identified in this study can be linked to historical social  and economic ties as well as political relations between Syria and Turkey, Syria and Lebanon and Syria and Jordan. Disparity in perceptions between practitioners, refugees, and hosting communities is widespread, but not equally so in the three countries. In Lebanon, the consociational shape of governance and long period of time during this crisis in which there was in effect ‘no government’ led to a period of paralysis within the UN humanitarian aid system. In Jordan, the majority of Syrian refugees are closely linked to the Jordanian population. This is especially true  in northern Jordan where tribal ties are pronounced and where original refuge was granted with host families related either by blood or marriage, particularly those fleeing from Der’a and its surrounding villages.  In Turkey, lessons have been more widely learned and implemented in response to various critical events and widespread criticism of lack of transparency of the government. The disparity in perceptions among refugees, members of local hosting communities and practitioners is especially pronounced in Lebanon and Jordan where the international humanitarian aid regime is the most active. It is ironic that Turkey, the one country which has not requested assistance from the United Nations Refugee Agency, seems to have managed the process of providing assistance without undermining refugee agency and dignity. Overall in  each of these states, successful self-settlement and sustainable livelihoods were seen as fundamental to creating conditions for local accommodation and potentially a return and re-integration into Syria’s many social communities.

References/further readings

Dawn Chatty (2018) Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State, Hurst Publishers (London).

Dawn Chatty, (2017), The duty to be generous (karam): Alternatives to rights-based asylum in the Middle East, Journal of the British Academy, 5, 177 – 199

Dawn Chatty, (2016), The Syrian Humanitarian Disaster: Disparities in Perceptions, Aspirations, and Behaviour in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, IDS Bulletin, 47 (3), 19 – 33