The burden of hospitality

Under increasing financial pressure, Syriaʹs neighbours – Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – are pressuring Syrian refugees to return to their home country, whether conditions across the border are safe or not. By Jesse Marks

By Jesse Marks

As the Syrian war inches closer towards its eighth year, continuing to displace Syrians, the West is collectively resettling fewer Syrian refugees – beginning with the EU-Turkey refugee deal in March 2016 and continuing with President Donald Trumpʹs push to resettle Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon instead of the United States.

This shift is intensifying pressure on Syriaʹs neighbours, who already shelter millions of Syrian refugees amid high unemployment, regional instability and reduced international funding. Host governments are increasingly resorting to detentions, deportations, evictions, residency restrictions and other coercive tactics to push refugees back. 

Despite the staggeringly high 5.5 million registered Syrian refugees and an estimated 6.5 million IDPs in 2016 – and an additional 200,000 displaced from northwest Syria alone since December 2017 – the total number of Syrians who were resettled in Western countries dropped from roughly 48,000 in 2016 to 30,000 in 2017.

With the exception of Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, who have committed to resettling more refugees in 2018, others are reluctant to keep resettling Syrians and are instead favouring programmes that resettle refugees in neighbouring countries.

Yet the advocated long-term settlement of Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey requires extensive long-term international financial commitments, leaving these countries vulnerable if donor priorities shift and funding dries up.

Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a donor conference entitled 'Supporting Syria & The Region' at the QEII centre in central London on 04.02.2016 (photo: Getty Images/AFP/Dan Kitwood)
The difference between pledging and giving: with the international community regularly failing to follow through on its pledges, host governments are being forced to rely on funding earmarked for domestic expenses to fill the gap in funding services for refugees – at an estimated annual cost of $2.5 billion for Jordan and $10 billion for Lebanon

The financial burden on Jordan and Lebanon to provide for refugee populations already surpasses their national capacities, forcing them to rely heavily on unreliable international assistance.

Pledges remain unfulfilled

Although UN member states pledged $12 billion for host countries at the 2016 Supporting Syria and the Region donor conference in London and an additional $6 billion at the 2017 Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region donor conference in Brussels, they consistently fall short of fulfilling these pledges. Lebanonʹs national response plan – a joint initiative with the UN to address Lebanonʹs challenges related to the Syrian conflict – only received 54 percent of pledged funding in 2015, a level which sank to 46 percent in 2016 and 43 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, funding was raised for only 62 percent of Jordanʹs national response plan in 2016 and 65 percent in 2017.

Host governments are relying on funding that had been earmarked for domestic expenses to fill the gap in funding services for refugees – an estimated annual cost of $2.5 billion for Jordan and a total estimated annual cost of $10 billion for Lebanon. Ahead of the unveiling of Jordanʹs 2018-2020 response plan on 1 February 2018, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki commented that Jordan has reached capacity in its provision of services, expenditure of national resources, not to mention its exploitation of social and physical infrastructure to the benefit of Syrian refugees.Meanwhile, the Trump administrationʹs 2018 budget, reduces U.S. contributions to the UN by nearly $285 million – a 24 percent cut in U.S. contributions. This included a 16 percent cut to the UN Childrenʹs Fund (UNICEF) and the elimination of the International Organisations and Programmes fund which, through its financial assistance for the UN Development Programme and UN Women, provides critical support for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Not in our backyard

The push by the United States and European Union to keep refugees "as close to their home countries as possible" is driving host states to increasingly consider returning refugees prematurely, fearing that otherwise they will have to shoulder the burden of a long-term Syrian refugee presence as they have with Palestinians. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have all ramped up efforts to coerce the return of refugees in the past year.

A Turkish made T-155 Firtina howitzer being dispatched to the border at Hassa near Hatay, southern Turkey on 28.01.2018 (photo: Getty Images/AFP /Ozan Kose)
Imposing ʹsecureʹ conditions by force – a convenient excuse: citing the return of over 140,000 Syrians to areas captured by Turkey during Operation Euphrates Shield last year, the Turkish government argues that its latest military involvement in northern Syria – Operation Olive Branch – will ultimately encourage more Syrians to return to their home country

In addition to lessening its own budgetary burdens, Turkey has used the return of refugees as political coverage for military operations in Syria. Following the conclusion of Operation Euphrates Shield in March 2017, Turkey reported the return of nearly 140,000 Syrians to areas it captured over the last year. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hailing these returns as justification for its ongoing Operation Olive Branch in Afrin. Yasin Aktay, a senior advisor to the Turkish president, commented that Turkey aims to rebuild Afrin once the region is secure in order to stimulate return flows of as many as 500,000 Syrians, according to an estimate provided by First Lady Emine Erdogan.

In a speech to the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2017, Lebanese President Michel Aoun reiterated his call for Syrians to return to Assad-held areas even if a political solution is not yet in place. While Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri reassured the international community on 2 February that Lebanon will not deport Syrians, Lebanon has increased its actions, policies and restrictions that make living conditions for the refugees difficult.

Illegal settlements targeted in Lebanon

Lebanese authorities are cracking down on illegal settlements, evicting over 10,000 Syrian refugees from tented settlements in 2017. Since the Lebanese Armed Forces recaptured Arsal from the Islamic State and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in July 2017, an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees returned to Syria – without the facilitation and oversight of the UNHCR – many citing pressure from the Lebanese armed forces, including detention, raids on settlements and restrictions on movement.

The Lebanese military noted these specific raids following the Arsal operation were in response to a string of suicide attacks near the Lebanese border. However, in Sidon, which does not have the same security concerns, 50 refugees were detained in January for not having the proper paperwork and entering the country illegally.

An archive photo 11.10.2015 showing Michel Aoun, founder of Lebanonʹs Free Patriotic Movement, greeting supporters during a demonstration on the street leading to the Presidential Palace, east of Beirut, Lebanon. On 31.10.2016 Aoun was elected as the new Lebanese president by members of the Lebanese parliament (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Mounzer)
Attitudes hardening as pressure grows: "in a speech to the UN General Assembly on 21 September 2017, Lebanese President Michel Aoun reiterated his call for Syrians to return to Assad-held areas even if a political solution is not yet in place. While Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri reassured the international community on 2 February that Lebanon will not deport Syrians, Lebanon has increased its actions, policies and restrictions that make living conditions for the refugees difficult," writes Jesse Marks

Lebanonʹs foreign ministry drafted a plan in October 2017, reportedly headed by Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, to induce the return of Syrians – proposing to accomplish this through stricter border security, mass registration, detention, limitation of humanitarian assistance to specific cases and legal action against Syrians residing and working illegally. While the proposed plan has been abandoned, it is representative of growing anti-refugee sentiment in Lebanon.

Jordan tightens restrictions on Syrians

Likewise, after the Islamic State carried out deadly attacks in Karak and Rukban in 2016, Jordan continues to tighten restrictions on Syrians out of security concerns, creating an unwelcome environment for them. Many of the nearly 80 percent of Syrian refugees living outside of refugee camps fear that if they are caught, Jordanian authorities will detain and transfer them to the camps.

Approximately 8,500 refugees that the Jordanian authorities transferred to the Azraq refugee camp from Rukban – an informal IDP camp on Jordanʹs northern border where many Syrians fled from areas held by the Islamic State – are reportedly also being detained in a separate section within the camp with little to no freedom of mobility until security checks confirm they do not pose a security threat – an effort to mitigate the infiltration of potential Syrians with terrorist links.

But aid organisations in Jordan also estimate that half of Azraq campʹs 50,000 Syrian refugees were forcibly transferred to the desert camp from around Jordan, including many refugees caught by Jordanian authorities without proper paperwork and those targeted for communication with family in Syria. Jordanʹs efforts to curb terrorist activity are producing a precarious environment for Syrians, which combined with increasing economic difficulties and high costs of living could push many to return home.These coercive tactics are supplemented by additional cases of deportation, which are regularly documented in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of Syrians deported from Jordan spiked in early 2017 with nearly 400 refugees sent back per month in the first half of 2017, the second major spike since the beginning of 2016. Many of their relatives "voluntarily" returned to Syria alongside their deported family members.

Growing trend in deportations

Because many Syrian refugees are not registered with the government, there is also fear that Jordanʹs push to detain more refugees within camps will lead to further deportations. In Turkey, human rights groups have documented cases of deportation since 2016, as many as 100 per day. Although there is limited available information, this trend appears to be continuing and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim further claimed in July 2017 that refugees who commit crimes will be deported.

These policies force the UNHCR into a difficult position: accede to unsafe repatriations or stand by as returnees go back in a chaotic and potentially harmful manner. In August 2017, the UNHCR began to scale up its operations in Syria to facilitate the resettlement of Syrians who return, expanding its staff and seeking $150 million for these operations.

The refugee agency announced in June that they are making the necessary preparations for managing the increasing returns, even though they do not promote or facilitate refugee returns to Syria due to ongoing instability. Sustainable return – which requires extensive collaboration between the UNHCR, donor countries, international organisations, refugees and officials of the host country – is not feasible. The majority of Syriaʹs refugees fled the Syrian government and cannot return to "safe areas" due to the widespread destruction, continuing violence and the risk of retaliatory violence.

The dangers of premature return

Since 2011, the Syrian army has led widespread military operations against residential neighbourhoods, villages and, in some cases, entire cities with egregious bombing campaigns, chemical weapons attacks, sieges and forced displacement campaigns producing the majority of Syriaʹs refugees. Furthermore, the widespread destruction of property and infrastructure, lack of available services and unexploded mines left by retreating fighters creates extensive security risks for returnees.

Sending refugees home prematurely – before the conditions are conducive for a safe and sustainable return – will exacerbate already-deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Syria, placing stress on what limited services and fragile governance is left in the areas to which refugees return and forcing returnees to compete with those who remained for jobs, resources and shelter. Moreover, should violent conflict break out in those areas, there is the very real risk of renewed internal displacement.

Jesse Marks

© Sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2018        

Jesse Marks is a Scoville Fellow and Fulbright Fellow based in Amman, Jordan.