Omar Dahi, a US-based Syrian economist, is among the rare academics doing fieldwork on the situation of Syrian refugees. In this comprehensive interview, he tells us about the treatment they receive in host countries, their resilience but also increased fragmentation, their feeling of abandonment, and their perception of the ongoing conflict.
You have been working on the Syrian refugees issue for more than 18 months. What was the motive behind this work?
I initially applied with a colleague to carry research on the various reconstruction projects on Syria that were being prepared. We wanted to study who was funding, what projects were proposed, what was the conception of future Syria. We know from other reconstruction projects that they did not take into account people’s needs but that they were based on donors’ programmes. So, we decided to talk to refugees and ask them about the future of Syria as they imagined it. That was when there weren’t large numbers of refugees. Later when the numbers increased dramatically, I became interested, in particular, in how displacement was creating fragmentation and how this fragmentation was affecting the future of Syria.
So, my work has two components, a policy side that looks at the needs of refugees and how best to meet them and the academic side that examines the impact of displacement on Syrian society.
In terms of data, what do we know on the situation of the refugees?
One of the biggest problems we face is the lack of dynamic information systems that give us the state of the refugees. Consequently, there are gaps on the numbers of refugees, their legal status, the logistics of aid delivery (who is in charge of what), the status of borders (what border is open, what isn’t), etc. Another problem is that the conditions and way refugees are dealt with vary depending on the country. Relations between states and refugees on the one hand and between states and the international community on the other, vary between one country and the other. In Lebanon, for instance, UNHCR is in charge of the overall operation, in Jordan both UNHCR and the Government, while in Turkey the government has more of the lead, at least in the official camps. What we know is that there were 2.7 million registered refugees with UNHCR at the end of April. However, if we include non-refugee migrants and non-registered refugees, we may be talking about 3-3.5 million.
Are borders open to refugees?
Only Lebanon’s border can be described as fully open. All others are either fully closed or “heavily managed.” Egypt borders were fully closed after the overthrow of Morsi. Iraq had two “heavily managed” borders. The Government closed one in early 2013, while the Kurdish Government in the north closed the other in late 2013. By the end of 2013, both Turkey and Jordan had heavily restricted entries.
How do host communities treat refugees? Can you describe the situation on a country-by-country basis?
The situation varies of course depending on the country although to this day, no host country has formally declared Syrians as refugees. They are sometimes called guests, sometimes asylum seekers, while in some countries the laws applying to foreigners govern them. Except Turkey and Egypt, no country in the region is a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention and the 1967 Geneva protocol on refugees. Turkey actually applies the refugee status only to European refugees.
In Jordan, inside the camps, refugees have ration cards, while outside they receive an asylum-seeker certificate. Zaatari is an entry point rather than a place people stay in for the long-term. So most refugees in Jordan leaving off-camps are escapees of sorts from Zaatari. To escape you need to pay off someone unless a Jordanian citizen ‘bails’ them out
In Turkey, the treatment is overall considered the best and refugees can apply for residency although the situation can vary depending on regions. That does not mean everything is fine, there are many refugees in very poor conditions Early on, refugees came in two or three influxes and were directed by the Turkish authorities to tents and container camps. One camp that provided very good conditions served as a model. However, when numbers became big, the Turks just let people in. Initially, no one could visit the camps and people would not be allowed to leave them. The issue is that the lack of official legal status means that this treatment may change if there is a change of government. Turkish scholars refer to the treatment as one marked by ‘benevolence’ and ‘charity’ rather than official recognition of rights.
In Lebanon, you have an unsustainable situation in many ways, the numbers are dramatically high and the government response in comparison has been rather poor. Syrians enjoy work rights though and this has helped but the numbers are far too large, while in Egypt they used to receive national treatment in terms of access to education and health, but not for jobs. After the coup that removed Morsi, their situation changed quite dramatically and they suffered quite a bit of hostility, harassment, and many are now so desperate to leave that they are willing to risk death on boat trips on the Mediterranean.
In Iraq most are in the Kurdistan Regional authority area and even though the borders have been highly managed on and off, they are opened in extreme circumstances such as when there is an attack on the Syrian side of the border that causes large numbers to flee over a short period of time.
I should say that the situation of Palestinian refugees and their treatment is an exception to most of what I said above. Their treatment by all host countries has been incredibly poor and outright hostile in many situations. Palestinians carry an extra vulnerability on top of all that other refugees face.
How important is legal protection for refugees?
The lack of legal protection is a source of anxiety and instability for refugees. When you do not have rights, your situation can change whenever a government changes and adopts new policies. The legal protection of refugees varies and refugees are often not aware of their rights. People feel weak; if they are expelled by their landlords or face sexual harassment they often do not dare react because they are not sure what their rights are. There are efforts by the civil society in various countries to reach out and push for more support. The Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon, for instance, has a refugee legal hotline to try to direct people.
What is the economic situation of refugees and what resources do they live from?
Parts of the gaps on knowledge on refugees is their economic situation. We do not know, for instance, what the exact percentage of people who depend on aid is. Many refugees receive various sources of funds. According to a survey in Wadi Khaled in northern Lebanon, refugees received funds from UNHCR, from Arab charities, and from Syria, although this source is declining over time. Another study by OXFAM showed that the average monthly spending of refugees based in Lebanon was $500, including income from inside Syria but that meant huge numbers are accruing debt in order to keep up with their spending needs.
Recently, UNHCR brought down the number of its aid recipients by some 30% because it considered that some of the refugees had work or that others were returning to Syria and therefore couldn’t be considered as refugees. Meanwhile, aid coming from Arab countries is declining and, while previously it arrived left and right, now it is coming with strings attached. For instance, some payments are tied to affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Something that struck me in the North is that the conditions attached to aid are creating resentment, even among very poor and religious refugees who feel manipulated by the Gulf. The more secular civil society groups write off these people, but this is a mistake.
In Lebanon, refugees have been able to enter the labour market, while in Jordan, where the state is more able to enforce regulation, you need a special permit to work, which is very difficult to get, and there are regular crackdowns on illegal workers.
There is resilience among these communities. While many in camps complain about crime and sexual harassment, there is no widespread hunger, although malnutrition is increasing dramatically among children.
How are refugees adapting in their host countries? Do you see them organising themselves, for instance by establishing political parties?
Contrary to the situation of Palestinian refugees in 1948 and 1967, when the refugees thought of organizing because they knew they were not returning, in the case of Syria, people are still going back and forth. So, among the poorer segments of the refugees, those living in camps in particular, we haven’t seen refugees organizing themselves in political parties or along clear political lines.
However, among the middle class we have seen more organisations, mainly along three types: 1) aid delivery; 2) around cultural and citizenship issues, trying to model what they wish future Syria to be; 3) or political organisations in support of the opposition – I have not come across pro-regime refugees. The seculars, in particular, feel the need to organize themselves because they have less funds than the religious groups.
In Turkey, many organisations take a more explicitly political form, for example using the revolution flag, but even there many people do not want to adopt the language of the revolution even if they are personally pro-revolution. Along the borders with Syria, in Zaatari and in Lebanon, many of the communities are host for the militants. Many families have fighters who rest, come back, receive support.
The refugees are dispersed along several countries. Do you not fear the impact of this fragmentation on Syria’s national identity?
Sixty years later, Palestinians still have a common cause. When you are a refugee you are always reminded of this status and refugees will not forget that they are Syrians.
However, the issue of national identity and the ability to form a new social contract becomes more difficult in a fragmented situation. Increasingly, Syrians are not speaking to each other and there are forces pushing in various directions. The solidarity that existed is replaced by regionalism, factionalism, and local identities. Regional factionalism has replaced the regional solidarity that started early in the uprising. In addition, the fact that the education curriculums are very diverse means that Syrians are exposed to radically different views and this will be a major challenge for the future.
Does the situation of refugees influence their political opinion on the conflict?
In general, it is important to remember that the refugees have suffered from various traumas. Many have conflicting feelings of sadness, anger, and desperation at their new situation. Many feel extremely vulnerable and dependent. Also, many voice political opinions to strangers they don’t know well but upon reflection articulate different ones once the stranger has gained their trust. A doctor from MSF two years ago told me a story that still resonates with me. He went up to treat a group of refugees in the A’arsal area in North Lebanon and once they arrived, they were talking about how much they hate Alawites, that they will get their revenge, etc. However, a couple weeks later a woman from the group who had come to trust the doctor told him it was in fact their Alawite neighbours (in a nearby village) who let them escape through their lands because that would protect them from the regime and the person who betrayed them was an FSA commander who was in fact a sort of double-agent (pretended to be FSA but in fact was working for the regime). She told him without our Alawite neighbours we might all be dead. However, she said we were told to say how much we resent the Alawites. I have talked to many people who often feel that they have to perform a political position out of desperation, to be included and fit in, or to get aid, etc.
In addition, people who have supported and continue to support militarization, and the continuation of the armed conflict should really listen and reflect on the situation of refugees, many of whom want fighting to stop and are willing to go back home if they are sure they will not be killed. More and more people I talk to say that the sacrifice was not worth it when they look at how they ended up and how they have been abandoned. At least people should be honest about the consequences of what they are calling for.
How efficient is international aid?
One big area of change needed is that international aid needs to be more geared toward development spending by host governments, especially because most refugees are spread out outside the camps. We must realise that while needs are increasing, the availability of funds is decreasing. This is not a sustainable situation. Host states, in particular Jordan and Lebanon, must invest for development; otherwise, many problems will be exacerbated. There were many problems in these countries prior to the arrival of refugees and investment are needed in education, health, infrastructure, jobs creation, etc. Therefore, if you encourage development and investment, you benefit local communities and create resilience and the ability to confront the situation. International institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF must weigh traditional policies, such as fiscal reforms, against the harm these policies can do.
Omar Dahi was interviewed by Jihad Yazigi