Friday, June 15, 2012

Syrian Refugees: Lessons from Other Conflicts and Possible Policies

Rochelle Davis

As the violence and conflict intensifies in Syria, it is important to remember the growing movement of displaced persons and refugees. The recent experiences of Iraqis, Libyans, and Palestinians offer lessons on how to address the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees and how the host countries and the humanitarian aid community can respond in ways that help IDPs and refugees without creating further problems.

Immediately aiding those fleeing the violence is one clear way that the international community can provide limited measures of safety and assistance to civilians without wading into the treacherous trap of military intervention. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has proven itself unwilling to halt the vicious attacks on the population and, despite widespread condemnation, continues bombarding neighborhoods and towns as it tries to quell the uprising. The recent revelations that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are helping to fund the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is advising the FSA from southern Turkey indicate that the fighting will continue. [1] Any direct military intervention in the country would mimic what took place in Libya: while not necessarily preventing more deaths, it would ensure victory for a side we know little about and do not understand at all. Given the lack of a clear perspective on what is happening on the ground and reports of widespread and serious mistrust of the FSA’s tactics and ideology, ensuring civilian safe areas both inside and outside the country is a well-grounded and necessary project for the international community.

Refugees and the Displaced
The surrounding countries, local organizations, and international community have already stepped in to aid civilians. As of mid-July 2012, over 110,000 Syrian refugees have been registered outside Syria by either the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the Turkish government, with untold numbers more unregistered and/or displaced inside Syria. [2] Figures from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) as of June 22 estimate that the internally displaced include “350,000 people in northern Idlib province and some 250,000 in the city of Homs, where more than 100 public buildings have been turned into temporary shelters for the homeless.” [3] As the fighting in and around Homs and Damascus increased in the spring and early summer, local activists and charities have been gathering supplies and encouraging people to rent out spaces for low rents to those fleeing the violence in Qudsya, Douma, Deraa, among other places. [4]

The number fleeing the country has doubled since March. [5] The Jordanian government and aid groups report that well over 100,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan [6], although only 33,400 are currently registered with UNHCR as refugees. The Turkish government has taken responsibility for all of the Syrian refugees within its borders (37,353 as of July 12, 2012). The Syrians in Iraq are located in the Kurdistan region (Duhuk, Erbil, and Sulaymania governorates), with 6,547 registered with UNHCR. [7] And in Lebanon, 28,477 are registered with UNHCR, with another 1,150 in Tripoli and 1,000 in the Bekaa area pending registration. [8]

The governments of Lebanon and Jordan are cooperating with UNHCR, UNICEF, and other non-governmental and local institutions to provide assistance to the refugees, including access to governmental educational facilities. [9] In Jordan, Syrian refugees are being addressed within the same emergency response system as Iraqi refugees, who since 2006 have been able to access both non-governmental and governmental services (health and education) through coordinated cooperation among funders, UN bodies, government ministries, non-governmental organizations, and local community-based organizations. [10]

In Iraq, the refugees are in Iraqi Kurdistan under the mandate of the Iraqi Department of Displacement and Migration (DDM), which has granted those living in the UNHCR’s Domiz camp to apply for six-month temporary residence. [11] UNHCR is suggesting that “with sustained unrest in Syria and an open door policy of KRG [the Kurdistan Regional Government], UNHCR will continue to register on average 1,000 Syrian new arrivals per month.” In order to avoid the humanitarian disaster (caused by military violence but not addressed by the aid community) that took place among Iraqi Kurds in 1991, it is important to support humanitarian institutions in Iraq as they address the needs of all the displaced populations, both Syrians and Iraqis.

The UNHCR has planned for 140,000 refugees as of December 2012 but the UN appeal for $84 million for Syrian refugees had only received 36 percent funding by the end of May 2012. Given the increased number of refugees of late, they increased the appeal as of June 28 to $193 million. [12] As with the funding and service provision to Iraqi refugees, the unified appeal comes from a coordinated plan among forty-four international and national agencies responding to the needs of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq. Key to civilian assistance in recent conflicts and refugee movements in the Arab world has been the generous contributions by the governments of the United States, Turkey and Arab countries, along with Muslim, Arab, American, and European charitable organizations. 

The Situation in Syria
Inside Syria, as intensified sanctions weaken already limited state services, agriculture and food subsidies and poverty assistance programs dwindle in favor of military priorities. [13] The United States has had trade and economic sanctions in place for years (currently, the Syria Accountability Act of 2004) but which have allowed in certain food and medicines. [14] As the more recent EU [15], Turkish, and Arab League sanctions [16] are also felt, the Syrian regime cannot export oil and is having to pull from its hard currency reserves. On-the-ground reports also indicate the army is finding it increasingly difficult to keep the entirety of its machinery and weapons working, among other issues. This situation creates long, slow processes of infrastructural decay (and encourages corruption), issues we are familiar with from Iraq prior to 2003. Without salaries and or incomes from commerce, many Syrians outside Damascus and Aleppo are also becoming increasingly distanced from the once all-encompassing government embrace as they strike out on their own to find basic supplies. In areas under rebel control even the ideological network of the regime – the Ba’ath party local offices – are abandoned and those who once ran these offices must also be among the displaced. [17]

Faced with severely limited medical services and sporadic access to drinking water, cooking fuel and food, Syrians will not only flee their country because of the constant violence but also out of the need to get medical care and basic foodstuffs. In April 2012, the UN food agency World Food Program (WFP) increased basic food assistance to reach 250,000 Syrians, which it distributes in coordination with the SARC, but by June it had increased the number to 461,000 Syrians, with a July target of 850,000. [18] However, because the regime has not allowed more than a handful of international institutions to work in the country and has never allowed for local NGOs to be established, providing basic assistance to people in Syria will be difficult. The SARC, part of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), has built a large network of volunteers and centers that function well. Whether they can maintain neutrality and access to supplies in this conflict remains unknown, but evidence to date reveals they are working to aid and protect civilians. Their knowledge of the country is crucial to the work of the IFRC, the WFP, and others. Three SARC aid workers have been killed while on duty.

Lessons and Possible Policies
What has become increasingly clear is that the Syrian regime no longer has the apparatus in place to coerce behavior; it only has the repressive power to punish the population using brute force and denial of basic services. [19] Detailed below are some of the lessons from previous conflicts in the region and possible policies vis-à-vis those displaced within Syria and other refugees.

First, some Syrian refugees have found temporary places of safety among family and communities, both within Syria and with whom they have cross-border connections and shared histories. This same thing happened in 2010-2011 with Libyans displaced westward who crossed into Tunisia and found temporary homes among Tunisians in Tataoine and elsewhere just inside the Tunisian border. [20] Syrians fleeing the southwestern city of Deraa and the surrounding areas are not going en masse to the cities but instead finding refuge in the areas of northern Jordan through connections and offers of hospitality. While the host communities feel that providing for those in need is both an honor and an obligation, they cannot bear such financial burdens for long. The international community, Jordanian national non-governmental organizations, Muslim charitable organizations, and other humanitarian aid bodies are directing aid to the communities and households that host refugees. [21] Similar patterns can be seen in Lebanon and Turkey. However, as the host families’ ability to host becomes strained and refugees can no longer afford even the most basic rents, they will become more visible as a refugee population and need immediate aid.

Second, the surrounding countries and the international humanitarian aid regime have recent experience, knowledgeable personnel, and infrastructure to deal with refugees. However, the host countries need financial assistance to absorb refugees in ways that treat them with dignity and do not make them dependent on aid. The experiences of Iraqi refugees can provide lessons here. Both Jordan and Syria allowed Iraqis to enter and find safety; these Iraqis were then collectively deemed prima facie refugees by the UNHCR [22] but were considered “guests” by the two governments. Both host countries eventually allowed Iraqis to attend schools and access health services. However, unable to work legally, afraid to return, and told to wait for news about their asylum and resettlement status, Iraqis today are in a terrible system of dependence on aid and waiting in anticipation of a future. To date, there are thousands of Iraqi refugees who applied for resettlement years ago who have not been told if they have been rejected or accepted. Most Iraqis in Jordan and Syria live in a situation of protracted displacement [23] without a sense of a future. 

Turkey, on the other hand, has taken over all responsibility for the Syrian refugees within its borders, funding some fifteen million dollars in aid, with cooperation and funding from the Turkish Red Crescent Society, as well as other countries and NGOs. [24] Like the Syrian and Jordanian governments’ relationships with the Iraqi refugees, the Turkish government calls the Syrians “guests” rather than refugees and has provided six government-sponsored camps: five for civilians and one for military defectors. [25] Turkey’s role as refugee host outside of established UN systems suggests that it sees itself playing a significant role in the region, one mirrored by its early efforts to intervene diplomatically when the regime crackdown began in 2011. 

Third, many refugees will be in situations of multiple-displacements. With the passage of time, people who have fled internally to nearby villages or cities will be forced to move again, oftentimes across borders. This was the situation of many of the Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 (and again in 1967) [26] as well as of some Iraqis. From previous experience, we know this means that by the time people turn to the aid community, they have often spent what savings they had, have tried their other options, and are at their most vulnerable. Everyone fears that if the situation continues for long, the Syrian refugees will become increasingly dependent on aid, housed in temporary turned permanent shelters, unable to work legally and, thus, without an income. In addition, because it is now summer, people can be housed in tents and temporary shelters. However, in at least some of the places where they have been resettled, they will be hard pressed to withstand the cold climate and winter storms and may move to warmer places if possible. The aid community needs to prepare both for winter provisioning as well as seasonal movement.

Internal displacements of Syrians began prior to the current violence. The years of drought in northeastern Syria that started in 2006 had resulted in between two to three million people considered “food insecure” by 2010 when it was estimated that some “600,000 people have migrated out of the affected regions to urban centres, on both a seasonal and semi-permanent basis.” [27] Such populations, many of whom are now drastically poor, add to those made vulnerable by the political violence. They also form a population that feels at odds with the regime, and their existence provides suggestions as to why the countryside and the hinterlands have led this uprising against the regime due to their disaffection with and disenfranchisement from state policies and state services.

Fourth, there is a need to prepare for the security of individuals and information as well as post-conflict cleansings. Because of the ongoing violence, Syrian refugees are reluctant to give over information about themselves out of fear of repercussions for the safety of their person and their family. Thus, recording them for aid provision can be challenging. For Iraqi refugees, the UNHCR set up the Refugee Assistance Information System (RAIS) that, with proper security measures, could also work well for Syrian refugees to keep track of them, their access to services, and status. Refugees put a great deal of trust in the UNHCR—trust that it rightly deserves—and it should continue to protect that trust with security protocols on this Internet-based system. 

As was clear from Iraq, people will feel the need to hide their information in order to protect themselves and their families. This is not necessarily because they have done bad things or been part of repressive regimes. Life in Syria under the Ba’ath party is complicated (as it was in Iraq), and people and their families make compromises in order to survive and build normal lives for themselves. There will be those—both pro-regime and anti-regime—who will have to flee and find permanent refuge and who will be unable to return to Syria, whether the regime falls or survives.
There also will be retributive killings, as we have already seen. Syrians, the Arab world and its neighbors, as well as the international community, cannot allow what happened in Iraq also to happen in Syria. Avoiding civil war and retributive killing must be a priority as the conflict plays out; this can be addressed by preparing for local transitional justice initiatives, viable truth and reconciliation commissions, and other forms of public trials and amnesties. Such projects can productively involve refugee communities starting now. Providing both livelihood assistance as well as developing mechanisms to confront conflict and challenges will help avoid a much larger – and more costly – problem later if the refugees refuse to return because of fear or ongoing chaos, as is the case of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees today. 

The majority of Iraqis living in Jordan and Syria today are there because they are afraid to return to Iraq due to the risk of personalized violence at the hands of other Iraqis as a result of brute thuggery, retributive violence, and ideological fanaticism. This situation must be avoided.

Fifth, we must be aware that there are refugees among the refugees, primarily the Iraqis and the Palestinians. Because the fighting and violence in Syria has, until now, taken place outside of the two main cities – Damascus and Aleppo – it has not impacted the majority of the refugees within Syria, who include almost half a million Palestinians and at least 750,000 Iraqis living in and around those two cities. Should these refugees become displaced, there will be additional complications. Some Iraqis may choose to return to Iraq, something they have already been doing in small numbers. Resettlement and aid officials in Iraq will need to be prepared for this surge in numbers. Surrounding countries – Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon – may or may not let Iraqis enter. If they do allow them to enter, these countries will face an increased strain on the aid community and services because most Iraqis are refugees who are either awaiting resettlement or looking for a permanent residence outside of Iraq, not just seeking a temporary safe have away from the violence. 

The Palestinians are likely to be held in camps on the borders and not allowed in to any country, as has happened with the more than 20,000 Palestinians living in Iraq who were forced to flee due to the violence directed at them. From 2006 until 2010, thousands of Palestinians were held in four camps on the Iraqi-Jordanian and Iraqi-Syrian borders. They were captives, unable to leave, and lived in tents at the complete mercy of the elements and officials while being taken care of by the UNHCR and UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Activists and officials arranged a series of third-country resettlements for them, although over 2,000 still live in Syria’s al-Houl Camp and Iraq’s al-Walid Camp, and the UNHCR estimates another 10,000 have been relocated in Baghdad. [28] Al-Tanf Camp has been closed. [29] Neither Jordan nor Lebanon will want to allow thousands of Palestinians who have no passports, only some of whom even have Syrian travel documents, into their countries because of the likelihood that they will not be allowed to return to Syria when the fighting is over. While the vast majority are from what is today Israel, Israel does not allow them to return to their original homes. According to a press report, the Jordanian Ministry of the Interior has promised to treat the Palestinians from Syria with the procedures as the Syrians. [30] UNRWA reports indicate 480 Palestinians from Syria have entered Jordan, at least a portion of whom are being held in Cyber City Camp near Ramtha. [31]

Until the present, neither the Iraqi refugees nor the Palestinian refugees have been implicated in the fighting, either by the regime or the resistance. Nor have they been the target of either government or rebels, but the government siege on Deraa Refugee camp (Palestinian) [32] and a rebel bombing of a government building near the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab outside Damascus and the home of many Iraqis, suggest that they are among the victims and the displaced. [33] While claims of foreign intervention have been put forward—and certainly there are small groups of foreign fighters—neither Iraqis nor Palestinians have been mentioned. That is not to say they are not involved: the Palestinian political factions in Syria have taken positions either pro-revolution or pro-regime, and thus those activists will feel more pressure as the situation changes. [34] To date a number of Palestinians in prominent positions have been gunned down by unknown persons, including the head of security for Yarmouk Camp, a Hamas official, and a high-ranking member of the Palestine Liberation Army branch of the Syrian Army. [35]

In Iraq, the Palestinians were attacked after 2003 because they had lost their patron in Saddam Hussein, and criminal and fanatical elements sought to steal their homes, businesses, and property by driving them out. The same could happen to the Palestinians in Syria, although they are not protected by the Syrian regime but fall under the administration of UNRWA and the General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR), a government body within the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. [36] A large percentage of the refugees live in nine official and three unofficial UNRWA refugee camps in Syria, and many living outside the camps also own homes and property. [37] In addition, like Syrians, they are drafted into the Syrian Army but can join a special unit of the Palestine Liberation Army. [38] They also have most of the rights of Syrian citizens (with the exception of investment property holdings, citizenship, and voting). Thus, their status in the country is fundamentally different than the status of Palestinians in Iraq, and they will likely not be seen as partisans of the regime. However, without passports and outside Syria, they are seen as stateless Palestinians who most countries will not want to accept. 

Sixth, we must consider migrant workers and other foreigners among the refugees. Unlike Libya, [39] Syria has few migrant laborers. However, it does have thousands of domestic workers, mostly women from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia who work for upper-middle class and wealthy Syrian families. These workers will likely flee with the families that employ them and will need assistance in returning to their home countries. Given that many employers hold their workers’ passports and plane tickets, many may be without papers or the means to return home. Syria also hosts thousands of foreign students at universities from African and Asian countries. These students too will need assistance in returning to their home countries should the unrest increase in Damascus and Aleppo.

Finally, Syrians are accustomed to high levels of state intervention in their lives. The decades of the Ba’ath regime created a system of rewards and punishments that ensured a loyal citizenry and one that was dependent on the state for basic services. [40] While this was truer in Iraq than in Syria, the international community will need to keep this in mind as it becomes hosts to and caretakers of refugees from Syria. The refugees will be afraid of retributions and punishments, they will be protective of their personal information, they will be fiercely proud of being Syrians, and they will carry with them a keen sense of humor and irony – all of which has been shown in coverage of the refugees. However, as policies are developed, it is important to remember that like Iraqis, Syrians have been part of a state that encompassing and monitors all aspects of their lives, as well as one that provides subsidized food and access to free health care and education. This is not to say that they should be treated differently than other refugees. Rather, it is to push policymakers and planners to recognize that an awareness of refugees’ past experiences when establishing refugee-programming will ensure greater compatibility, management, and success in dealing with the displaced both within Syria and outside its borders as the conflict continues. 

[1] See and
[2], accessed on July 17, 2012. For an update on July 17 see
[3] The numbers were provided by OCHA, based on figures from SARC. Stephanie Nebehey. June 22, 2012. “U.N. says 1.5 million Syrians in need of help”
[4] Personal communication and monitoring of Facebook sites.
[6] Jordanian news sources regularly refer to government estimates of over 100,000. For example, See also
[7] Update No. 11 Syria Regional Refugee Response: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey. 28 June 2012.  SyriaRegionalRefugeeResponseUpdateNo.11xs.pdf)
[8] All statistics on refugees are from “Demographic Data of Registered Population,” Syria Regional Refugee Response Information Sharing Portal,, accessed 29 June 2012.
[9] For example in Jordan, services are implemented by the Jordan Health Aid Society (for healthcare) and Tikyet Um Ali for food assistance; while in Lebanon, the High Relief Commission (HRC) has played a major role and UNICEF is partnering with Iqraa to provide summer camps. Update No. 10 Syria Regional Refugee Response: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey. 21 June 2012 (located
[10] Rochelle Davis with Abbie Taylor. May 2012. “Urban Refugees in Amman, Jordan.” Draft report submitted to the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
[11] “DDM continues the provision of three hot meals a day to the single males, while providing dry food rations to the families who have kitchen facilities. DDM has agreed to cover additional dry food shares for families for the second half of June. WFP is looking at providing food rations to the population in Domiz as of July, while assessing the situation of the Syrians and planning to distribute food vouchers at a later stage.” Update No. 11 Syria Regional Refugee Response: Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey. 28 June 2012. Pp 5-6.
[17] One of a number of such accounts is here:
[18] WFP’s emergency operation for Syria was launched in August 2011 with a budget currently estimated at US$37.4 million – and it is still seeking funding, as so far less than half that amount has been secured.
[19] This understanding of the Syrian regime is derived from the work of Bassam Haddad, including his interviews with Haytham Manna`. These articles are located here:
[21] “WFP continued its distribution of food rations (rice, pulses, vegetable oil and sugar) via its partners the Jordanian Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO) and the Jordanian Red Crescent to 25,000 Syrians who are living in host communities. Over 38 mt of food have been distributed so far (6 to 20 of May 2012) reaching 4,235 beneficiaries. WFP has also distributed more than 19,000 hotmeals in the transit centres since the start of this programme on 19 April, 2012.”
[22] UNHCR Working Group on Resettlement. March 12, 2007. “Resettlement of Iraqi Refugees”
[24] For example, Qatar Charity is working with the Turkish IHH.
[26] Rochelle Davis. 2011. Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of Dispossession. (Stanford University Press), pp. 213-218.
[27] “Two to three million Syrians face food insecurity”, September 2010.
[31] . The details of how they are treated are less clear. One press report says that “Under current regulations, all Syrians who arrive in the Kingdom illegally are placed in so-called holding facilities to undergo extensive background checks, with their release depending on a JD5,000 legal guarantee signed by a Jordanian national. However, the bulk of Cyber City’s some 700 residents are of Palestinian origin and due to current interior ministry regulations are barred from leaving the complex, according to security sources and relief agencies.”
[32] Personal communication as well as
[35] (the first two listed above took place in late June 2012).
[36] For more on the Palestinians in Syria see Hamad Al-Mawed. 1999. The Palestinian refugees in Syria: Their past, present and future. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre. 
[38] There is not a great deal of information on this subject. See Laurie Brand. 1988. Palestinians in Syria: The Politics of Integration. Middle East Journal, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 621-637. My own observation in Syria suggests this as well.
[40] For how this worked in Iraq under the Ba’ath regime, see Joseph Sassoon. 2011. Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime. Cambridge University Press.