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Syrian Refugees: A Destabilizing Force

By James Maloney, Transatlantic Security Analyst


As the civil war in Syria rages on, so does debate over whether U.S. and European powers should intervene. Such discussions in the media tend to be binary, suggesting either full-scale military intervention to attempt to evict the Assad regime or complete inaction. It is clear that the U.S. and European governments do not have the stomach, let alone the budgets, for another military intervention in the Middle East. Yet commentators pay little attention to lower-level methods of intervention that could mitigate the effects of the Syrian conflict and prevent its spread. Perhaps the most significant consequence of the war is the flood of Syrian refugees spilling out of the country and into its neighbors. The more than 740,000 registered refugees, with the potential to double, constitute a serious security threat that could see this state-bound conflict swell into a regional one. Three effects of refugee crises make them so destabilizing:

Negative Effects on Host Countries

A mass influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees obviously has a serious impact on a host state’s economy and public health and housing systems. Contrary to most portrayals, refugees are not always isolated in camps. According to a report published by the International Rescue Committee, the majority of Syrian refugees reside outside camps. This makes it more difficult to serve these refugees, oversaturates cities, and places a strain on resources. Without proper support, the refugees’ presence can lead to civil strife as residents build resentment toward the refugees for their encroachment and toward the government for its failure to deal with the influx.  

Demographic Shifts

Refugees often arrive in host states with little more than the clothing on their backs. Yet the significance of their particular demographic features cannot be forgotten – especially in such a diverse and tradition-soaked region as the Middle East. An incursion of refugees can upset the delicate ethnic balance in power or social standing. Such a destabilizing shift occurred in 1960s and early 1970s when Palestinians sought refuge in Jordan from fighting in Israel. The large number of Palestinians provided a base for the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which used power accrued from the large Palestinian refugee population to launch attacks against Israel. As the PLO strengthened, King Hussein of Jordan feared the group could threaten his authority and form a rival government. After a number of clashes between Jordanian and PLO forces, on September 15, 1970 the Jordanian army entered Palestinian refugee camps and attacked Palestinian militants and civilians indiscriminately for 10 days.

This episode, known as Black September, demonstrates how a large homogenous refugee group can alter a state’s internal power balance so significantly as to challenge the government’s authority. The Jordanian government has not forgotten the trauma of this bout. Palestinians account for about half of the population in Jordan and, fearing a repeat of Black September, Jordanian border agents have turned away Palestinian refugees flowing from Syria. Because of its own violent history with the Palestinians, the Lebanese government has placed special restrictions on the visas of Palestinians coming from Syria.

Power Vacuums

Those forced to flee, whether they are refugees or internally displaced people, can also represent an opportunity for regional interests. Civil wars often create power vacuums that ambitious groups scramble to fill as soon as possible. Consider Jabhat al-Nursa, an offshoot of al-Qaeda; well-funded and armed to the teeth by regional backers, it cannot thrive without local support. Thus, in addition to its militant-terrorist activity, the group is gaining ground in Syria, where it provides internally displaced Syrians protection from the Assad government, much needed law enforcement and a stable food supply. The group is winning over hearts and minds by filling stomachs, not through ideological preaching. The longer the war continues, the longer Jabhat al-Nursa has to establish itself as a legitimate player in the region that can demand a seat at the table for Syria’s reconstruction. Successfully lobbying a group of people that is forced to flee can provide a shrewd organization with support quite quickly.   

Securing the Refugees

Refugee crises require urgent action as the cost of hesitation on the part of aid agencies, host states, and/or the international community is measured in human lives and suffering. The most effective means of refugee management is to be prepared in advance. The U.S. and Europe could save money and lives in the long-term by strengthening their commitment to refugee agencies. The U.S. and European states currently constitute 8 of the top 10 donors to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR); yet most of this funding supports efforts to quell crises already in progress. Furthermore, this funding is inadequate as demonstrated by an emergency meeting on January 30th, when the agency successfully lobbied UN donor countries for $1.5 billion to fund its efforts in and around Syria for six months.

Transatlantic powers should provide the UNHCR and other organizations greater funding earmarked specifically to boost preparedness and training efforts, so that they can rapidly and effectively deploy at the first sign of trouble. The U.S. and Europe should also use their influence to encourage other states to contribute more to the UNHCR, as refugee crises are events that affect, and are solved best by, the international community as a whole. With a larger budget, the agency could expand its advocacy efforts for refugees and help standardize asylum procedures among states in order to ensure efficient processing and that the rights of asylum seekers and host states are respected. Most importantly, a robust and well-prepared UNCHR would be better suited to manage refugees and prevent instability. It would be able to help host states manage demographic shifts through increased security, or separate groups prone to conflict. Adequate and rapid assistance to refugees also provides legitimacy and respect to the provider and discourages refugees from seeking assistance from undesirable or exploitative groups. It is important to recognize that these are not problems that can be solved by an ad hoc unit and bundles of cash. Refugee assistance requires an intelligent, well-staffed and prepared agency in order to protect lives, end suffering and minimize security risks. 

For all of this talk of “refugee management,” at its core, this practice is a moral and humanitarian exercise. To that end, ensuring that refugee agencies are properly prepared to act when a crisis breaks is of vital importance to save lives and ensure stability. 


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