Syrian children at school in Lebanon. Over a million children are now refugees in neighbouring countries. Image credit: DFID Syrian children at school in Lebanon. Over a million children are now refugees in neighbouring countries. Image credit: DFID

The conflict in Syria has produced one of the worst humanitarian crises in nearly two decades. The flow of refugees escaping violence has been unrelenting, and neighbouring countries are now buckling under its impact. Regional stability is deteriorating, and refugees and host countries alike are suffering from the burden of conflict.

It is estimated that Syria’s civil war has displaced nearly 12 million people and produced a death toll of over 200,000. The conflict is extremely complex, and has become more so with the rise of the Islamic State. The country now plays host to disparate separatist groups and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Violence appears far from abating.

Looking for a home abroad: the plight of Syrian refugees

As Syrians have fled, neighbouring countries have become increasingly burdened with the stress of providing refuge. The conflict in Syria has led to what has been called the “largest displacement crisis in the world”. More than 12 million Syrians are in need of assistance, including four million refugees and over seven million internally displaced persons.

The numbers are staggering and have not gone unnoticed. Humanitarian assistance is top of the agenda for organisations like the UN, and states invested in the fate of the region. Yet attempts at a coordinated response by the international community have only limped along, inhibited by limitations set forth by various refugee-hosting countries. As Syrians have fled their borders, they have been met with starkly different responses.

Differing responses: welcome or return?

In Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, Syrians are adjusting to widely different scenarios of refugee support. The variety of responses is a result of differences in how host countries define and implement immigration strategies. In some instances the stipulations have contributed to accusations of human rights abuses. Others have been able to produce seemingly humane and productive policies.

Finding the most efficient means to assist refugees is an evolving process. Four years into the Syrian conflict, a cross-country analysis sheds light on the topic. A glimpse into the varied approaches of Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq provides a snapshot of the increasing dilemmas faced by those trying to support Syrian refugees.


The Zaatari refugee camp is now the size of a small city
Syrians have crossed into Jordan at a rate of 1,500-2,000 per day during periods of extreme violence. The majority are confined to large-scale camps supported by intergovernmental organisations and national authorities. Zaatari, the largest camp, is now the size of a small city, with more than 80,000 people living in a tiny area of desolate Jordanian desert.

The camp has grown so quickly that aid efforts have struggled to keep pace with the daily influx of refugees. The inability of aid agencies to provide sufficient support is frequently the focus of human rights debates.

Compounding this issue is the limited mobility of refugees hoping to leave the camp. As stipulated by the Jordanian government, refugees are not permitted to work. Forced confinement to camps like Zaatari is intended to limit the population from begging on the streets of Amman.

Yet although controversy ensues, Jordan has maintained an open border for refugees throughout duration of the conflict. Unlike other nations that have opened and closed borders, Jordan has consistently provided refuge to Syrians in need.


In Egypt, the government has both welcomed and deported refugees. Under former president Mohamed Morsi’s authority, Syrians were openly received with minimal support. Residing in major cities, most remained unregistered with aid agencies, yet could exist without fear of deportation. The state of affairs worsened after the military-backed regime change in 2013.

Syrians must now acquire paperwork before entering the country. Many incoming refugees face deportation including a boat load of Syrians currently detained in Alexandria. Some human rights’ groups claim Egypt’s refoulement infringes on international law relating to the status of refugees. Yet the fragile nature of Egypt’s political apparatus limits pressure to comply with international law.

Syrian children in the Zaatari refugee camp. Image credit: Oxfam Damage in the city of Homs. Image credit: Chaoyue PAN


Perhaps the country most affected by the Syrian crisis is Lebanon. The country has consistently accepted refugees with few limitations, often at risk to its own stability. Lebanon hosts the highest per capita concentration of refugees in recent world history. Together, Palestinians and Syrians comprise over 40 per cent of the country’s overall population.

Although the influx of refugees has severely impacted the Lebanese economy, Syrians are permitted access to public services including health and education. This is a step in the right direction, but there is clearly a question of whether this is sustainable. With more refugees arriving every day, the financial strain is showing. Refugees have found a safe haven in Lebanon and avoided the problems in Jordan and Egypt. Yet the crisis is crippling the Lebanese economy, and therefore reducing the ability of the government to support the refugees it has so readily welcomed.


The influx of Syrians has supported northern Iraq's economic growth
Once a relatively stable environment for Syrians, Iraq is now engulfed in warfare with the Islamic State (ISIS). Prior to the emergence of this new conflict, the country provided what appeared to be the most seamless transition for Syrian refugees.

Northern Iraq is home to a sizeable population of Kurds. As the conflict in Syria has continued to unfold, predominantly Syrian Kurds have found refuge in the region. Capitalising on a centuries-old bond, Syrians have easily entered camps in northern Iraq. Common Kurdish identity has also limited discrimination among host nationals and refugees.

In comparison to Jordan, Iraq’s smaller-scale camps have allowed for a more manageable humanitarian response. Refugees have also been permitted access to leave the camps.

In some ways, the influx of Syrians has supported northern Iraq’s rapid economic growth. As trade has moved from conflict-ridden Baghdad to the northern Kurdish capital of Erbil, Syrians have filled the needs of an expanding hospitality industry.

Yet, with the growing terror of ISIS, northern Iraq is now very unpredictable. It can be expected that commerce will lessen and immigration to the region will slow. What this means for the status of Syrian refugees is not clear.

Humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis remains a high priority of national governments and intergovernmental organisations. But the multiplying regional conflicts are hampering all efforts to support refugees fleeing the country, and as an increasing number of Syrians are forced to live outside their borders, an effective response remains elusive.

Syria refugees 2 Syrian children in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Image credit: Oxfam