Five Years Later, Examining the Human Cost of the Syrian Crisis | The Center for Victims of Torture

Five Years Later, Examining the Human Cost of the Syrian Crisis

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Marie Soueid is CVT policy counsel.

Imagine for a moment that the entire population of Washington, D.C. suddenly takes refuge in Tennessee over the course of 5 short years. The new residents, however, are restricted from working, half of their children remain out of school, and housing prices continue to rise for both Tennesseans and Washingtonians.

In the United States, this may seem implausible. But this is precisely what happened in Jordan. The small desert country saw its population increase by at least 600,000 virtually overnight as Syrians fled the carnage of war that has engulfed the country since March 2011. In Lebanon, Syria’s western neighbor that is geographically smaller than the state of Connecticut, every fourth person is now a Syrian refugee. That would be roughly equivalent to the United States absorbing all 35 million people in Canada along with Spain’s 46 million.

Nearly 5 million refugees have fled Syria and registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in neighboring states. Syria lost more than 20 percent of its pre-war population in refugees and up to 470,000 others lost their lives. Thousands of others have amassed at the Turkish and Jordanian borders trying to escape. This population drain is comparable to the United States losing more than the entire populations of California and Texas, its two most populous states. 

Even when we compare it to other countries, the numbers remain incomprehensible, but the human effects are very real. Refugees, many now displaced for several years, are frustrated by the idleness of displacement and the restrictions on work and movement. Many fear deportation if they are caught working, but face the dilemma of not eating for several days or being evicted from their apartments for failure to pay rent if they don’t have a source of income.  

Like many in the United States—where the unemployment rate stands at 5.5 percent—who are worried about losing jobs to immigrants, Syria’s neighbors worry about the refugee influx driving down incomes and driving up housing costs. The worry is understandable. Jordan’s unemployment rate stands at over 13 percent. King Abdullah II, the leader of Jordan, has recently promised his people that for every job created for refugees it will create 5 jobs for Jordanians. Still, many are skeptical and feel that the Syrian refugees have overstayed their welcome, even as it is well recognized that, at this stage, return to Syria is not a safe or viable option.  

In Jordan and Lebanon, tensions between the host communities and Syrian refugees trickle down to the youngest and most vulnerable. Only half of the refugee children in Jordan and Lebanon are in school. Both countries have cut down on class time to add more sessions and accommodate refugees. Despite these changes and international donors covering many of the basic costs for books and supplies, only 155,153 of approximately 417,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were in school in 2015. In Jordan, the rate is slightly better with 143,259 of approximately 328,000 refugee children.  Even when they do attend school, Syrian students struggle to catch up to the Jordanian or Lebanese curriculum after missing schooling.

A former CVT client, Ibrahim, hoped that after losing a year of school in Syria, his daughters would not be set back significantly. But when he arrived to Jordan, he had to pull the girls out of school. They had been harassed by both their peers and Jordanian teachers. Children who are out of school are at a higher risk for child labor and exploitation. Some parents admit that their children work illegally because if they are caught, children are less likely to be deported.

The humanitarian crisis that has ensued in neighboring states is only rivaled by the situation inside Syria where 7.6 million people are internally displaced. They’ve fled their homes due to barrel bombs, sieges, sniper attacks and generalized fighting. If the total population of the next seven most populous states: New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, and Michigan, fled their homes, it would be roughly proportional to the displacement inside Syria.

When asked if they would return in the event of peace, many Syrians ask, “Return to what?” Their homes and livelihoods have been decimated. Recently, the government reported that the entire country faced a nation-wide blackout. Rebuilding what little infrastructure is left will be an uphill battle.

Five years on, with every prospect for peace descending into violence, it is no wonder that millions of Syrians are now seeking a future outside of Syria. It’s even less surprising that many are willing to chance the dangerous seas to flee to Europe and beyond. Behind each of those millions is a mother or father who sees no risk too great for their children’s future.



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