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Syrian refugees face financial uncertainty

Syrian-Kurdish refugees are seen in the Domiz refugee camp, southeast of Dohuk, in northern Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees -- mostly women and children -- continue to flood border communities in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Governments, towns, local host families and non-government aid organizations are scrambling to deal with the growing influx of people.

Michael Kocher, vice president for International Programs at the aid group International Rescue Committee, says the IRC can't work inside Syria, but it's setting up health clinics as well as distributing supplies to refugees in Jordan. Kocher says the economic situation for these families is dire.

"We're seeing that many of the families we're working with, they run out of money within a week's time, surely in four, five, six week's time," he says. "The economic toll of this is substantial. And the longer this goes on the worse it's going to get. "

Among the problems these refugees face in border communities: poor infrastructure, difficult sanitation services and high unemployment. In Jordan, for example, Syrian refugees are unable to work legally. And any work a refugee might find would be in the black market -- for very little money.

"It's a very difficult situation. They are very much in limbo," says Kocher. "There is no prospect of returning home at all right now to Syria. And obviously it's very, very unclear how long this highly complex situation might go on."

Tess Vigeland: Humanitarian groups around the world are mobilizing right now -- sending money, food, and medicine to the countries bordering Syria. That's because the Syrian government has refused to allow some Western aid groups into that country. One Michael Kocher is the vice president for International Programs at the aid group International Rescue Committee. Michael, thanks for joining us today.

Michael Kocher: Thank you very much.

Vigeland: Well cearly if there are troubles getting into the country, there are huge ones for anyone trying to get out. Can you paint a picture for us of what a typical family goes through economically when they try to leave Syria? What kind of money are we talking about in terms of getting out of town?

Kocher: Sure. I'll begin by saying that the majority of refugees leaving are women and children, about 75 percent. There are no organized convoys crossing borders. It's a perilous journey, very dangerous travel. There are high instances of rape, robbery. Many people have had whatever meager possessions they have had looted. We have to remember that many of them have had their homes destroyed, everything taken, even before they flee. Once they reach the border, there is safe passage surely into Jordan. But when they arrive, most of them have very little money. We have to remember a couple things. First of all, Syria is a very poor country. The per capita GDP is about $5,000 a year. That's like Guatemala or Swaziland. And then they're arriving into Jordan, which has a per capita GDP of around $6,000. That's like Angola. It's expensive to live in Jordan, much more expensive than it is to live in Syria. Just to get a single room with a host family is about $130 a month, ballpark. It's $250 a month for a very small apartment. Most can't even afford that. The economic toll of this is substantial. And the longer this goes on the worse it's going to get.

Vigeland: If the women and children are arriving with what little money there was, then what does that leave for the men who stay behind?

Kocher: It leaves very little. Families are having to make very, very difficult choices. They have little to begin with. Generally, the women and children are taking the lion's share of that money with them. It's a very small amount. We're seeing that many of the families we're working with, they run out of money within a week's time, surely in four, five, six week's time. Jordan is plagued already with tremendous water shortages, so a lot of people are living without water, without electricity, very little access -- if any -- to health care.

Vigeland: You mention water issues. I wonder what are some of the other economic issues of the cities where these refugees are ending up?

Kocher: Poor infrastructure, difficult sanitation services and high unemployment. In that part of the country, it's more impoverished for example than around Amman, the capital. So you do have a very high rate of unemployment. In any event, refugees in Jordan are unable to work legally. So if they work at all, it is sort of in the black market economy where they're paid very little. Most of them can't work and do not work. Whatever money they have is dwindling. It's a very difficult situation. They are very much in limbo. There is no prospect of returning home at all right now to Syria. And obviously it's very, very unclear how long this highly complex situation might go on.

Vigeland: The U.N. special envoy, Kofi Annan, essentially threw up his hands this week and said 'I don't know what else I can do at this point.' As an NGO on the ground there, do you see any ray of hope in this situation with Syria right now?

Kocher: It's difficult to see a ray of hope. Again, I can't speak to the geopolitical or military aspects of what's happening. We stick to our humanitarian mandate and we stay in that lane. It's very difficult, however, to be optimistic. It's clearly an intractable situation that is worsening and increased numbers of refugees are flowing not only into Jordan, but into Lebanon, Turkey, and now even into Iraq.

Vigeland: Michael Kocher is the vice president for International Programs at the International Rescue Committee. He's been speaking with us from New York. Thank you very much for your time.

Kocher: Thank you very much.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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