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Syrian refugees face economic distress

Janet Nguyen Dec 16, 2015

Nearly nine in 10 Syrian refugees living in Jordan are either poor or expected to be, according to a joint report from the World Bank Group and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released Wednesday.

The report, titled “The Welfare of Syrian Refugees: Evidence from Jordan and Lebanon,” looked at the socioeconomic profile of Syrian refugees, evaluated their well-being, and examined how effective certain humanitarian policies have been in aiding the Syrian refugee population.    

“What we did not realize at the very beginning was the scale of poverty among refugees. We knew they were poor. We knew they had little assets and no access to labor markets, but we didn’t know the extent of that,” said Paolo Verme, a World Bank senior economist and one of the speakers at the World Bank’s media briefing on the report Wednesday morning.

The study specifically analyzed the efficacy of cash assistance and voucher programs from the UNHCR and the World Food Programme, finding that while they have the potential to greatly reduce poverty, these programs have faced a reduction in funding and have only targeted a relatively small group of refugees.

An estimated 9 million Syrians have left their homes since the start of the Syrian Civil War in March 2011, with more than 600,000 refugees now residing in Jordan and more than 1.2 million in Lebanon.  

For decades, Jordan and Lebanon have experienced periodic waves of refugees who have been absorbed into these countries or accommodated for, said Laurie Brand, a USC professor of international relations and Middle East studies.

“Jordan, by virtue of geography and by virtue of the international politics, has sort of been placed to serve as a receptacle for those who are fleeing,” Brand said.

During the briefing, the World Bank also addressed the financial strain the refugee crisis has put on hosting countries.

Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have spent an estimated additional 1.5 percent of their GDP to accommodate refugees, said Shanta Devarajan, the chief economist for the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa region, at the conference.  

“(This is) a global responsibility that they are shouldering with their own meager resources,” Devarajan said.

Devarajan said that to help with the refugee crisis, the World Bank is working with the U.K. and Jordan governments to establish “special enterprise zones” in Northern Jordan, where Syrians and Jordanians can work.

The European Union will then give preferential trade access to products produced in these zones, Devarajan said.

He added that the World Bank wants to build a global coalition to provide low-interest loans or grants to help finance the zones’ infrastructure, and that it will aim to have something running in Jordan in the next six months.

“In addition to the deprivation and the dislocation that (refugees) face, the real problem is the loss of dignity,” Devarajan said.

Brand said that while, of course, greater employment in general is a good thing, an imbalance in the number of refugee hires vs. indigenous hires within these zones could create resentment from Jordan residents.  

“Syrian refugees are destitute. The amount of money they get per month is barely sustainable for them,” Brand said. “But they also…have taken jobs that might otherwise be held by Jordanians.”   

Currently, refugees in Lebanon and Jordan have limited opportunities to work. Only a small group of refugees in these regions has work permits, Paolo Verme said.

While refugee camps can provide a haven for the displaced population, the reality is that many Syrians in Jordan don’t have access to them, said Dawn Chatty, a professor of anthropology and forced migration at the University of Oxford. In Lebanon, refugee camps don’t exist, she added.  

“Many are surviving with irregular part-time jobs,” Chatty said, “and bad pay.”

Aside from the slew of issues countries are facing with the influx of Syrian refugees, 6.5 million have been displaced within Syria itself.

This study, looking at Jordan and Lebanon, is just “the tip of the iceberg,” Verme said.

Little is known about the welfare of Syrians inside the country, which should be acknowledged, he noted. 

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