Published on November 25th, 2013 |
by Tanya Silverman
Image © U.S. Department of State 2013
Refugee Assets: Opening the Borders to Facts
With news that several Syrian refugees have been met with violence in Bulgaria, and accounts of Bulgarian skinheads taking to the streets in opposition of their arrival, I questioned the real impact of refugees on their developing host countries. Do refugees only bring economic, social, or ecological downfalls to their new communities, or is it simply the very thought of ‘refugee’ that incites undesirable connotations? Bulgaria is recognised as the poorest country in Europe, and there are fears that the country cannot financially support the potential intake of thousands of refugees. It is no wonder that feelings towards Syrian refugees entering Bulgaria may be negative. Where do the facts lay, though? How accurate is much of this finger-pointing when it comes to the impact of refugees? Can refugees be an asset to their host countries? I’ll look at 2 case studies to see if we can get some answers. Firstly, the Dadaab which is the world’s largest refugee camp deserves some observation. Secondly, it would be a mistake not to discuss Syrian refugees in their neighbouring countries.
The Dadaab refugee camp, in the North East province of Kenya, became the largest refugee camp in the world as of 2011. Originally expected to house 270,000 Somali refugees following civil war, the numbers have stretched beyond 450,000. Since the outbreak of Somali civil war in 1991 refugees were sent to the least-fertile lands in Kenya and their movements have been contained and limited.
There has been much controversy in the Dadaab case. The Kenyan nomadic pastoralists in the region have voiced their concerns that refugees are receiving aid, whilst they are trying to live off the least prolific soil in the country. This has raised many questions regarding human rights and equality, and refugees have been accused of having better shelter, healthcare, food, and education opportunities than Kenyans. The scant water supply in the region has also been cause of much antagonism, and deforestation and soil erosion has led to a competition of resources.
Refugees also influence the local economy as an increase in population results in a demand for goods, raising the cost of living. Job competition has become a serious issue with refugees a cheaper source of labour. These issues have been perceived as a threat on both sides, causing frictions to heighten, and setting conditions for terrorist groups and worsened social conditions.
However, as Somalian presence has taken on permanence in this area, the area around the camp has received increased attention from donors, such as NGOs, the Kenyan government, and UN agencies and provisions have generally improved. A study conducted in 2010 by Danish, Kenyan, and Norwegian governments found that the camp brings $14 million into the surrounding community. If Dadaab was considered a city then it would be Kenya’s third largest, making for remarkable economic possibilities.
Similarities can be drawn with the Syrian refugee population. More than 2 million Syrians have fled their homes following the uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad in March 2011, and many more are assumed to be unregistered. The vast majority of these Syrians have taken shelter in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The Lebanese government estimates 1 million Syrians are now in Lebanon (a population of only 4 million – that’s less than half on London). That’s one in five of the population. Jordan and Turkey exceed a million between them.
Dawn Chatty, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, states that Turkey is very different to Jordan and Lebanon: most refugees have relocated to Hatay in Turkey, formerly part of Syria until World War 2. The area is home to a vibrant population of Armenians, Sunni Muslims, and Alawis and ‘mirrors complicated ethno-religious makeup of areas’ around the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Idlib, making refugee intake a smoother process. Whilst there are many social similarities between Jordan and Syria, there are still many differing customs and traditions that have made the process harder. Turkey has had a long history of refugee integration without assimilation whereby camps are not marked out physically. There is less of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Refugee sponsorship in Turkey has come from the national budget, whereas Jordan has needed much foreign assistance for the refugee population. Camps with a lot of assistance, especially foreign assistance such as in Jordan, create negative feelings in their local communities. Arguably, this is also what happened in Kenya. Local accommodation is generally seen as better than encampment which strips the agency and dignity of refugees and causes a negative presence.
Whilst Turkey is invariably beginning to feel some of the burden of the rise in refugee population, in Jordan and Lebanon these impacts were apparent earlier on. Aside from there being tensions resulting from cultural differences, there have also been fears over shared water resources – a precious commodity in Jordan – with fears expressed from locals that their new neighbours are not making the effort to conserve. House prices have increased in refugee-populated areas, meaning that Jordanians are having to make cuts in education and are also delaying marriage because they cannot afford dowry. Turkey has not been exempt to witnessing a rise to the cost of living in areas with high refugee population refugee populated. There has been a 200% increase in some basic produce, such as the humble tomato, which takes its toll on border communities. These communities have a lower per capita income compared to the $10,500 national average so these increases have been felt. As in Kenya with Somali refugees, there has been more job competition as Syrians are willing to work for cheaper in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
Whilst Turkey had an easier transitional period by comparison to Lebanon and Jordan, its resources are stretching and questions have arisen regarding the limits to its hospitality and its capacity to ensure the flow of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Financial concerns are not limited within the host’s borders. The Turkish government has released estimates of over $2 billion dollars spent on its ‘zero point delivery system.’ The ‘Zero Point Delivery System’, which has a subject of praise for Turkey, is a humanitarian assistance method in which the Turkish Red Crescent brings supplies to the Syrian border and turns it over to Syrian opposition groups.
Despite all of these concerns there have not been any extreme anti-refugee sentiments and Ankara’s International Strategic Research Foundation has conducted a survey with the general outcome being that refugees feel largely welcomed.
However, there have also been economic benefits resulting from the influx of funds to the region. From January to July this year Syrians opened 122 companies in Hatay, Mersin, and Gaziantep and 106 companies in Bursa and Istanbul. Whilst the financial burden has been considerable for Turkey it could bring benefits to the country in securing its interests in Syria, and in the region, as well as maintaining its status as a mediator and key-player in the Middle East.
The general consensus is that large refugee populations may cause an immediate negative impact on social, economic, and environmental factors; however, in the long run they can be of great benefit to their host communities. This has happened in both cases we’ve looked at – Daadub and Turkey – and is a largely forgotten feature. The UNCHR website states that the presence of refugees can lead to the improvement of ‘marginal’ areas that were otherwise largely neglected by host governments, paving the way for better infrastructure and general development. Refugees increase consumer markets for domestic commodities, create new markets, and bring in new skills. For example, the Eastern part of Turkey is considerably less developed than the West which has sometimes been a source of friction in the country itself.
Evidently the best long-term solution in any refugee case is to improve the conditions in their home countries, and establishing a safe environment that benefits everyone. Until this happens refugees should not be so readily dismissed. We have seen that refugee populations can bring growth to their developing hosts. The key difference, as we have seen, between the Kenyan case and the Turkish situation is the Kenyan government’s resistance to local integration. If Bulgaria integrates its refugees, in the long run, it could actually benefit the country’s