Opinion

Are Syrian Refugees Destined to Be the Palestinians of the 21st Century?

The civil war in Syria is winding down but there's no sign that they're welcome back, which is a problem for their host countries

Syriani refugees in Lebanon
Bilal Hussein/אי־פי

It's the year 2030. The Syria Liberation Organization has simultaneously hijacked three passenger jets.

Hijacking? That's too 1960s. Let's say that the SLO has hacked into the electric power grids of three major cities, causing blackouts and scores of deaths. SLO leaders say they won't restore power until 100 of their jailed comrades are released from prison.

Naturally, there is outrage, but there's also an undercurrent of sympathy for the terrorists. The Syrian war ended a decade ago but millions have continued to live in refugee camps, unwelcome in their host countries but unable or unwilling to return home. The tent encampments have gradually evolved into permanent towns, but there are few jobs and whatever schooling and health services the Syrians get come from the UN.

If that sounds a lot like the fate of the Palestinians after 1948 and the consequences that arose from it, that's no coincidence.

Like the Palestinians, the odds are very good that their status will become permanent if for no other reason than the regime of Bashar Assad doesn't want them back. He regards them all as politically suspect and aims to create a Syria of religiously and ethnically loyal citizens.

Out of a pre-war population of 21 million Syrians, 6.7 million are now refugees living in other countries. The United Nations estimates that just 355,000 of them have returned to Syria in the last five years even though most of the country is no longer a war zone. In any case that tiny number is due to be swamped by a flood of new refugees leaving Syria as the regime and its Iranian and Russian allies ready for an assault on Idlib, the last rebel stronghold.

Economically, the loss of so many people spells disaster for Syria. It's bad enough that Assad's allies don’t begin to have the money to cover costs that could reach $400 billion for rebuilding the country or that Syrian economy in the best of times was spectacularly mismanaged, and – the whole "reconstruction" process will be starting with a population nearly a third smaller than it was a decade ago. The only consolation is that Assad will have to build less housing and provide fewer jobs.

But it's not as if Syria's human loss necessarily spells a gain for the countries hosting the people that Assad is rejecting.

In theory, an influx of refugees could be a boon for a host country, proving a new source of labor and demand for products and services. But that's true only if the host country has a sufficiently dynamic economy to take advantage of the situation. That's not the case for the great majority of Syrian refugees.

The UN estimates that more than 920,000 registered refuges (and there are more there off the books) are in Lebanon, giving the highest percentage of refugees to native population of any country in the world. No. 2 on the refugee -density list in Jordan, which is hosting 657,000, according to the UN (and, in fact, many more).

Both countries are in dire economic straits. Lebanon is teetering on the edge of default and its economy is expected to shrink this year, and Jordan isn't in much better shape. Neither is any position to get an economic boost from the refugees anytime in the foreseeable future. The refugees are bound to become a source of anger and resentment, if they haven't already.

Turkey is by far the biggest host of Syrian refugees, with close to 3.7 million, the UN says. To its credit, Ankara has been a generous host, providing free health case and schooling, issuing some job permits and even granting citizenship in some cases.

But that was when the Turkish economy was growing strongly. More recently it's slipped into recession and the welcome has quickly run out.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that the next wave of refugees will be packed off to Europe. And, given Erdogan's increasingly mismanagement of the economy, Turkey doesn't look poised for a rebound anytime soon.

Europe is hosting one million Syrians and doesn't want any more. While the German economy was growing quickly, businesses could gradually absorb the refugees into the workforce; now that Germany is edging toward recession and the Eurozone economy is looking shaky, the jobs will be fewer and the competition for them intense. The welcome for refugees had already worn thin and in tough economic times it can be expected to disappear altogether.

Europe's economy will eventually recover and benefit from the refugee influx, especially as its low birthrate means that it badly needs new workers over the long run. The Middle East is something else. The region's problem isn't a shortage of workers, but a lack of economic opportunity. Its economies are globally uncompetitive, government is corrupt and ineffective, and it faces huge fallout from climate change.

The Syrians sitting in camps won't be fully integrated into their host countries any more than the Palestinians who fled in 1948 and 1967 were. If anything, the Syrians may face bigger obstacles because of their bigger numbers, the dire economic state of their hosts and (in Europe), growing hostility to outsiders. Under the circumstances, an SLO or something like it seems inevitable.