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Policy and Livelihoods: A Conversation on Syrian Refugees

With no end in sight for the Syrian civil war, the country’s 6 million refugees and 6 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs) face an uncertain future. Those who have fled to other countries to escape the violence face deplorable conditions in refugee camps and years-long waits for resettlement, while IDPs live in constant fear of the ongoing hostilities in Syria. Compounding these issues is the COVID-19 pandemic, to which refugees and IDPs are all the more vulnerable given their lack of access to health services, as well as restricting travel. So what options do Syrian refugees have for relief? Dina Dajani, Deputy Director of the Center for Global Policy’s Displacement and Migration Program, speaks with Sahar Atrache, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International, about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Atrache begins the conversation by relating the story of Reema, a Ph.D. student who fled Damascus with her three children and from there lived in Lebanon, Jordan, and eventually the United States. Reema applied for temporary protective status in 2016, but it still has not been approved, and her status is increasingly tenuous amid the Trump administration’s refugee policies.

Despite this, Reema is relatively lucky, Atrache says. Those scattered across the region in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece are living in inhospitable conditions in refugee camps with little access to clean water, sanitation, or even adequate shelter. In Turkey, an economic downturn has turned people against refugees, who have faced attacks, assaults, lack of work, and deportation. The Turkish government also has used Syrian refugees in its political power struggles against the European Union.

These problems are exacerbated by countries that have begun to push back on accepting more refugees and push refugees to return to Syria, accompanied by a false narrative that the country has entered a period of relative stability. Atrache says that for many refugees, it is simply not possible to return home for fear of political oppression for their past dissent against the Syrian regime.

The situation is no better for IDPs, Atrache says, a significant number of whom are living in camps in Idlib province, the last stronghold of the opposition. Idlib has faced multiple offensives from the regime in the past year, which have displaced millions of people. The refugee camps are overcrowded and lack basic services, and the people living there feel trapped between the regime’s assaults on one side and the closed Turkish border on the other.

These issues have only been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has restricted travel between countries and threatened outbreaks at refugee camps. Atrache says there has not yet been a real COVID-19 outbreak in a refugee setting, but the consequences of one, if it happens, will be devastating because of the refugees’ lack of access to health services. These refugees already are feeling the economic impact of the pandemic, which is further restricting their access to already-scarce work.

For Syrian refugees in the United States, Atrache says a lot hinges on the upcoming presidential election. President Donald Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, have widely different views on Syrian refugees, with the Trump administration taking a hard line on accepting Syrians and other immigrants and Biden pledging to reverse the administration’s policies. If Trump wins re-election, the futures of Syrians in the United States such as Reema will become even more uncertain.



Dina Dajani: Good morning. My name is Dina Dajani. I’m with the Center for Global Policy. Thank you for joining us today. The Center for Global Policy is a think tank focused on policy research and analysis. This podcast is the latest edition of our series called “The Lodestar,” where we do a deep dive into critical international issues and explore that issue in detail. This is our second podcast focused on the global refugee crisis, and specifically, today we’re going to be talking about the Syrian refugee crisis.

According to a recent report published by the U.N. High Commissioner for refugees, their “Global Trends 2020” report, 2020 has seen a huge leap in global refugee numbers. Current reporting estimates the number of refugees and internally displaced people to be at over 79 million, or 1% of the global population, which represents an increase of over 9 million since last year’s estimate.

Syrian refugees and internally displaced peoples, or IDPs, account for a significant portion of this population, as the Syrian civil war has caused 6 million people to leave Syria as refugees and another 6 million to become internally displaced people, with little hope of the civil war, which has spurred all these refugees, ending in the near future. As an added complicating factor, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the vulnerability of Syrian refugees, as camp conditions are not conducive to the successful implementation of public health practices, and migration pathways have been severely disrupted as a result of the pandemic.

Given all of this, what if any options are available for Syrian refugees? Will our global system of resettlement and repatriation provide any relief, particularly considering the size of this population and the ongoing pandemic-related travel constraints?

As I mentioned, this podcast is the second in a series exploring the additional stresses placed on refugee populations during COVID-19. And as I’ve also mentioned, we’re focused on the Syrian population. They’re scattered across half a dozen countries in hopes of finding their ways into new lives and a stable setting, but there are significant obstacles in achieving this goal.

Joining me today to talk about this, I’m very pleased to introduce Sahar Atrache. She is a senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International. Prior to joining Refugees International, Sahar was a senior advocacy officer at the Syrian-American Medical Society, or SAMS, where she led research and advocacy efforts around Syrian policy and humanitarian issues in the in the United States and the Middle East. Sahar also was a senior analyst on the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, where her policy reports and articles were the basis of direct international advocacy and media engagement. Her research has taken her to refugee camps and conflict zones throughout the Middle East, where she has conducted significant research, interviewing affected individuals and collaborating with local communities on this crisis.

So Sahar, thank you so much for joining us. Could you please give us a sense of what it’s like to be a Syrian refugee today?

Sahar Atrache: Thank you Dina, and thank you for having me. Happy to be with you today. To start, I want to talk about one specific Syrian refugee whose story is a bit significant, telling us about what is it to be a Syrian refugee today. This Syrian woman, her name is Reema, she was finishing her PhD in Damascus when the war broke. She couldn’t finish her PhD in finances. Because of the conflict and the violence, she got separated from her kids briefly, but then she fled to save her three children. She’s a single mom. She fled to Lebanon. And from Lebanon, you know, the situation for her was very difficult. She moved to Jordan, she lived in Jordan for a couple of years.

But then she came to the States and applied for a temporary protective status, which provides a temporary asylum for refugees fleeing war, basically, and conflict. It’s been now, I think, four years that she’s been living in the States. Her application for asylum still has not been approved, and now she’s facing a new reality with the new Trump policies. She risks being deported from the U.S. because, you know, with the new policy, you have to be– you only are allowed to apply to asylum if the U.S. Is your first country of refuge and if you applied for this country and were not granted asylum.

So now Reema, with her three children, you know, after having more or less settled in the U.S., is facing this new reality. And to be honest, still, despite all this hardship Reema is considered among the most luckiest because, you know, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are living in very dark conditions not even comparable to what Reema is going through.

DD: So that’s very interesting. So even though she is – really, we can classify her as a success story in one way – she really hasn’t gotten to the place, you know, really achieved success, which is finding a place that’s both stable and secure for her to live in, and ideally a place which has opportunities for her. So she’s somebody who’s educated, who could go on to be a contributor to her community, her new community, that she’s resettled through her work and through her, you know, by using her education. But even she, who has, you know, managed to arrive to a safe place, is not experiencing the security that we would hope at this point. Is that the case?

SA: Yeah. Yes, very true, very true. And this is what we’ve seen with a lot of Syrian refugees, you know. An important part of the Syrian refugee community are well-educated, you know, they– I mean, Syria before the war was considered a middle-income country. People had access to services, they had access to education. And what we’ve seen is that Syrian refugees in general have a lot, you know, to give to communities where they settled. You had, you know, teachers, doctors, engineers, but also all types of professions that fled the country.

And as you very truly mentioned, Dina, Reema is among the luckiest, you know, because she had the chance to come to the U.S. The only problem, you know, all she was looking for is just some stability and some safety for her children, but even this has become basically a luxury or, you know, inaccessible to her. Reema has no Syrian passport because, you know, she cannot renew her passport. So now if she’s deported, she doesn’t know where she can go.

And the story of Reema is just one example of a lot of other stories of what Syrian refugees go through – all refugees, not just Syrian, but it happens that we’re talking about Syrians today. People are really looking after– you know, they have lost everything. They have lost their houses, their belongings, their memories, you know, everything. All they’re looking for is some sense of safety and stability, a little hope for the future, but even these small dreams are being denied.

DD: Yes. So, you know, when you compare Reema with others in the Syrian population, it’s really striking how she really has managed to travel such a long distance considering the obstacles that have been placed in her way, But in terms of all the rest of the 6 million population, can you give us a sense of what the standard situation is for these populations? You know, they’re scattered around more than half a dozen countries in the region. A significant amount of the Syrian refugees are in Turkey, many of them are in Greece being held up there, the COVID pandemic has made their travel harder. A similarly significant number has been resettled in the EU, in Germany. So, can you give us a sense of what the situation is like for other Syrian refugees who have been displaced as a result of the Syrian crisis?

SA: Yes, of course. I mean, as I mentioned, really, Reema is one of the privileged because, yes, there are around 6 million refugees scattered and the region, and the situation is different in each country. There’s a little bit, around 1 million Syrian refugees, living in Lebanon. In Lebanon, the situation of Syrian refugees is the worst. You know, they– I was in Lebanon in October researching the situation of Syrian refugees, and I’ve seen, you know, conditions in the camps, really, that I’ve never seen before, where people are literally living in, you know, in very, very bad conditions, unhealthy, you know, the shelters are either too hot or too cold, tents have been flooded during winter. In Lebanon, the vast majority of Syrian refugees are really suffering, and unsurprisingly, the vast majority feel they are not settled in the country.

Turkey is a bit different. Syrian refugees in Turkey have also been struggling. There’s around 3.5 million, so Turkey is among the countries that hosted the most refugees. Some have settled, so some have, you know, got Turkish citizenship, but the vast majority also now live in a kind of instability. The situation in Turkey has been deteriorating, the economic downturn turned people against Syrian refugees. So we’ve seen in the past year or so assaults and attacks against, you know, Syrian refugees, shops held by refugees. And what we’ve seen also more worryingly last year is deportation of Syrian refugees from Turkey into Italy at the time when Idlib was really under attack from the Syrian regime and Russia. So, yeah, this is the situation of Syrian refugees in Turkey. There’s a lot of informal, working in the informal sectors. So there has been also a crackdown on working Syrians in Turkey.

Greece is again, like, a different situation, where most of the refugees are on Islands awaiting, you know, to be resettled in a third country, and the situations on the islands are also very deplorable, you know, and they’ve been– what’s supposed to be a very temporary situation has been dragging on for years now. So, this is just to say a little bit of what the refugees in the region are going through.

DD: Yes. It seems like one thing that– one commonality in all of these situations is that there’s no pathway to citizenship that’s being discussed, which, it seems to me that that’s a critical component of actually, you know, achieving stability and security. Can you comment on that and say, you know, let us know what can a refugee do to get themselves on a pathway to citizenship at this point in time? In any one of these countries, including in Jordan, which is also a major destination for Syrians that we have not yet touched upon.

SA: The situation of Syrians in Jordan is a bit better than in other countries we mentioned because of the Jordan Compact. There has been a kind of an attempt between Jordan and the EU to offer some opportunities, mostly work opportunities, for Syrians. And this part, you know, significant numbers living in camps and restricted mobility. There is a little bit of sense of more security in Jordan for Syrian refugees than in other countries.

But to answer your question, Dina, this is a problem we face worldwide. So following the so-called refugee crisis, you know, in 2014-2015 hundreds of thousands of mostly Syrian refugees, you know, fled Syria through Turkey, through Greece, through other countries and try to reach Europe, mostly, what we’ve seen since is Europe and the U.S. in general and all other countries that could be a countries of resettlements have closed up on Syrian refugees. So now, for example, what we’re seeing in European countries, including Germany and other, you know, Scandinavian countries, is really trying to push back refugees to return to Syria. There’s this whole narrative that the war has ended, that the situation is safer right now in Syria.

So the opportunity for resettlement and for getting citizenship or asylum in third countries has really diminished significantly in the past few years, and this is why what we’re seeing is basically the vast majority of the 6 million people we’re talking about are basically living in a kind of limbo. They can’t go back to Syria, a lot of them can’t go back to Syria. They don’t have a decent life in the country now they’re settled in, and there’s no prospect for the future. They’re just waiting, you know, for something to happen to change their situation.

DD: So you just said a lot of things that are really interesting, I think, both in terms of what our Global models are for managing refugees and in terms of what the options are for those refugees. I think, you know, the Jordan Compact is a very interesting model because it’s very divergent from what we’ve seen in recent years in terms of a bilateral agreement between nations to provide support for refugees, but also it’s much wider ranging. It’s an economic– it’s part of– the refugee package is part of an economic package between the two countries, which is very significantly different from how we’ve processed refugees in the past.

SA: Yeah.

DD: And you know, I think that that’s really interesting, but I’m also really interested to kind of explore what you were talking about about the narrative of Syria being a safe place to return to at the moment. I think there’s a lot of evidence out there that this really isn’t the case. So could you expand on that narrative a little bit? Like, is it something– is any part of it based in reality? And is this actually an option? You know, I know that when we talk about refugees, one of the most important components of kind of the package of policy regarding refugees that we have is repatriation. So I think that, you know, maybe there’s something about the desire to repatriate that’s in conflict with the reality of the situation there in terms of how safe it is.

SA: Yeah.

DD: What are your thoughts?

SA: Sure, so repatriation is one of the, I think, three or four possible durable solutions. One possibility is resettlement. The other is just, you know, settling in the country of first asylum, or the return is definitely considered the durable solution, and it is expected that, you know, that refugees will return home ultimately. The problem in Syria – and as I said, like, there’s a whole narrative that the war has worn down, basically the Syrian regime, you know, took over the vast majority of the territory, and then now it is safe for refugees to return – what this narrative ignores as many different aspects of why people protested in the first place and why people fled Syria. Some fled the violence, you know, because they didn’t feel safe, but a lot of the refugees are considered, you know, between brackets, “political refugees.” In Lebanon, when I was in Lebanon, I spoke to many refugees, you know, even, you know, communities coming from specific areas, where they would tell me that it’s impossible for them to go back to Syria as long as, you know, this current regime is in place because they fear persecution, they fear retaliation, they wouldn’t feel safe if they would go back to their– to Syria. Like, their life would be at risk. So safety and security is the first concern for refugees when they want to consider going back, and this has kind of dissuaded many refugees from returning to Syria.

There are a lot of other considerations, you know. Until now, many regions are still destroyed, you know, there’s no real reconstruction process, many regions are denied the basic services. So a lot of refugees don’t feel safe to move their families to areas where they wouldn’t have even a shelter, they wouldn’t have access to the most basic means – water, electricity, and, you know, other other needs. There’s of course, you know, political activists, journalists – everyone who’s been a bit outspoken about their opposition to the Syrian regime would not return to Syria. And this is, I think, what’s being missed in the conversation, the idea that we don’t know really the numbers, but I think a significant number of Syrian refugees simply cannot return to Syria.

I want to give the example of Lebanon, so, you know, people I met who are really living in very, very dire situations, you know, like really unimaginable. So these people despite, you know, living in, you know, like, not even tents, you know. It’s living in the open air sometimes. Where sewage is, you know, just running next to them. They don’t have access to any, you know, healthcare or any water, you know, they drink polluted water. Still didn’t make the decision to go back to Syria because they feel that the situation over there is even worse.

And now, as you probably know, the situation, the economic situation in Syria has been even worse, you know, there’s a deep devaluation of the Syrian Lira. I’m receiving reports, you know, of people not being able to feed their families. So all these are reasons that really prevent returns to Syria under these circumstances.

DD: Yes, and of course, we also have the COVID crisis now, the pandemic, and it sounds like based on what we know for the public health management of the pandemic, it sounds like the conditions that are required to manage that are not something that Syrian refugees can access upon their return for certain but also possibly in the camps in which they live kind of scattered around the region.

SA: Yes, very true. Very true. What we’ve seen is, you know, usually because refugees are the weakest, I would say, chain, it’s much easier for governments to crack down on refugees. So what we’ve seen for example is in Lebanon, there was attempts, you know, restrictions on their mobility, for example. At the same time, refugees have no access to health care. We’ve been so far more or less fortunate that we haven’t seen a real outbreak of COVID-19 in refugee settings, but I think if an outbreak happens the consequences would be devastating because, you know, all the measures recommend required from hygiene to social distancing to disinfection, wearing masks, all of these are you know, no really available for refugees– most of refugees living in camps.

What we’ve seen also, you know, is the economic impact, the global economic impact of COVID-19, which, you know, affected very deeply the economies of the different countries, whether it’s Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan. It’s also having a great impact on refugees. Refugees are usually the first to be sacrificed, kind of, so, access to work was already very difficult. Now, it’s becoming even more challenging and there have been some, you know, some attempts to even crack down on informal workers in Lebanon and other countries.

DD: Yeah, so a lot going on there. Let’s turn for a moment to the status of Syrian internally displaced people and specifically what’s going on in the northern part of Syria and Idlib province.

SA: Sure. Before we switch to Idlib, I just wanted to make a quick comment on the Jordan Compact and, you know, the deal that was made between Turkey and Europe, if that’s okay.

DD: Sure, go ahead.

SA: Because I think, you know, this is a model that’s very interesting but also that proves its limits. So what we’ve seen, for example, is that both Jordan but more Turkey has exploited the fear, you know, in Europe from receiving a new wave of refugees, and this tells us how problematic, you know, Europe dealt with the Syrian refugees but also how these different countries exploit, you know, the refugee card to reap more benefits or, you know, whether it’s financial or political. And for me, this has been a bit problematic because what we’ve seen is Turkey has really manipulated the refugee card, you know, recently it’s threatened to open the border and let refugees reach Europe. So refugees have really been used in the political power struggles between different nations. So I just wanted to make this comment just to say that sometimes, you know, these models can be very successful, so in Jordan it has, you know, it has had some positive effect, but it’s not, you know, it kind of panacea, I would say.

DD: Yeah, sure. That’s interesting because of course when we talk about refugees, it’s not only a humanitarian crisis we’re talking about. It’s a political crisis and, you know, nations have to manage that and find a way of doing so with the acceptance of their own existing citizenry. So, I think it is a very complicated question, and it ranges far beyond just humanitarian support for displaced populations.

SA: Yeah.

DD: Okay, thank you for that. So let’s talk about the IDPs for a minute and what’s going on in Idlib.

SA: Sure.

DD: Because by all reports, the war is very active in that region, still ongoing despite the narrative we were speaking of earlier.

SA: Yes, very true. So quick background on Idlib. So Idlib is in Northwest Syria, and Idlib has– is considered, you know, the last stronghold of the opposition. It’s the last part of the territory that is still controlled by armed groups, including some Jihadi groups. Idlib has around 3 million people, 3 million civilians, more than half are themselves displaced from other parts of the country. So from Hama, Ghouta, Daraa, and other places. For two times now since 2019, the regime backed by Russia has launched an offensive against Idlib, trying to retake the territory, and what we’ve seen is, with these, you know, offensives again, huge waves of displacement. So in early 2019 over 1 million people have been displaced by the fighting and the violence, and then again a ceasefire was reached, but then again there was a renewed military campaign in late 2019 and early 2020 that also displaced around 1 million people.

The situation in Idlib is also very difficult. We have around 1.2 million people living in refugee camps, mostly along the border with Turkey. The situation at these camps is also very difficult, you know, overcrowding is always a problem, and this setting’s lack of access to services, lack of access to work– more than two-thirds of the population now in Idlib relies on humanitarian assistance. What we’ve seen during the last military campaign is because of the overcrowding and because the lack of shelters families were literally finding refuge in the open air. So we’ve seen– we have pictures of people literally, you know, taking olive trees as, you know, their shelter basically. The problem in Idlib, of course, it also has been impacted by the economic crisis and the depreciation of the Lebanese pound– I’m sorry, the Syrian pound. The problem is that people inside Idlib feel literally trapped. The border with Turkey is closed. Turkey doesn’t want to welcome any more refugees. And from the other side they have, you know, the Syrian regime and Russia launching military offensives against them.

And now with the, you know, COVID-19. So for the past few months, there were no cases reported, but in the past couple of weeks now, we have at least 22 cases of COVID-19 confirmed inside Idlib, and there’s really worries that if an outbreak happens in Idlib, you know, the province is not really equipped to deal with such an outbreak. The health system has been weakened, you know, by systematic and repeated, relentless attacks on hospitals and other medical facilities. I remember in early 2020, more than 50 or 60 hospitals had, you know, went out of work because of strikes and attacks. The humanitarian community and the medical professionals are already extremely overwhelmed, you know, because of the growth in the population and, of course, the drain of human capital from the province, so Idlib really faces a lot of challenges, and the situation is only going to get worse. There’s the fear that, you know, there’s going to be another round of violence. So people in Idlib really live in constant fear, too, so yeah. This is– it’s a really very sad situation inside the province.

DD: Yeah, sounds like it. Thank you for all that. Let’s go back for a moment to the situation of Reema, who has managed to make her way to the United States, as we were talking at the beginning of this podcast, in search of security, stability, and, you know, this idea that the ability to gain security and opportunity is closely linked to the policies of the country of their resettlement. So in the case of Reema, the refugee whose story you outlined at the beginning of the podcast. She’s in the United States now, under temporary protected status, and the United States is on the verge of an election whose outcome will have a definite impact on her future and the future of her children because of the extremely divergent policies on immigration and refugees that our two candidates have who are in this year’s election. Can you give me a rundown of what the possible outcomes are for Reema depending on which party wins the election?

SA: Sure, sure. So, I mean, it’s not a secret that you know, the Trump administration policy, immigration policy, has been very detrimental to refugees and immigrants overall, whether Syrians or, you know, any other type of immigrants. What we’ve seen is the Trump administration repeatedly imposing restrictions on asylum seekers, on resettling refugees. So just to give you a quick number to give a sense of how restrictive this policy has been: This year, there has only been 18,000, refugees resettled as opposed to nearly 100,000 in 2016. In 2016 the U.S. resettled more than half the total refugees that had been resettled in the world. With the Trump Administration releasing a crackdown, I would say, on immigration and on asylum, now there’s even, you know, this executive order that requires immigrants and, you know, other asylees to provide proof of wealth for example, so that they wouldn’t need assistance from the government. The so-called Muslim ban, you know, has prevented many, many families from coming to the to the States and has caused, you know, separation between families. So one parent would be here, couldn’t bring the rest of the family.

Anyway, so, I think, you know, if Trump is re-elected, this is just going to continue, and I think the future of Reema and probably thousands of other refugees is really uncertain. In his campaign, Joe Biden is making a commitment that he wants to reverse these policies. He wants to revoke the so-called Muslim ban. He wants to provide, you know, safety and security, and kind of taking pride from the idea that the U.S. has always been a country of resettlement. So I think the outcome of the election will really have a great impact on hundreds, I think, of thousands of immigrants, and refugees, and asylum seekers, on their future, and, you know, this hope for some sense of security and stability.

DD: So, two different, two extremely different outcomes, depending on what happens in the next several months in the United States for Syrian refugee populations, and for Reema specifically, for sure. Well Sahar, that brings us to the end of our podcast today. Thank you very much for joining us. This has been Dina Dajani with my guest Sahar Atrache, talking about the policies and situation surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis. So, thank you so much.

SA: Thank you, Dina. Thank you for having me. Just one thing, you know, I would like to highlight is that people, when they hear about refugees they have, you know, a stereotype of refugees, you know, of being, you know, destitute, uneducated, live in tents. In my work, I need refugees on a regular basis, and I am amazed and I learn so much from the courage, from the bravery I see in people, and I just wish sometimes people can really see what I see when I meet with refugees. So I really would like to break the stereotype, and I hope that I was able to do this today.

DD: Sahar Atrache of Refugees International. Thank you. So much for joining me today. Your expertise in this area is impressive, and I really appreciate that final comment. I look forward to our future conversations. Thank you very much.

SA: Thank you.