Understanding the Numbers: The Lives of Syrian Refugees

By Jeffrey H. Cohen

The life of a refugee is not easy. At least 6.6 million Syrians had been internally displaced, and nearly 5 million Syrians have fled their homeland. Yet these facts tell us little about what they are doing.

Khaled Habib moved from his hometown of Hama, Syria to Kalamoun, Lebanon in 2011 to escape the violence and destruction brought by the Syrian civil war. He was interviewed in 2013 for a special report by Kevin Sullivan and the Washington Post on Syrian refugees.1 Habib described his family’s downward spiral noting the violence in and around the city that forced him to leave the technical school training program he attended as well as the farming life he led. The violence grew so severe that he and his family fled their home and left their middle class life. Habib and his family traveled first to Balamand, Lebanon to escape the violence that had consumed Hama. Later, they continued onto Kalamoun where they were able to find housing. Habib settled with his family, married and began a family of his own with his wife. The couple and Habib’s family coped with the limited resources in Kalamoun as best as they could. They feared that they might lose the housing they had found in an abandoned mall and struggled daily to find work. With few signs of peace on the horizon, Habib and his family make do but fear that they may not be able to cover their expenses including rent, heat and food.

Khaled Habib’s story and his family’s experiences should not be a surprise. The life of a refugee is not easy as I document in The Cultures of Migration.2 Insecurities and violence are important forces that drive refugees to make decisions in situations that are difficult at best. Surrounded by violence that threatens survival and limits the ability to meet such basic needs as food and shelter, people often chose to leave their homes in search of the tranquility they have lost. And while most people will elect to relocate within their country of origin; for others, the decision to leave and exit their nation though difficult and expensive is the only choice left.

Many Syrians find themselves in just this predicament and must choose between relocation and exit. At least 6.6 million Syrians had been internally displaced by December 2015 according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).3 These are people who have chosen to wait out the war, who cannot afford the high costs of leaving and who hold out hope that the fighting will end and that peace will return to the region in the near future.

At least 6.6 million Syrians had been internally displaced by December 2015 according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

There is another group of Syrians who seek security outside of the country and these are the refugees that have captured our attention. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) identified nearly 5 million Syrians who have fled their homeland.4 The majority are settled in Turkey (2.7 million) and in particular the south of the country, Lebanon (1+ million) and Jordan (651,114) with smaller groups in Iraq (250,000), Egypt (120,000) and Libya (30,000). Less than 10% of the Syrian refugees or 494,308 are living in formal camps in Jordan including the Za’atari camp opened in 2012 and Azraq opened in 2014. In Europe, Germany is home to nearly 500,000 refugees. Greece, Macedonia and Serbia also house many Syrians fleeing their homeland.5

The numbers tell us where the Syrian refugees are and we have a clear sense of the extreme violence they are fleeing,6 yet these facts tell us little about what they are doing.

More than half of the Syrian refugees who have fled their homeland are under 18 years of age and what they aren’t doing – going to school – is more obvious than what they are doing.7 These children, described by the press as the “lost generation”, have swapped one form of insecurity, the insecurity created by the violence of the Syrian war, for another as they settle with their families in destinations with few resources and limited access to education.8 Schooling for refugee children is complicated by several factors.9 The number of children who need access to classrooms makes it difficult to find space in normally overcrowded schools in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In the camps, where efforts are being made to accommodate more children, access is challenged by timing. Refugee children may not be present as a school year begins or a child’s arrival may be delayed by the months or years away from the classroom as a family escapes violence, creating a gap in learning and a chance to forget what has already been taught. Further complicating access are illiteracy, gender inequality and the pull of labour force participation for boys and young men.10 Many children join the work-force and forsake their education for the opportunity to support their families. Young girls can find themselves assigned to housework with a mother or relative and given little time for school. Even those children who do attend school can find it challenging. IRIN news notes that Lebanese schools rely on English or French when teaching math and science, a language that few Syrians can manage.11 Finally, there are few programs to help students cope with the physical and mental horrors that come with their situation. Writing in October 2015, Sirin and Rogers-Sirin note that 79% of Syrian refugee children have experienced a death in their family, 60% had seen some one physically hurt, 30% had been hurt and over 50% showed symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Teachers, regardless of their nationality, are not prepared to deal with these challenges or cope with their expression in the classroom.12  

Even the highly-skilled, those with university backgrounds, medical degrees and advanced training, are typically forced to find work as day-labourers and in the informal or “grey” economy.

For adults, the situation they face is no less complex. In a 2013 study of refugee mental health conducted with 8,000 Syrians by Leah James, Annie Sovcik, Ferdinand Garoff and Reem Abbasi found that 15.1% of the group were afraid, 28.4% were angry and unable to calm down, 26.3% felt hopeless and 18.8% felt unable to carry out essential activities.13 Combined with a fear of the unknown and the real as well as imagined differences that divide populations, it is no surprise that many adult refugees are not well and that demand far outpaces available programs.14

Country specific regulations limit opportunities for refugees to settle and find work. Though regulations are changing, refugees have limited rights to work in most countries. At least 70% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are living below the poverty line and earning no more than $3.84 a day.15 Describing his situation for a December 2012 interview with IRIN news, Jaffan, a 23 year-old father of three from Damascus stated, In October [2012] we had work for about five days in total. Last month [November 2012], I only worked one day.16  

Even the highly-skilled, those with university backgrounds, medical degrees and advanced training, are typically forced to find work as day-labourers and in the informal or “grey” economy. Taufic, also interviewed in 2012 by IRIN news noted, I’m working as an electrician to make US$200 a month despite my degree in veterinary science, yet in Syria, he worked as a vet at a private clinic. Many refugees chose to work in secret and in the hopes of avoiding the gaze of the police.  

For Syrians who have settled in Turkey, the situation is complex. The Guardian notes that less than 0.1% of the Syrians in Turkey have access to work permits.17 In response, many bypass programs that include temporary asylum and shelter in a camp to find informal work. For many of these men, their choice makes them an easy target for abuse including wages that are typically less than half of what is paid to a native.18 Yet, the men see few alternatives as they work to support families and cover the costs of living.

The situation may change for the better as educational programs open for refugee children and work programs open for adults. Educational opportunities are growing around programs that are tailored to delivering vocational training,19 scholarship20 and higher education21 to refugee children. One program at the Za’atari refugee camp has established a collaboration between the Jordanian Ministry of Education, UNICEF, a series of NGOs and teachers. The program was aimed at helping some of the most vulnerable children at the camp learn and regain the competencies they had lost.22

Programs to develop resources and create opportunities for Syrian refugees hold some promise yet the problem is far from resolved.

For adults, the challenges remain, but there are new programs and new opportunities. A trade deal struck between the EU and Jordan includes a plan to employ up to 200,000 Syrian refugees. The deal will shift programming away from the vouchers that refugees use to cover expenses and create jobs in their place.23 The jobs are largely unskilled and pay low wage and centre in labour-intensive sectors including construction. Furthermore, the jobs will likely take years to create. Nevertheless, the International Labor Organization(ILO) has prepared $10 million worth of projects including work in factories.24 Turkey also hopes to reform labour practices and open opportunities for Syrian refugees.25

Programs to develop resources and create opportunities for Syrian refugees hold some promise yet the problem is far from resolved. Right-wing and nationalists leaders in Europe as well as many politicians in the US fear refugees will overwhelm their nations and potentially spark terror; and while the recently brokered cease-fire continues to hold Syria’s civil war shows no signs of ending.26 In this unstable and complex milieu, refugees struggle to meet the challenges of everyday life. Victims of a war and violence that they likely had little to no role in, the families who have fled Syria struggle to make ends meet.

Featured image courtesy of: Travel Aficionado

About the Author

cohen-webJeffrey H. Cohen is a professor of anthropology at the Ohio State University.  His research on migration, remittances and economic development is supported by the National Science Foundation, Russell Sage, National Geographic, the Fulbright program and TUBITAK, the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. His books include Cultures of MigC&msration: the Global Nature of Contemporary Mobility named an Outstanding Academic Title by Choice Reviews and most recently Eating Soup without a Spoon: Anthropological Theory and Method in the Real World. He is co-editor of Global Remittance Practices and Migration during the Economic Crisis and Beyond published by the World Bank.

1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/syrian-refugees/2013/12/02/downwardly-mobile/. Khaled Habib’s story is one of 18 documented in the series, Refuge, by Kevin Sullivan and photographer Linda Davidson. For the full series, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/syrian-refugees/story/refuge/.
2. Jeffrey H. Cohen and Ibrahim Sirkeci (2011). The Cultures of Migration: the global nature of contemporary mobility. Austin: University of Texas Press (http://utpress.utexas.edu/index.php/books/cohmig) and see Tahir Zaman (2016) Islamic Traditions of Refuge in the Crises of Iraq and Syria. New York: Palgrave.
3. http://www.internal-displacement.org/middle-east-and-north-africa/syria/.
4. http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php.
5. While there is a fear that Syrian refugees will overwhelm Europe and certainly there are many Syrians who hope to arrive in Germany, only about 10% of the Syrians displaced by the war are making the risking trip to Europe. See http://qz.com/567469/germany-is-taking-in-more-refugees-in-2015-than-the-us-has-in-the-past-10-years/ and https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis as well as Riley M. Townsend (2015). The European Migrant Crisis. Lulu Press for details on the numbers of migrants and refugees moving through Europe as well as the reactions of the leadership of many key countries in the region.
6. For a discussion of where Syrian refugees are, see “where have 4.8 million Syrian refugees gone?” in The Conversation at https://theconversation.com/where-have-4-8-million-syrian-refugees-gone-57968
7. The World Bank notes that about 20% of the refugees are not only under 18 years of age but no more than 4 years of age, see: http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2015/12/16/welfare-syrian
8. https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria-turkey/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis and http://www.irinnews.org/report/96053/lebanon-syria-no-school-today-why-syrian-refugee-children-miss-out-education
9. For a good overview of the challenges facing educational programing in Syria and among Syrian refugees as well as some potential reforms, see Joseph O’Rourke (2014/2015) “Education for Syrian Refugees: The Failure of Second-Generation Human Rights During Extraordinary Crises.” Albany Law Review, volume 78.
10. See Ebru Caglayan (2016). “Education Inequalities and Human Capital Formation in MENA Region” in Comparative Political and Economic Perspectives on the MENA Region. M. Mustafa Erdoğdu and Bryan Christiansen, editors. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
11. http://www.irinnews.org/report/96053lebanon-syria-no-school-today-why-
12. Selcuk R. Sirin and Lauren Rogers-Sirin (2015). The Educational and Mental Health Needs of Syrian Refugee Children. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.
13. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/educational-and-
14. See the summary at http://www.fmreview.org/syria/james-sovcik-garoff-abbasi.html#_edn1
15. And the full report by the International Medical Corps, World Health Organization, Jordan Ministry of Health and EMPHNET (July 2013) Assessment of Mental Health and Psychosocial Needs of Displaced Syrians in Jordan http://tinyurl.com/MHPSS-syrians-in-jordan-2013
16. http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news-stories/voice-field/we-spend-
17. http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/lebanon-syria-refugees-jobs-554259285
18. http://www.irinnews.org/report/97113/lebanon-meagre-job-prospects-syrian-
19. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/11/fewer-than-01-of-syrians-in-
20. http://www.irinnews.org/report/97125/turkey-syrian-refugees-choosing-work
21. http://www.spark-online.org/projects/higher-education-for-syrians-hes/
22. http://www.iie.org/en/Programs/Syria-Scholarships/For-Students/Additional
23. http://floriangeerken.com/?p=34
24. To access the full report visit: http://www.syrialearning.org/resource/20517
25. http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/jordan-to-allow-200000-syrians
26. http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—arabstates/—ro-beirut/documents/publication/wcms_422478.pdf
27. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-turkey-
28. http://www.npr.org/2016/05/17/478417180/top-diplomats-work-to-revive-

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.