Last week, the United Nations announced the new head count for Syrian refugees registered in the Middle East and North Africa: 1.5 million. The largest concentrations of these refugees lie in the border countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which host approximately 475,000, 470,000 and 400,000 Syrians, respectively. Those numbers are expected to climb past 1 million each if current trends continue. Government officials of host populations argue that these numbers are grave underestimations of the true strain in their countries, as many of the Syrians who fled remain unregistered.
While these stories deserve to be highlighted and demand immediate action, the spillover from Syria goes well beyond a few sensational stories. The war in Syria has dealt serious economic, political and social blows to its neighboring countries. To understand the larger effects of the conflict, we interviewed middle-class residents of Amman, Beirut and Istanbul to understand how the Syrian conflict is affecting their everyday lives.
Jordan’s economy continues to suffer a massive public debt crisis, which is exacerbated by hosting a growing number of Syrians. Jordanian officials estimate that hosting the refugees will cost about $1 billion per year, and the Kingdom is still struggling to receive pledged aid from various countries meant to alleviate these financial pressures. The critical resource of water continues to be scarce as Jordan tries to serve these Syrians with only limited assistance from the United Nations.
Well aware of this strain, one resident in Amman said that her country “is just not ready to host a lot of refugees. Even before they came, we are suffering shortages of water and electricity.” The woman, recently engaged, also explained the impossibility of finding a new home with her future husband thanks to wealthy Syrians buying out apartments and hiking up real estate prices. Moreover, she said, Syrians have taken over various job markets, with employers taking advantage of the lower wages refugees are willing to accept. Many Jordanians in the city are thus left with two options, she added: either they accept lower wages to stay competitive, or don’t – and struggle to feed their families.
Next door in Lebanon, prewar sectarian issues remain an issue. While the stress of refugees taxes the economy, the most volatile effect remains the political stress on an already vulnerable Lebanese system. When asked about the political ramification of the conflict, one Beirut resident said that he “feels trouble cooking for Lebanon” – especially as Hezbollah takes a greater role fighting in Syria. The Lebanese government continues to straddle a fine line between appeasing political blocs with strong allegiances to President Bashar al-Assad, and standing up to attacks in towns near the Syrian border.
While prices in Beirut have always been high and seem relatively stable, the country’s job market is also struggling with an inundation of Syrians willing to take lower wages, just like in Jordan. When reflecting on other aspects of his daily life impacted by the conflict, the Lebanese interviewee thought back to his daily commute. “Syrians are everywhere,” he groaned. “You feel it in the traffic every morning, and you can hear the Syrian accent from so many beggars on the side of the road.”
As it’s located further from Syria’s borders, the effects in Istanbul are more subtle and isolated. One resident explained that while she doesn’t necessarily feel insecure or afraid living in Istanbul, she has noticed that prices have risen and Syrian protests are more commonplace in the streets. Political pressure, she said, seems to have created some dissidence in the country, with Islamist-leaning Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a greater role in backing a largely Sunni-supported revolution. A bombing in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, which harbors thousands of Syrians, has triggered a new wave of dissidents protesting Turkish involvement in Syria. A clash is emerging between civilians wanting Turkey to be involved in the conflict and those who do not.