Sunday, June 17, 2007
Impact of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees on Syria
A recent report by the Brookings Institution paints a harrowing picture of life in Syria for Iraqi refugees and assesses their impact on the Syrian population and economy.
When will the Arabs admit that traditional "Arab hospitality" begins to wear off after 3 days? By giving shelter and support to destitute Iraqi families, the Syrian government has acted honourably. The government should now demand financial compensation and other material and logistical support from the "coalition of the willing*"; all those governments that supported the invasion of Iraq to curry favour with the Bush Administration. On reflection, perhaps not, it would be like asking a bunch of street prostitutes to donate a part of their meagre earnings to a good cause.
* Coalition of the willing: The governments of the UK, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Spain, Denmark, El Salvador, Slovakia, Latvia, Netherlands, Thailand, Australia, Hungary, Kazkhstan and Romania which acted against the wishes of their own people.
The following is an excerpt from the report:
"Syria is not a rich country, and the sudden arrival of such a large number of refugees can only have had considerable impact on the country – especially when coupled with the arrival of Lebanese refugees fleeing the Israeli onslaught of the summer of 2006.
Ordinary Syrians routinely say they believe there are between three and six million Iraqis in their country, which reflects the perceived impact that the Iraqi refugees have had on everyday life in Syria. In everyday conversations, Syrians complain bitterly of the rise in prices, rents and crime. The prices that have risen have been mainly groceries (but not staples like bread), transportation and rents. The base charge for taxis in Damascus has recently risen from 3 SL to 4 SL. Rents, as mentioned above, seem to have increased dramatically – though it is difficult to get a solid quantitative handle on the progression. What is certain is that the issue of rent prices is an emotional issue for Iraqis and Syrians alike. The former complain of what the latter charge, and the latter complain of what the former are willing to pay.
At the same time, the presence of so many Iraqis desperate for work undermines Syrians working in the informal and even the formal market. For instance, people report that an Iraqi laborer will work for a smaller daily wage than a Syrian laborer. But this overlooks the fact that Syria was struggling with many of these issues beforehand, and might well have had to face inflation, pressure in the housing market and downward pressure on wages – even without the presence of the Iraqi refugees. At the same time, the presence of the Iraqi refugees has clearly contributed cash to the Syrian economy, and the cross-border trade to Iraq, driven mostly by Iraqis, has opened new markets for Syrian goods. All this is difficult to quantify in the absence of strong data, but it is safe to say that the economic impact of the Iraqi refugees has probably not been all negative. While the overall impact on Syria’s economic infrastructure is hard to gauge, the Syrian government asserts that the refugee influx has drastically increased the demand for state subsidized goods and services, placing significant stress on national finances.
According to a paper presented to a recent international conference on Iraqi refugees by the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Iraqi refugees markedly increased Syria’s domestic consumption of subsidized goods in 2006. The demand for bread rose 35 percent, costing the state $34 million; the demand for subsidized energy spiked, including electricity (27 percent), diesel (17 percent) and cooking gas (11 percent); the demand for potable water rose 21 percent, which at 125 liters per capita cost the state almost $7 million. Although there have been questions raised as to the accuracy of these figures, they clearly represent the magnitude of the Syrian state’s perceived burden. However, while Iraqi refugees have certainly drawn on subsidized goods, the added pressure has not shown signs of destabilizing Syria’s budget. According to the International Monetary Fund, Syrian expenditures on subsidies as a percentage of GDP have remained steady over the last five years.
The Syrian government also claims that the Iraqi refugees are a drain public services. In terms of education, for instance, the Ministry estimates that each Iraqi child costs the budget 30,000 LS ($600) per year. That means that the estimated 30,000 enrolled Iraqi children (as noted above, a low rate of enrolment) cost Syria $18 million. One area that is deteriorating is clearly that of relations between Syrians and Iraqi refugees and mutual perceptions between them. Syrians see Iraqis as arrogant, rough, ill-mannered and hold them responsible for the (perceived) increase in crime. They resent them for ‘taking over’ local neighborhoods. And the predominantly Sunni Syrians fear the influx of Iraqi Shi‘a. Iraqis see Syrians as greedy and corrupt. What is distressing is that, according to conversations with both Syrians and Iraqis, feelings were not so hard two years or even one year ago. The explanation probably lies with the on-going influx of Iraqis, the fact that the newcomers are increasingly poor (and therefore visible), and that the refugees who have been in Syria for a while are beginning to run out of resources. But it is still striking to note that many Syrians continue to give credit to their government for living up to its pronouncements on Arab unity (qawmiyya) and solidarity, even though that notion has been badly battered over the last few decades. And many Iraqis still acknowledge that Syria is the country in the region where they are best treated."