Support for Refugees Erodes in the Middle East

In the days leading up to Turkey’s run-off presidential elections, opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu abandoned his message of hope and change as he sought to dislodge President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan after more than two decades in office. Instead, he claimed that his opponent had allowed 10 million refugees in the country—a number that is multiple times most estimates—and would allow 20 million more to come. He vowed to expel all Syrians within two years, and his team put up posters and distributing flyers stating, “Refugees will return home.” Even though it was unsuccessful, his sudden and stark change in tactics revealed the depth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey.

Support for refugees is eroding in the Middle East. Growing fatigue with protracted displacement and biting economic crises are stoking hostility to migrants, and the calming effects of international aid are diminishing. The conflict in Ukraine and other new crises are prompting donors to reduce funding for refugees experiencing protracted displacement, leading to the largest shortfalls for international refugee responses to date. As the pressure rises for displaced populations in the Middle East, international actors need to develop more innovative solutions to help ease the burden on host communities, provide shelter to those fleeing violence or persecution, and cool anti-migrant hostility.

Host communities are growing tired of hosting refugees in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). For centuries, diverse communities of displaced migrants from within and without the region have found refuge in MENA states. But millions of displaced people across the MENA region are now stuck in limbo. Most refugees have no prospect of returning to their homes, integrating into host communities, or being resettled in a third country. A recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees survey found that just 1.1 percent of Syrians had an intention to return to Syria in the coming year. Their displacement is also longer than ever before: The average displacement of a refugee is now two decades, and it is more than a decade for internally displaced people (IDPs). The prospect of peace agreements solving the problem is slim, as the UN Security Council is growing more polarized. And new pressures are making things worse. At the end of 2022, drought conditions in southern Iraq pushed more than 10,000 people from their homes. And with the outbreak of fighting in Sudan, hundreds of thousands of refugees are expected to flee to Egypt and other neighboring countries.

MENA states’ strategies of managing these migrants have evolved over time, varying between full integration as citizens and exclusion, limiting their access to state services. When more than a million Syrians sought refuge in Jordan after the outbreak of conflict in 2011, Jordan linked hosting Syrian refugees with its development goals and secured international development aid. However, Jordan has denied access to state services or UN aid to other nationalities of refugees that gain less international attention, such as Sudanese and Somalis. Many MENA states now manage refugees based on the priorities of international aid regimes, rather than their needs. That strategy is coming under pressure, as states are receiving less international support for hosting refugees and economic crises bite.

Decades of humanitarian operations in the Middle East have exhausted international donors, and they are scaling back their support in the region amid newer crises, such as the war in Ukraine. In 2022, the United Nations’ regional response for Syrian refugees had the largest funding shortfall to date, receiving just $2.4 billion out of a total request of more than $6 billion. In late 2022, the UN refugee agency had to cut cash assistance programs for 1.7 million displaced people in Lebanon, Jordan, and Yemen.

At the same time, economic crises are straining countries that host refugees. Since 2019 the Lebanese lira has lost as much as 98 percent of its value and three quarters of its population have fallen into poverty. Prices of basic goods and services in Turkey increased by 105.19 percent over the past year, and economists warn that Turkey could face macroeconomic instability in the months ahead. And in Egypt, the economic crisis is growing as the government fails to complete the conditions of the International Monetary Fund’s loan agreement and struggle to find support from elsewhere.

As the scale and duration of displacement grows, external support dwindles, and conditions in host states deteriorate, displaced people are growing increasingly desperate. After five years of decline, the number of individuals crossing the Mediterranean to Europe began to increase once again in 2021 and 2022. These crossings also have become more deadly.

Leaders across the MENA region are fanning the flames of anti-migrant hostility. President Kais Saied of Tunisia delivered a populist speech at the end of February, in which he argued that migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were part of a plan to change Tunisia’s demographic composition. His scapegoating of migrants was an attempt to distract from Tunisia’s growing economic crisis and his government’s failures since his power grab in 2021. Meanwhile, after more than a decade of showing remarkable hospitality to Syrian refugees, Lebanese authorities have increased their calls for Syrians to be deported in recent months. The head of the Maronite Church used his Easter service address to call on the international community to help deport Syrians. As regional states normalize relations with Bashar al-Assad, calls for Syrian refugees to return home are growing stronger.

To support refugees in this transforming environment, donors and humanitarians should be careful to adhere to the principle of “do no harm.” If their interventions appear to prioritize the needs of refugees over individuals from host communities who are also in need due to their own crises, they could end up fueling anti-refugee sentiment. Such sentiments have risen sharply in Lebanon since the onset of its crisis in 2019. Lebanese leaders are very sensitive to any programs that they perceive to provide extra support to Syrians. In order to reduce these tensions, donors should link development and aid more closely. They should also ensure that they are providing support for host communities and refugees according to need rather than nationality, which requires comprehensive needs assessments for all populations.

Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

Lebanese women hold placards calling for the expulsion of Syrian refugees from Lebanon.

Photo: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

International actors should also develop more innovative strategies. Absent political will to resettle large numbers of refugees from the Middle East to Western states, donors can still help facilitate resettlement to other countries. Some African states welcomed Afghan refugees in the final days of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, motivated by a sense of moral responsibility, echoes of historical national traumas, and geopolitical opportunism. The United States and other donor governments should capitalize on other states’ willingness to provide shelter for displaced populations by providing greater support to the host nations, in tandem with increasing their own commitments to resettle refugees.

Policymakers will also need to fine-tune their livelihoods interventions for displaced individuals in the MENA region. They will need to engage with a broader range of stakeholders, including international companies, local entrepreneurs, and those working in the tech sector. Technological advances are creating new opportunities to think creatively about work for people on the move, and the phenomenon of remote work in Western countries could hint at solutions, allowing displaced individuals to utilize their skills and earn a living no matter where they live. Up until now, most refugees with marketable, globally relevant skills in the MENA region struggle to access remote work opportunities within their host communities or through telework. With an understanding of the specific obstacles of the environments in which displaced populations live, international actors can unlock these opportunities to provide work for those on the move and help rebuild support for displaced populations in the region.

Will Todman is senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.