Refugees’ Survival, Stress, and Seeking a Home - Full Text Summary

The real stresses that often plague refugees-host community relations reflect the large numbers of refugees, the longevity of their stays, and often delicate local economic conditions, AUB Beirut-New York City seminar concludes.

BEIRUT and NEW YORK CITY: Syrian refugees across the Middle East and Europe face a wide variety of life conditions, stresses, and constraints, though much of what the public around the world hears about them is exaggerated and politically motivated. Four American, Arab and Italian scholars who research refugee conditions in Lebanon, Jordan, and Europe presented their findings during a roundtable seminar at the American University of Beirut’s New York City office recently.The research presented by scholars from AUB and the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies (BCARS) included field studies on family and gender dynamics, employment, access to healthcare, and tensions with local communities. 

In Lebanon alone, “there are 1.5 million refugees with at least a quarter of them living in poverty,” according to Dr. Rim Saab, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at AUB, who conducted a survey of Syrian refugees and their Lebanese host communities in the north of the country. Her research found that 90% of Lebanese surveyed fear that Syrian refugees in the country threaten their livelihoods. Economic competition, her study found, was a major source of tension between Lebanese citizens and Syrian refugees, for two reasons: refugees were thought to benefit disproportionately from humanitarian aid and also were seen as taking away jobs from Lebanese day labourers.

More troubling, perhaps, the Lebanese surveyed feared violence and criminality by Syrian refugees, specifically against women. Dr. Saab emphasized that such perceptions are largely created and disseminated by “politicians and media in an effort to perpetuate their own agendas.” Such stereotypes that label Syrians as dangerous have legitimized widespread discrimination towards the refugees throughout Lebanon, for she noted that, “Greater feelings of threat within Lebanon have translated into greater desires for restrictive policies towards refugees.  

Such restrictive policies and institutionalized barriers that Syrian refugees experience were also among the key findings by the other scholars in the briefing. Dr. Sawsan Abdulrahim, an Associate Professor and Chair at AUB’S Department of Health Promotion and Community Health, said that her research on female refugees clearly reveals the reinforcement of gender roles for women through increased social dependencies on men due to war and social upheaval. This includes phenomena like early marriage rates that have increased among Syrian refugees. She estimates from her fieldwork that “one quarter of Syrian refugee girls below the age of 18 are married, and 60% of them have already had at least one pregnancy.”  

The heightened social and economic strains that refugee families experience compel more parents to marry off their daughters for financial and social stability.  

Early marriage is also seen as a way of protecting women against rape and sexual harassment,” said Dr. Abdulrahim, “especially in the absence of civic protections from the country’s institutions. 

 To examine the state of refugees in Lebanon, researchers should understand the environment from which the Syrians flee, Dr. Abdulrahim noted. She emphasized that, “between 2006 and 2009, regional disparities of citizen well-being increased, especially in the most impoverished areas such as Aleppo, where pregnant women were consistently left without access to hospitals and were forced to give birth at home.”  

Her study showed that the education level of parents correlated with increased teenage pregnancy rates for subsequent generations. Before Syrian women experienced displacement from the civil war, they had already been experiencing a steady decline of access to education and health services. As Dr. Abdulrahim succinctly put it: “Displacement only exacerbated these pre-existing conditions.” 

 Dr. Denis J. Sullivan, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern University and the Director of BCARS, offered another view of the Syrian refugee crisis by exploring conditions in Jordan, one of the largest refugee hosts in the world. An estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees live in Jordan, alongside many more who are unregistered. Dr. Sullivan’s research examines why the Jordanian government announced up to 200,000 work permits for Syrian refugees – free of charge – and what impact this policy has had on Jordan’s economy and society. 

Jordan’s own population has the lowest labor market participation rate in the world, with just 38% of the working-age population in Jordan employed. His findings illustrate how difficult it has been for the Jordanian government, “to convince Syrians to leave their informal private sector jobs in order to pursue legal work.”  

The refugees’ primary fear is the loss of the benefits they get as registered refugees, though the UNHCR has stated that their status would be maintained even if they worked legally. As of April 2018, only 100,000 work permits had been distributed to Syrian refugees. 

Alice Verticelli, BCARS Scholar Advisory Board Member and Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Northeastern University, carried the discussion to the European Union, where she has researched refugee conditions. Her findings showed that the, “EU’s infrastructure was resilient enough to accommodate more refugees than it did.”  

She noted that 86% of the world’s refugees reside in low- to middle-income countries rather than in wealthy ones. Her research also identified many of the same barriers that Dr. Saab’s work found in the lives of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. 

“The Syrian refugee crisis has been used as a tool by politicians to unify the European Union,” she concluded, “by promoting the common perception of Syrian refugees as a threat.”