Palestinian refugees in Al-Nayrab camp, Syria, 1950 Palestinian refugees in Al-Nayrab camp, Syria, 1950 Photo credit: Palestine Remembered
Refugees, host states and displacement in the Middle East: an enduring challenge
by Ben White, Simone Haysom and Eleanor Davey November 2013

With over two million Syrians seeking safety in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, highly political issues of citizenship, the role of the state and the status and entitlements of non-nationals are pressing questions for a large and rapidly growing number of people. The refugee crisis – one element of a larger displacement crisis affecting nearly 80% of the estimated 8.7m Syrians deemed to be in a situation of humanitarian need+This combines those inside Syria and refugees in neighbouring states and North Africa. Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2013). Humanitarian Bulletin: Syria, Issue 32, 13 – 26 August 2013. – is massive and affects the entire region. It is unlikely that the war in Syria will end soon, and when it does it is implausible that refugees will immediately return to an unstable country ravaged by conflict. The Syrian refugee crisis will be a serious long-term challenge to the humanitarian system.

In such a situation, a comprehensive understanding of context is crucial. In this article we argue that contextual analysis, which must of course encompass the current political situation and economic environment in affected countries, should not only focus on the present. By looking at the major challenges in Jordan and Lebanon – revolving around the value and utility of camps and how to approach assistance for self-settled populations – we explore past episodes of displacement in the region to bring a historical perspective to the current crisis.

The challenges facing the response

Although neither country is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Jordan and Lebanon host the largest populations of Syrian refugees: around 550,000 and 800,000 respectively, as of mid-October 2013. International funding for the crisis is low in relation to the level of need (in contrast to the Iraqi refugee crisis), and host states have limited resources to fund a response. In Jordan and Lebanon only a small proportion of refugees are in camps: the majority have settled in towns and cities. Approaches to assisting displaced populations outside camps are not well developed, or have not yet been implemented at scale.

The need for camps to house Syrian refugees in Jordan (where there is one, Zaatari Camp, with another being prepared) and in Lebanon (where there are none) has been a source of debate in the sector. Over the last decade, especially as the global proportion of refugees in camps has declined, camps have been increasingly criticised as restricting the development of refugees’ skills, entrenching divisions between refugees and locals and diminishing the possibilities for self-sufficiency. Advocates maintain that, while these criticisms may be justified, camps are often unavoidable because governments insist on them or, as in Jordan and Lebanon, the numbers require it and the conditions of off-camp populations are worse.+Elizabeth Ferris, The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis: Five Uncomfortable Questions for the International Community, Brookings Institution blog post, 8 July 2012,

Whatever the merits or otherwise of camps, the majority of Syrian refugees are dispersed in cities, towns and villages. A consistent concern – and criticism – has been the inability or unwillingness of humanitarian actors to deal with refugees outside of Zaatari Camp (in Jordan), or to provide effective support to both refugees and host communities (primarily in Lebanon). Often refugees are housed in squalid conditions or areas where they feel at risk due to local resentment. Agencies are struggling to reach these refugees and profile their needs, let alone provide for them. Although there is some experience within the formal humanitarian system of helping refugees gain access to public services and promoting their selfsufficiency, there is no consolidated body of knowledge or operational approaches on these topics.

In this context humanitarians need inspiration to help them develop innovative programming; help in understanding the possible consequences of their actions, including potentially negative consequences, particularly in Lebanon where the refugee crisis raises the risk of internal conflict; and arguments to motivate other actors in the international community – particularly development actors – to take on a role in responding to the refugee crisis. In this regard, we offer some examples of how previous displacement crises have played out in the region, looking at the issue of camps and the long-term impact of self-settled refugee populations. This analysis bolsters arguments in favour of approaches that avoid marginalising refugees, provides insight into processes of integration and the contributions of displaced communities to local development and highlights the pitfalls of favouring refugees above needy local communities in the provision of assistance.


Lebanon has refused to set up new camps for Syrian refugees. Despite initial reluctance, the Jordanian government eventually established Zaatari Camp in July 2012, which now has a population of 150,000, and earlier this year authorised the opening of another camp at Al-Azraq. For good historical reasons many Syrians approach camp life with trepidation. Uprooted Syrians have lived their lives in close proximity to generations of Palestinian refugees since 1948. For Syrians informed by the Palestinian experience camps may represent permanent exile, exclusion from the host society and physical danger. States too are wary of setting up camps on their soil. When Palestinian refugees housed in camps started to organise themselves politically in the 1960s, their aims and aspirations clashed with those of host governments, and ultimately threatened their sovereignty. The camps, where refugees lived in isolation from their host societies and exclusion from their political institutions, became fiefdoms of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and it was difficult or impossible for host governments to control them – even when militants launched attacks across the border on Israel and the occupied territories. In its conflict with the PLO, Israel did not hesitate to target the states hosting it. In Jordan this process led to the expulsion of the PLO leadership, after a short but bitter conflict in 1970, to Lebanon – where the same process contributed to the outbreak of a 15-year civil war. It is little wonder that Jordan is uneasy about placing Syrians in camps, and Lebanon positively allergic to doing so.

Self-settled populations and ‘host’ communities

Given that the majority of refugees will remain outside camps, it is worth examining what this means for the communities they have settled amongst. The concentration of Syrian refugees in areas along the border and in certain towns is placing strains on services such as schooling and housing. Schools in parts of Lebanon and Jordan are resorting to double shifts to cope; rents in parts of Jordan rose 300% in the six months before April 2013.+T. Luck, ‘In Jordan, Tensions Rise Between Syrian Refugees and Host Community’, Washington Post, 21 April 2013, In Jordan, one of the most water-poor countries on earth, these populations also draw on state-subsidised water and electricity. Workers in both countries complain that Syrians have driven down wages – and Syrians complain that they are exploited by employers.+T. Luck, Too Close for Comfort: Syrians in Lebanon (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2013). All of these problems are expected to worsen: there is no end in sight to the conflict, no prospect of mass return – and refugee numbers are still growing. The burden on host states, host communities and refugees themselves will therefore grow heavier.

Displaced populations in the Middle East have often been able to draw on resources that are inaccessible to host populations. In the decades from 1860 to 1914, the Ottoman Empire provided land, tax concessions and agricultural development assistance to resettle millions of Muslim refugees from the Caucasus and the Balkans. In Syria after the First World War, under the French mandate, Armenian refugee camps around Aleppo were developed into middle-class quarters that had levels of municipal services – electricity and sanitation – well beyond what was provided in other parts of the city. In the 1930s, when Assyrian Christian refugees from Iraq were resettled in Syria under the aegis of the League of Nations, they received development assistance for their agricultural settlements. Here too services were far above the level available to most Syrian villages at the time, with a number of schools and a hospital built for the refugees.

Assistance given to refugees had long-term consequences for their integration into host societies, and for the economic and political development of host states. Assistance could create resentment against refugees, especially when the host society was also suffering from deprivation or political tension, as after the First World War. There were anti-Armenian riots in Aleppo in 1919, and refugee camps in Damascus were attacked during the anti-French uprising of 1925. This highlights a particular risk: when assistance to refugees is perceived as being a kind of favouritism provided by external actors, or coming at the cost of local taxpayers, tensions can quickly rise. Nationalist newspapers published many hostile articles against the settlement of refugees. This same phenomenon was also noticeable in Amman in the early years of the last Iraqi refugee crisis, when resentment grew towards refugees and the NGOs providing services to them in areas where the people they lived amongst were equally or more needy, yet were mostly not eligible for assistance.+See Sara Pavanello and Simone Haysom, Sanctuary in the City: Urban Displacement and Vulnerability in Amman, HPG Working Paper, March 2012. Similar points were being made about Syrian refugees in the Jordanian parliament in the spring of this year.

In the longer term, the Syrian case in the twentieth century holds mixed lessons about the integration of refugees. Armenians living in Syrian cities generally became well integrated, though in the current conflict they are, like all Syrians, vulnerable. In rural north-eastern Syria, where Kurdish and Christian refugees formed a local majority, tensions were longer-lasting. Their settlement in the region led to agricultural development there that made it an integral part of the Syrian national economy. But the fact that Arabs were outnumbered in the area made the central government suspicious, and in the early 1960s it took steps to ‘Arabise’ it, encouraging Arabs to migrate there and using a local census to strip many Kurds of their nationality. (At the outset of the current conflict, many Syrian Kurds remained stateless.)

More generally, in the Middle East, as in Europe, assistance given to refugees helped define the services that states were expected to provide to their own populations. When foreign actors – whether the French mandatory authorities or humanitarian agencies operating through the League of Nations – offered refugees more than host societies received from their own state, host societies began to demand similar services. This pattern is likely to continue in the current crisis.


The Syrian displacement crisis and its response involve political, social and economic issues with deep historical resonance. The few examples cited above illustrate that the region has a long history of absorbing and integrating, as well as marginalising and expelling, displaced groups. The fact that past experiences often determine contemporary responses is widely recognised but rarely leads to substantial engagement with relevant analysis. Yet this need not be the case. When humanitarian agencies identify gaps in their knowledge, they can guide historians to do the research that will fill them. While resources in emergencies are always limited, in terms of both finances and time available, an investment in understanding past experience should be considered essential by anyone wishing to develop effective responses to the needs of people affected by conflict.

Ben White is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Simone Haysom and Eleanor Davey are Research Officers with the Humanitarian Policy Group.

This article draws on a roundtable held at the Overseas Development Institute on 30 July 2013 entitled ‘Refugees and States in the Modern Middle East: What Historical Perspectives Can Offer Current Challenges’. The roundtable, organised in collaboration with the Saving Humans initiative at the University of Birmingham (, is part of the ongoing HPG research project ‘A global history of modern humanitarian action’.