Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Refugees from the Syrian conflict: characteristics and prospects

In the wake of the conflict in Syria, millions of people have fled for their lives, mainly to the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, while some refugees have settled in Europe, notably in Germany. This column outlines the characteristics of these populations – in terms of their education, employment and reception by host communities – which are key determinants of the prospects for social integration.

In a nutshell

The labour market performance of Syrian refugees is generally poor, with low labour force participation rates and high unemployment rates because of a lack of job opportunities and the difficulties of obtaining work permits.

Host communities’ perceptions of Syrian refugees have become negative in many cases, reducing the potential for social integration.

Syrian refugees in Germany are relatively young and more educated, unlike in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey – nonetheless, most of them are economically inactive.

In 2011, a series of pro-democracy uprising erupted in several Arab countries, including Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The outcome for Libya and Syria turned deadly, setting the stage for civil wars and paving the way for terrorist groups, mainly ISIS, to control parts of these countries. ISIS also expanded its territorial control into Iraq, capturing populated cities such as Mosul. In Yemen, political competition between the Houthi movement and the government has turned into a bloody civil war.

The outcome of these conflicts is devastating: hundreds of thousands have been killed and millions have become refugees. Syria has suffered the most, with the conflict generating a massive forced migration. By the end of 2017, about 6.4 million Syrians had fled for their lives to neighbouring countries, mainly to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Some Syrian refugees have settled in Europe, mainly in Germany.

The conflicts in the other Arab countries have also caused a large scale forced migration, although unlike in Syria, most of them are internally displaced.

While mass repatriation at this stage remains premature for all four war-torn countries, the current situation dictates that we recognise and unpack the issue of repatriation in all of its dimensions, so that if and when the time comes, informed actions can be taken (FEMISE-ERF, 2019).

An important prerequisite for that discussion is to understand the demographic and socio-economic characteristics of the refugees. These (and the extent of social integration in their host countries) are key determinants in the decision-making processes of refugees to repatriate. Here, we limit the discussion of these aspects to Syrian refugees as they make up most of the refugees from the conflict countries.

Syrian refugees in Jordan

According to the Jordanian population census of 2015, the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan is 1.3 million. About half of them are refugees registered with the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Close to half of Syrian refugees in Jordan are children and the youth cohort (those between 15 and 29) is disproportionately female. In terms of education attainment, most of the Syrian refugees are poorly educated, having not completed secondary education.

The labour market performance of Syrian refugees is poor too. The most recent data show a low labour force participation rate: 22%, of which the majority is male. But they have experienced difficulties in finding employment, with an unemployment rate of 22%.

Those fortunate enough to be employed mostly work in the informal sector with lower earnings compared with Jordanians or economic migrants with similar education and experience. With poor attachment with the labour market, about 86% of Syrian refugees live below the Jordanian poverty line, forcing them to depend on direct support, cash or in kind, to secure their basic living needs.

As the conflict broke out and Syrians started to flee, a welcoming sentiment defined the relationship with the Jordanians. But tension started to mount as the conflict persisted and the flow of refugees continued to accumulate. The main reason seems to be anxiety that Syrians are crowding out Jordanians in the labour market, as well as fears about competition for public resources.

These factors have probably lessened the likelihood of social integration. One testimony is a recent poll highlighting Jordanians’ perceptions about the nationality of their neighbours. The survey shows that two thirds of Jordanians prefer to have a Jordanian neighbour. Furthermore, most believe that the level of security in the neighbourhood would decrease with the influx of Syrian refugees.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon

According to UNHCR statistics from 2016, the estimated number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is about one million, which makes up about a quarter of Lebanon’s population. Recent UNHCR statistics, for 2018, also show that of all registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 81% are women and children. Syrian refugees in Lebanon are generally poorly educated, with the vast majority having only completed primary education.

In terms of attachment to the labour market, data on labour force participation and unemployment are lacking. But employed Syrian refugees often work in the informal sector, where the working conditions are characterised as exploitative with low wages relative to those earned by the locals. Consistently, statistics show that 69% of the Syrian refugee households are below the poverty line. In particular, financial challenges have forced refugees to reduce their housing expenses by shifting toward non-residential structures.

Lebanese perceptions of Syrian refugees are generally negative. For example, Alsharabati and Nammour (2015) show that 46% of Lebanese recruiters are not willing to hire Syrian refugees, while 28% indicate that they would, 18% indicate that they might hire Syrians and the rest are willing to hire Syrians if it saves them money. The majority of those who report that they would not hire Syrians (69%) justify their decision by saying that Syrian refugees take Lebanese jobs, while 21% indicate that they do not like working with Syrians, The rest are concerned with a lack of work permits.

Syrian refugees in Turkey

By the end of 2017, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey was 3.7 million. Most of the refugees are settled in host communities of major cities. To date, readily available official statistics on the demographics and socio-economic characteristics of Syrian refugees in Turkey are lacking. But data from Syrian Barometer 2017 (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2017) show that, as in Jordan and Lebanon, most refugees aged over five years old are less educated: about 80% have not completed secondary education.

In terms of attachment to the Turkish labour market, 58% of refugees older than 11 have joined the labour force. But many of them – 34% – are unemployed. While Syrians have been eligible for work permits since February 2016, the majority are employed in the informal sector, where deficiencies in Turkish language and barriers to obtaining work permits are key factors.

As of March 2018, only 40,000 workers had got work permits. Applying for work permits has to be done by employers and that application has to be renewed if workers change jobs. In addition, employers can apply for work permits only on condition that Syrian workers do not exceed 10% of the firm’s total workforce.

Turkish perceptions of Syrian refugees are profoundly negative. This will surely affect the nature and extent of integration within Turkish communities in the medium and long run. While the majority of Turkish citizens acknowledge that Syrian refugees are victims of war and persecutions, many regard them as burdensome, dangerous and beggars. In terms of the contribution of Syrian refugees to their host economy, most Turkish citizens perceive it to be small. The majority also think that Syrian refugees do not enrich their society’s culture and that they cannot live in peace with them.

In line with such attitudes, the majority also think that Syrian refugees should not have full access to Turkey’s formal labour market. Another aspect of that measures the extent of potential social integration in Turkey is citizens’ opinion on the legal status of Syrian refugees. The majority are against granting them full citizenship or political rights. Consistently, many Turkish citizens think that Syrian refugees should live in safe zones or camps.

Syrian refugees in Europe

According to the UNHCR, over a million Syrian refugees arrived in Europe in 2015. With the exception of Germany, representative data on Syrian refugees in other European countries are not readily available. But focusing on Syrian refugees in Germany gives a good picture of their characteristics in Europe.

The data show that Syrians in Germany, who are overwhelmingly refugees, are relatively young and more educated, unlike in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey. Nonetheless, most of them are economically inactive: only 16.9% are employed, 7% are unemployed, while the rest are out of the labour force. Half of the last group are either too young to work (under 15) or currently enrolled in education.

In addition, Syrians in asylum procedures have not acquired right to work documents. Another precluding factor is language; Syrians, like other nationalities, will have to spend considerable time learning the German language to ease their access to labour market. Of all Syrians, 55% live on unemployment benefits or government support.

To enhance the integration of Syrian refugees, the German government has put in place a number of measures. For example, all Syrian children with asylum status are eligible for education. Syrian refugees will also be granted a two-year resident permit if they find permanent employment.

The German government has introduced a number of laws that set the stage to ease the asylum procedures via amending the country’s Asylum Act and Residence Act. The amendments now accelerate asylum procedures, lower the financial cost for states and municipalities, and improve the safety of refugees.

Further reading

AlSharabati, C, and J Nammour (2015) ‘Survey on Perceptions of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon’, Institut de Sciences Politiques – USJ, Volume 1.0.

FEMISE-ERF (2019) ‘Repatriation of Refugees from Arab Conflicts: Conditions, Costs and Scenarios for Reconstruction’, Euromed report.

Statistisches Bundesamt (2017) ‘Ausländische Bevölkerung – Ergebnisse des Ausländerzentralregisters’ (Bevölkerung und Erwerbstätigkeit, Fachserie 1 Reihe 2), Wiesbaden: Statistisches Bundesamt.



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