December 15, 2015

More than a Life Raft

By Kathleen Brown

Syrian refugees are seen at the Za'atri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria. REUTERS/Majed Jaber

The Syrian civil war has led to the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan Genocide. Nearly 4.3 million Syrian refugees have fled Syria, while 7 million are displaced within Syria. As living conditions in host countries have worsened, 750,000 refugees have embarked on a tumultuous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, leaving 3,506 dead due to raging seas and crowded, insufficient life rafts. From this crisis, two major policy questions arise: Where should refugees go and who should financially support them?
The most cost-effective way to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees is to continue to resettle refugees in the Middle East, rather than in the United States or European Union. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, resettling a refugee in the United States and Germany would cost $12,874 and $14,500, respectively, per refugee each year. In contrast, the United Nations proposed a funding appeal that would allocate $1,056 per year for one refugee in the Middle East. Although this figure appears low, the poverty line in Lebanon for a family of four is an income of $1,402. In contrast, the poverty line in the United States and Germany for a family of four is $24,250 and $22,476, respectively. Therefore, the UN funding appeal would fund refugees at a higher standard of living in the Middle East than in the United States or Germany.
However, Middle Eastern host countries have economic and political concerns as the influx of refugees has strained public services and increased public expenditures. Middle Eastern host countries are hesitant to welcome more refugees due to capacity issues, such as a lack of water, shelter, and health care. These concerns are primarily due to a $2.85 billion funding gap. However, if Jordan and Lebanon had received their pre-conceived funding appeals, $2 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, they would have recuperated almost all of their budget increases and have more resources to develop infrastructure that would provide for refugees and ameliorate host communities. Jordan and Lebanon have only received 40 percent and 35 percent, respectively, of their UN funding quotas.
The EU and the United States can alleviate funding shortages which will help build infrastructure to support refugees in the long-term. To put things in perspective, the cost to resettle the 200,000 refugees that crossed Germany’s border in November 2015 would equate to the $2.85 billion funding gap in the UN appeal. However, if western countries contributed similar funds to Middle Eastern host countries, 2.7 million refugees who lack humanitarian aid would be helped. Therefore, by providing adequate funding to refugees in the Middle East, the United States, and the EU would have a greater impact in terms of humanitarian reach as millions could be financially supported due to the lower standard of living in the Middle East.     
Beyond funding, Middle Eastern host countries are concerned that refugees will incite social unrest due to economic conditions and the political situation in Syria. This is an understandable concern, especially due to past violence in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. However, favorable economic conditions in host countries may prevent refugee uprisings. Jordan and Lebanon have refused to allow refugees to gain employment legally. This economic policy will only anger and worsen the conditions of refugees. With adequate international aid, Jordan and Lebanon could quickly develop cities and accept Syrian businesses, which in the long term would create jobs and boost their economy.
Resolving the Syrian refugee crisis is a global issue. The 4.3 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Although western countries should not close their doors to refugees who stumble across their borders, the most cost-effective solution is to settle refugees in the Middle East. By providing humanitarian aid to the Middle East, western countries have the potential to assist millions of refugees that are in need for a lower per capita cost. Therefore, with this solution, western countries can provide more than a life raft to a few refugees; they can provide assurance to millions of refugees who are seeking a mere sliver of hope for the future. 

About the Author

Kathleen Brown is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a degree in political science and Arabic. While at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, her research focused on Iran and Middle East.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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