Syria's Good Neighbors

How Jordan and Lebanon Sheltered Millions of Refugees

A general view of Azraq refugee camp near Al Azraq city, Jordan, August 19, 2015. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, nearly four million Syrians have fled their country. Around half a million have sought political asylum in Europe; over the past eight months alone, more than 200,000 Syrians have reached the continent in what one British parliamentarian described as a “tsunami.” To be sure, the number of refugees arriving in Europe is staggering, but it pales in comparison to the numbers who have settled in Jordan and Lebanon.

In the past four years, Jordan, with a pre-refugee population of eight million, and Lebanon, with a population of 4.5 million, have opened their borders to approximately a million and 1.5 million refugees, respectively. They did so despite the fact that Lebanon has a 120 percent debt-to-GDP ratio—among the world’s highest—and that Jordan is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world.

Until now, these states have coped surprisingly well with the dramatic and sudden changes to their population. But there are signs that Lebanon and Jordan are about to reach their saturation point. Should the war in Syria and the refugee flows continue, economic and social pressures could destabilize these states.

An aerial view shows the Zaatari refugee camp, near the Jordanian city of Mafraq, July 18, 2013. Mandel Ngan / Reuters


Jordan has a long and distinguished history of hosting refugees. An estimated 60 percent of the kingdom’s citizens are of Palestinian origin—refugees (and their descendants) from the 1948 and 1967 wars with Israel. Although some institutional biases in employment and electoral politics persist, Palestinians have largely been integrated into Jordanian society. Several hundred thousand Iraqis likewise reside in the country. The first wave arrived in 1991, followed by a large contingent after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But Jordan’s one million new Syrian arrivals constitute a unique challenge. A small portion—fewer than 120,000—live in the two available refugee camps. The larger of these camps, known as Zaatari, has gradually transformed into a permanent settlement and, with 80,000 residents, is now Jordan’

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