By Marvin Andrade
It is well-known that conflicts have a tendency to cluster in the same geographic regions around the same period of time; it is difficult to assess, however, whether conflict contagion is initiated from similar economic, political, social and other relevant country attributes, or if exposure to a neighboring conflict directly influences and spreads to nearby states. For more than a decade, the Middle East has experienced multiple civil conflicts that have stemmed from populations rising up to challenge their governments. These demands have been for increased government transparency, better economic opportunities and improved human dignities. The development of transnational communication networks through the increased use of online media has allowed these ideas to be spread to neighboring groups with similar grievances. It is arguable that civil conflict in Iraq and other Arab nations in the height of the Arab Spring had a direct impact in the incitement of conflict in Syria and that this realization by the global community has resulted in an evolution of how refugee camps are constructed in the neighboring regions today in response to the Islamic State.
How was conflict in Syria Contagious?
In Syria, conflict arose at the height of the Arab Spring. Through social media, the grievances of disempowered masses from Arab nations such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia were highlighted. Research into conflict contagion states that violent mobilization in one country may lead to emulation by neighboring groups facing similar conditions. This is in large part due to the fact that transnational groups are made aware of certain grievances that they are facing in their home country and may raise their level of political demands made to their government – which are oftentimes not achieved.
Since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has succumbed to one of the largest population diasporas in modern time. There has been gradual population dispersal in Iraq stemming from political conflict and instability in the region. Following the escalation of violence in 2006 deriving from heightened sectarian tensions, Iraq witnessed one of the largest waves of population exodus. Due to historical relations with Iraq and lenient border restrictions, approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees of an estimated 4.5 million fled to Syria.
Since 2007 and the arrival of a large refugee population, the Syrian government’s resources were strained as it attempted to accommodate a new segment of its population. With a population of approximately 20 million, the Syrian government struggled to accommodate a sudden six percent increase in population. In 2008, three years before initial violence broke out, Syria witnessed a 30% rise in foodstuffs and basic goods. Property prices rose 40% and rent was estimated to increase 150% in the most extreme cases. Additionally, water consumption increased by 21% and the Syrian government paid $6.8 million to provide drinking water and sanitation to the refugee population. These refugees put a strain on the unemployment rates in Syria, forcing the rate of unemployment to rise to 18% in 2006. The influx of refugees severely crippled the educational system as Iraqi citizens enrolled their children in Syrian schools, forcing drop-out rates to rise.
Overcrowding and an overall reduced standard of living increased the crime rate in Syria by nearly 20%. Syria’s economy and infrastructure was unprepared for the influx of new migrants and its economy began to buckle under the strain of over a million refugees. The Syrian government stated that approximately 80% of registered refugees in Syria had relocated to the capital city of Damascus. Of the population that migrated to Syria, it is estimated that over 60% of the population is Sunni Muslim, The ethnic makeup of the refugees entering Syria is critical in understanding the ensuing conflict in Syria itself.
Large refugee populations exacerbate resource competition between citizens in the host country and the recently arrived refugee population, and alter the ethnic balance through rapid demographic shifts. The influx of refugees provided a demographic shift which was not in favor of the ruling government. Syria, a government primarily held by Alawites, saw a further increase of Sunni Muslims (the majority population) who were already discontent with a government unable to protect their interests. As noted above, conflicts are likely spread through transnational ethnic ties, whereby the group members in one state will change the prospects of mobilization for the same group in another state. As refugees began to arrive in Syria, interaction between the citizens of Iraq and Syria begins to occur; as these populations began to speak to one another, both Sunni Muslim populations grew frustrated by the worsening conditions in both states for their particular ethnic interests. While the protests in Syria were led by Syrian citizens with legitimate grievances against their home government, sufficient evidence exists to say that the presence of Iraqi refugees exacerbated the situation through their utilization of state resources, which could have been used by the Syrian state in other forms to quell the rebellion through economic concessions to protestors.
Why Refugee Camps Matter
Due to the fact that Syrian nationals were suffering low economic standing, certain individuals’ threshold to fight were surpassed due to low opportunity costs, meaning that due to a lack of jobs, sanitation, medical care, and other human necessities, individuals were more willing to fight as they had less to lose.
Currently, more than 2.8 million Syrian refugees are spread across Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and other nearby states. Learning from the failures to provide adequate structures for Iraqi refugees in Syria, the global community has come together to respond more attentively to Syrian refugee needs. Additionally, with the escalation of violence from the Islamic State and the fact that civil conflict has the potential to spread across borders, the international community is preparing many more permanent structures for refugees so that they do not join the conflict. Not all countries can afford permanent structures, however, due to the economic strains that refugees place on their economies. In nations, such as Lebanon and Jordan, the international community is providing more financial assistance in order to prevent an economic breakdown of social structures. Countries that have a vested interest in ensuring that the Islamic State does not further expand, such as the United States, are investing more money this year than it has in the past into order to combat it through more subtle tactics. The United States, with the help of several NGOs are ensuring that states such as Lebanon do not buckle under the tremendous economic burden of supporting refugees totaling 10% of their total population.
Some countries, such as Turkey, have begun to construct more enduring refugee structures. The Kilis refugee camp is constructed with permanence in mind. This camp has containers retrofitted with walls to create 3-room homes with kitchens, televisions, and plumbing, constructed along a grid pattern with working street lights and supermarkets that accept electronic currency. The Turkish government treats this camp as a means to publicize their nation to foreigners, as this treatment may facilitate positive perceptions of the nation when the refugees return to their homes.
The issue of refugee assistance in the Middle East is not fully humanitarian in nature, but rather a matter that is given special attention in order to prevent the future breakout of conflict. The international community learned a lesson from its failure to provide refugee assistance to Syria. Today, the Islamic State is pushing conflict in the region and continues to look for volunteers willing to give themselves to this new cause. This year, the international community has given more aid to help Syrian refugees than in previous years. One can only hope it is enough.
Photo by Syria Freedom