More support needed for Syrian refugees and IDPs

Originally commissioned October 2015

The large numbers of disgruntled refugees and IDPs represent a security risk, which will only increase with time, in the form of a potential fifth column in Syria and their host countries, as well as in potential future clashes around hostility to returnees and anti-refugee violence, all of which have historical precedent.


  • Difficult conditions and lack of prospects faced by Syrian refugees create fertile ground for radicalization, likely to worsen with time.
  • Frustration and radicalization pose threats to domestic stability in refugee host countries, as does anti-refugee violence.
  • As staging and recruiting grounds for armed groups, camps threaten a sustainable peace, as will returnees encountering hostility in their communities of origin.


As many as 5 million Syrians are now refugees, with many living in refugee camps. An additional 8 million are internally displaced. Camps are often demoralizing. There are reports of irregular supplies of food, such as in Camp Za’atri in Jordan. Many of the camps are heavily guarded and the residents are kept under strict control, with little moderating oversight, leading to resentment and frustration. In Lebanon there have been reports of sexual violence and, across the board, exploitation is rife. Those not in camps face severe discrimination in society at large. Moreover, refugees’ prospects are limited. Within and outside of camps, millions of children are growing up without education. In Za’atri camp for example, roughly only 5% of children are receiving primary education. These are fertile conditions for radicalization and recruitment to violent groups, and will likely worsen with time. Even if a resolution to the conflict is found, returning will be lengthy, difficult or even impossible for some; since the regime re-capture of Homs, for example, numbers of returnees have been very low.

In Lebanon, where conservative estimates see refugees constituting 25% of the population, and in Jordan, domestic violent groups have recruited from refugee populations. The Lebanese Armed Forces do not have the resources for this population increase. In Lebanon, as many as 40 armed groups have formed among refugee populations, adding to Lebanon’s already tense security situation. There is historical precedent for such instability in Lebanon, as Palestinian refugees, who continue to face severe discrimination, influenced the Lebanese civil war. Last year’s wave of anti-refugee violence in Turkey and similar incidents in Lebanon also represent threats to stability.

Turkish camps have in the past been used as launching sites for militant attacks in Syria, a phenomenon which will complicate any lasting peace deals, as may hostility faced by refugees attempting to return. Large populations of bored young, frustrated people, just across the border from Syria but outside the jurisdiction of any potential future government there, pose an ongoing security risk and could be used as a fifth column by armed groups. History holds a number of potent examples of such incidents; Hutu refugees who had fled the Rwandan conflict, living for long stretches in camps with few prospects, in countries such as Tanzania and Kenya, were targets for recruitment by armed Hutu groups. After the end of the Bosnian War, internally displaced persons attempting to return to their communities of origin faced violence for years to come by groups seeking to maintain the ethnic separation created in the war. Such hostility to returnees will likely be exacerbated in the climate of poverty and resentment that the scale of destruction and killing in Syria has caused.

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