Samir Aita is Franco-Syrian and Chair of the Circle of Arab Economists, an association created in Paris in 2008 including experts from diverse fields. He is monitoring the Syrian crisis and economic developments in the Arab world, while keeping an eye on social justice. His association participates in conferences and forums on the Syrian migrant crisis. He provides both a critical and informed view of the ongoing debates around the Syrian question.
What have you retained from the joint HCR-World Bank study published in February on the need to develop Jordan and Lebanon in order to address the migrant crisis?
The World Bank is starting to issue thoughts and documents only six years after the crisis. It is somewhat surprising that it has waited so long. Furthermore, over the past two years, Turkey has experienced the highest increase in the number of migrants. So, why are we only talking now about Jordan and Lebanon? The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and President of the World Bank have been to Lebanon to discuss about the integration of refugees in this country. This eminently political issue merits more than a technical approach, which remains partial.
The World Bank study includes two documents. Firstly, there are the results of a survey based on data mainly collected in Jordan, with few data from Lebanon, whereas everyone knows that they exist for this country. One wonders why Lebanon’s results are not presented, whereas humanitarian aid has contributed one point to this country’s economic growth. The chapter which addresses the reasons for the crisis in Syria emphasizes natural phenomena, such as drought. Yet the main problem lies in the economic policies conducted in Syria over the past decade, with World Bank advice.
There are subsequently proposals and ideas, such as increasing the minimum wage, are mentioned. Yet who really cares about the minimum wage when work continues to be mainly informal? In short, it is both too late and too insubstantial for a policy campaign which has much broader dimensions than the framework of this report, with the main proposals failing to be rooted in reality. We are a long way off something which allows reflection on post-crisis mechanisms.
Why is drought mentioned to account for the migrant crisis?
Because a large number of the refugees were initially internally displaced inside Syria, allegedly because of drought. In fact, the biggest wave of rural-urban migration took place in 2003 and 2004, from northeastern Syria, between the Euphrates and the Tigris, because of the public policies launched by the government, and especially the State’s withdrawal from its historical role of regulating water and agriculture. The region has always been prone to erratic weather, with six years of drought for one year of rain. It is precisely because of this phenomenon that the State appeared in history on the banks of the Euphrates, in order to regulate the use of water, a scarce resource, and manage the years of abundance in anticipation of the years of shortage. The fact that the public authorities abandoned this role was a disaster. Previously, anyone who dug an unauthorized well found themselves with an immediate intervention of the army to close it. President Bachar el Assad turned a blind eye to well drilling in this region. As a result, the affluent dug, the groundwater level plummeted, and the less well-off found themselves with no water, as they did not have the means to dig deeper and pump water. The drought only occurred in 2007-2008, in a region which had already been adversely affected by this policy in 2003-2004. And it is in these devastated regions that Daesh and Nusra originated in Syria.
Is there a risk of seeing the Syrian migrant population become radicalized?
Yes and no. The percentage of radicalized Syrians is very low in Lebanon and Jordan. Sectarianism is only high in very few places, such as the enormous host city of Ersal in Lebanon, in the highlands above the Bekaa Valley, which has long been marked by lawlessness and smuggling. This area of trafficking and extremism has expanded with the Syrian refugee crisis.
You are attending the Spring Meetings organized by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington in April, with other civil society organizations. Which points are you going to emphasize during these meetings?
First of all, the basic data which are not taken into account in the analyses. Prior to the events, there was a Syrian workers circular migration in Lebanon. At least 300,000 Syrians were working on construction sites and in the fields. Some of these seasonal workers have undoubtedly brought over their families with the war. With 5 people per family, we easily reach 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon. This is an important perspective for the analysis of the economic integration of refugees. It is not mentioned.
Also, the World Bank-HCR report leaves out the data on refugees in the Zaatari camp in Jordan, where over 80,000 people are living in critical conditions. The other Syrian refugees in Jordan have family links and have become integrated into society. On an entirely different level, how can we expect to economically integrate Syrians if they cannot open a bank account because of the sanctions? The analysis consequently fails to consider some simple realities, which concern a significant number of people.
Are you going to put forward proposals?
Yes we are, we are stressing two main ideas to the World Bank and IMF. The first is that the reconstruction of Syria will not happen without Lebanon and Jordan. It has to be considered as a project based on a close partnership between the three countries. Most of the refugees are located in poorly developed regions in Lebanon and Jordan, which lack infrastructure. They also need a reconstruction program. There is a need to consider a regional cooperation approach between the current host regions and the regions of origin of migrants.
In terms of the business community, the obvious interpenetration of the private sectors of the three countries needs to be taken into account by donors and public authorities. Whether we like it or not, most Syrian banks are subsidiaries of Lebanese or Jordanian Banks. International institutions need to work to achieve a common approach to the reconstruction, allowing the management of the period which will go up to the return of the migrants and reconstruction to be devised in a different way. Reconstruction needs to be considered via a regional cooperation approach between the current host regions and the regions of origin of migrants: it sometimes involves the same families, the same people. This also applies to Iraq, for its area which borders Syria, less so to Turkey.
This anecdote speaks volumes about the frame of mind which can prevail: a young Lebanese man told me that he wanted to go to the HEC business school in France to become a consultant, but that he was not really sure in which field. “After five years in France, I’m going to go back to Lebanon to rebuild Syria”, he told me, whereas he does not know Syria and does not speak Arabic very well. His family’s companies are already targeting this market… In Jordan and Lebanon, people are already anticipating Syria’s reconstruction.
Regional reconstruction can start straight away in the areas where the refugees are settled. It must serve as an example and precursor for the reconstruction of Syria.
The second point is respect for the rights of persons. If we want to push someone to return, it is better to create incentives rather than closed doors and coercive measures. People who are working in agriculture will return to Syria, they are already doing so. But when a doctor leaves Syria, it causes 10,000 other people to leave with him, his clients. It is the same for teachers. Public authorities and the international community need to conduct specific actions to make these skills returning to Syria. Syrian doctors in Jordan and Lebanon cannot practice. We need to let them work with refugees who have huge needs, and not encourage them to go further afield, to go to Europe. There is a lack of reasoning based on human rights and economic and social rights, and on a more constructive approach than the European decision that asks Greece to send all the migrants back to Turkey. Moreover, such decision poses problems for both Greece and Turkey, in terms of the right of asylum and humanitarian aid.
We also need to come up with a way of getting humanitarian aid inside Syria, in order to encourage people not to leave. This involves lifting the economic sanctions which simply impoverish the weakest. Policies need to be made more consistent, between Syria’s interior and its neighboring countries.
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