Chronic Refugees: A Burden on Poor Countries

We are continually reminded of how wars result in mass human migrations: think only of Palestine, Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sudan.

In general, poor neighbouring countries shoulder most of the burden of housing these refugees, while rich countries do little to take in their share. The result has been to create ‘chronic’ refugees in fragile, unstable neighbouring countries.

A view from Burj El Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp located in Beirut, Lebanon. Photo: Mahmut Geldi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

This year, Israel celebrated its 75th anniversary. Accordingly, it is 75 years since 750,000 Palestinians fled. This mass forced displacement was caused by a combination of direct expulsion, widespread fear-mongering propaganda, fears of massacres and ongoing violent conflict.

The displacement was deeply traumatic for the refugees, but it also continues to be politically relevant for the rest of the world, because Israel prevented the Palestinian refugees from returning home. Israel’s policy contravened the internationally recognized principle of refugees’ right of return.

Host countries in crisis

Initially, responsibility for the Palestinian refugees was divided between two UN bodies: the UN’s Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC); and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The UN’s intention was that the PCC would find a lasting political solution. Meanwhile, UNRWA would take care of the refugees’ humanitarian needs. A solution was never found, and the PCC practically disintegrated.

Since then, the number of Palestinian refugees has grown. Currently there are almost 6 million Palestinian refugees, living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. These refugees are in a precarious situation.

Syria is in the throes of a long-lasting and brutal civil war. Lebanon is experiencing economic collapse. Jordan is poor, but even so is one of the world’s largest refugee host countries, with 760,000 Syrian and 2.2 million Palestinian refugees. Gaza is undergoing a combined siege, massive bombardment and military invasion by Israel, while Palestinians in the West Bank are enduring an Israeli occupation that is becoming increasingly violent and deeply entrenched.

UNRWA is also chronically underfunded and is on the verge of collapse.

The Palestinian refugees seem unique because they have the support of a dedicated UN body (UNRWA), unlike other refugees, who are the responsibility of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This is because the Palestinians fled before UNHCR was founded. In addition, they can be differentiated from other refugees, both because their plight has continued for so long (75 years) and because they are such a large group. In 2021, approximately 20 percent of all the world’s registered refugees were Palestinian. At that time, only Syrian refugees made up a larger group.

Neighbouring countries shoulder most of the burden

Now the war in Ukraine and violent conflict in Sudan have created new mass displacements. As has the war in Gaza, with 1.5 million internally displaced.

A common feature of all conflicts that result in mass displacements is that it is generally the neighbouring countries that have to shoulder most of the burden. These countries are often poor and unstable.

The refugee burden is a heavy one, and the refugee system is maintained partly through a division of responsibilities, with rich countries taking on much of the financial cost. In straitened economic times, it becomes more expensive to be a refugee, more expensive to house refugees, and more expensive to keep UNHCR and UNRWA services going. There is little appetite among donor countries to increase their support.

Obviously, Western countries could accept their shares of refugees in order to relieve pressure in the most vulnerable host countries, but in Western countries there is even less political will to take in refugees than to fund the UN agencies. As a result, the burden falls ever heavier on the host countries, while the lives of the refugees worsen.

Such situations cause refugees to set out on hazardous journeys and also cause host countries to force them to return to the countries they fled from. Both outcomes lead to loss of human lives.

The Mediterranean has become a mass grave for people seeking refuge, while there are constant reports of people who have travelled back to Syria being imprisoned, tortured and killed.

A lack of permanent solutions

Three ‘permanent solutions’ exist in international refugee law: returning to the country of origin; remaining and integrating in the host country; or resettling in a third country.

In the case of Palestinian refugees, Israel closed its borders to prevent their return – a policy that contravened not only the international norm concerning the right of return but also the refugees’ own wishes. The Arab states surrounding Israel agreed to accommodate the refugees on condition that this was not a permanent solution, and so long as UNRWA bore the costs of the refugees’ welfare.

This is comparable to how Turkey received the first wave of Syrian refugees. The Syrians were given ‘guest status’. As with the Palestinians in the Arab neighbouring countries, this meant that their presence was considered to be temporary. A decade later, there are 3.7 million Syrians in Turkey. Their presence is a huge burden on a country in economic crisis, while Turkey’s agreement with the EU prevents these refugess from being transferred to EU member states.

The danger is that more refugee crises will come to resemble that of the Palestinians. If ongoing war, persecution or closed borders prevent refugees from returning to their countries of origin, they may become long-term and growing refugee populations in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to name a just few.

If Western countries are not willing to accept their shares of such refugees, and have decreasing willingness to cover the costs of ensuring a minimum level of welfare, then human tragedies will only increase in countries that are not able to manage them.

Only political solutions can solve the world’s refugee problems. Unfortunately, there are no such solutions on the horizon for a number of long-lasting conflicts. The people who have fled them have become ‘chronic’ refugees.

  • Jørgen Jensehaugen is a Senior Researcher at PRIO
  • This text was first published by Panorama 7 September 2023
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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