‘Not in My Back Yard’: Western Countries Pay Billions of Dollars to Keep Doors Shut and Syrian Refugees Homeless

"The countries that have responded to the Syrian conflict with the largest amount of aid are among the countries that have closed their doors to refugees and asylum seekers, at a high cost..."

‘ Freedom House ‘ : الصورة

“The countries that have responded to the Syrian conflict with the largest amount of aid are among the countries that have closed their doors to refugees and asylum seekers, at a high cost…”

In a private Facebook group called “Resettlement News”, followers are heralding the year 2020.

Following a UN statement declaring a decade of solutions to the refugee crisis, after a decade of displacement, hopes among the displaced are running high.

Most are pinning their hopes on becoming one of the 25 thousand who will be resettled.

In Zaatari camp in northern Jordan, I met Jamel. He is one of the 77 thousand Syrian refugees who have made an increasingly permanent home here. 

He is a traditional, thirty something, tall, dark-haired, well-built Arab. Jamel posted his prayers in that Facebook group, wishing to get resettlement, to ensure his small family – his wife and two small children – a decent life.

While we took a tea in Jamil’s little Shelter I asked him about his chances to win resettlement in a third country through UNHCR’s resettlement programs, given a large number of Syrian refugees in Jordan.

His answer comes immediately: “It’s like the Devil hopes to end in heaven”. We have nothing but to pray and hope. I am not the only one hoping for resettlement. All refugees here in Zaatari camp hope so

Jamil does not have a higher education, reducing his chances in countries that prioritize highly skilled and highly educated refugees. He worked in Syria in auto repair; he had inherited the profession and the workshop from his father. Here in Zaatari camp in the middle of the Jordanian semi-desert, his day begins by putting on warm winter clothes and walking around the camp trails looking for a job.

The Zaatari camp, like all refugee camps everywhere, does not have nearly enough jobs to go around. Jamil depends on being in the right place at the right time and his knack for fixing things. Sometimes he finds someone who needs his skills and gets paid for a few day’s work, and often not.

Finding a job is not Jamil’s only worry. He feels he should pass by the local hypermarket entrance a couple of times a day to make sure his son Ahmed hasn’t slipped away from school to work here helping customers transporting the goods they bought.

From Ahmad’s point of view, basic education seems unlikely to get him out of the camp. Data suggests he may be right.

3,300 kids in Zaatari Camp

They work on delivery trolleys and this is one of the most common child labor tasks in the camp.

When the West Reverses Course on Syrians

According to our analysis of troves of international aid data and refugee resettlement data, Jamil and his son’s chances of starting over are slim. Jamil, like most Syrian refugees, has ended up not in hell, but in purgatory, created when donors expected a swift end to the Syrian conflict. To find out how Syrian refugees are distributed around the world, we collected data from the UNHCR Statistics Center, the official website of the Canadian government, the American Refugee Processing Center, and the statistical office of the European Union. To determine how much money Western countries were spending on resettlement and humanitarian aid, we used the International Development Statistics website data.

Our findings reveal policy shifts that cost Western taxpayers billions of dollars, keep Syrians from rebuilding their lives, and postpone any type of permanent solution.

At the outset of the conflict, Western nations embraced Syrians fleeing the brutal Syrian regime, but as the intractable war dragged on and the numbers of Syrians fleeing continued to swell, Western countries changed tact. They went from accepting refugees fleeing active fighting: a permanent solution for a temporary problem, to pumping in billions of short-term emergency aid for those displaced by a brutal and seemingly permanent regime: a temporary solution for a permanent problem.

This left Syria’s neighbors in an unexpected role: instead of offering a temporary refuge from the fighting, they have to contend with being the permanent home for millions of Syrian citizens.

They are also the pass-through for billions of dollars in aid meant not to help Syrians establish permanent homes either in their countries or in the West, but to keep the lights on in what were meant to be temporary camps.

Millions of Syrian refugees crossing Turkey’s borders on foot escaping the war in their countries.

Photo: AP

Life in limbo for Syria’s refugees

By May 2020, 41 out of each 100 Syrian citizens–more than seven million–fled the ongoing conflict that has ravaged their country for more than nine years. UNHCR statistics show that most, like Jamil, had no good options. The UNHCR was able to secure the resettlement of only one out of each 50 Syrian who fled the country.

 The other 5.6 million are spread throughout Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, still waiting and hoping to be resettled.

None of them will ever be granted refugee status, which is the first step towards permanent integration, in the transit country. 

All those fleeing the war to this day have the status of an asylum seeker in their temporary homes, which means that they cannot obtain citizenship, or often access jobs, healthcare, and other services afforded to citizens until refugee status has been granted. For these people decades may pass this way, their life here is temporary until they return to their origin country.

Neighboring host countries’ governments do not provide any social security or cash assistance to Syrian protection seekers and are not obligated to secure housing for them as well. The only cash assistance that protection seekers receive is provided by international organizations, which are on average $27 per person per month for “families who were most in need.

Despite recently issuing special regulations and directives related to how refugees can apply for services under local laws, many in the camps have yet to see a material change in their lives.

Even though Syrian asylum seekers have yet to obtain work permits in large numbers, they already suffer due to local labor laws. In Jordan, they are restricted to certain occupations: the five sectors they are allowed to participate in are manual labor only. 

While in Turkey and Lebanon there are significant obstacles in terms of obtaining work permits such as sponsorship systems and high fees, with no guarantee of work afterward.

These circumstances forced large numbers of young asylum seekers into the informal job market, especially children. There are documented cases of 4-year-old children who have been forced into child labor in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, In Turkey alone, the number of Syrian children out of school (400 thousand) is more than the population of some small country like the Bahamas.

The lucky few are a rarity, even in the most generous Western countries, and they are becoming more rare

Saeed Al-Hassan and his family, the former residents of the Jordanian Zaatari camp are among the lucky few to have escaped that fate. The early days of 2018 brought him happy news: the French government accepted his immigration request, and by the end of February, he flew to France with his wife and three children.

Saeed, who holds a BA in Physics and Mathematics from Damascus University, is more typical of the very few successful asylum seekers: he has skills that his new host country sees as valuable. He used to work sporadically in the construction sector in Jordan.

Now, he is no longer worried about his children’s future; they attend school regularly. He is no longer worried about providing for his family; the permanent housing provided by the French government enables his family to live safely and comfortably and the social aid of $1450 a month allows them to look towards the future.

Soon he will finish his studies of French. The French government assigned him through the French Office for Immigration and Integration “OFII” and sponsored a free course to learn the language in private education institutes, for 400 hours.

When Saeed studying the language ends, he will receive job placement support from the Employment Bureau. If Saeed needs additional certifications for his Syrian degree to be recognized in France, the Employment Bureau will cover the cost.

It will also pay him a monthly salary, in addition to government assistance. For Saeed, the government program is designed to ensure he does not slip through the cracks and can resume building the kind of life he had envisioned before the war started in Syria, albeit in a new home.

The data we obtained revealed that over 1.3 million Syrian refugees were lucky like Saeed and were granted resettlement around the world. Only three out of 25 of them have been resettled by the UNHCR resettlement program/ The others took perilous voyages over the Mediterranean and Aegean seas from Turkey on rubber boats, then trekked through the Balkans to arrive in Europe and, apply for and then win their asylum cases.

Europe has sheltered the majority of Syrian refugees who have been granted asylum: about 1.3 million. Almost half of them have been granted resettlement in Germany. Sweden took in ten Syrians refugees out of each 100 resettled. Greece and Hungary each took in six Syrians, Canada took-in five, Austria had 4, the Netherlands had 3, and the other countries took in fewer than two out of every 100 Syrians refugees resettled.

Although Germany accepted the largest number of Syrian refugees, it has fewer resettled refugees relative to the size of its population compared to smaller countries. Sweden has 1241 Syrian refugees per 100 thousand citizens, Cyprus is in second place with 933 Syrian refugees per 100 thousand citizens.

Hungary has 800 Syrians per 100 thousand citizens and Germany is in fourth with about 767 Syrians per 100 thousand citizens. Greece has 670, Austria has 654, and Malta has 609 Syrians per 100 thousand citizens. All other countries that sheltered Syrian refugees have fewer than 400 per 100 thousand citizens. The integration program varies wildly across and even within countries.

Billions of dollars in humanitarian aid keep refugees in a suspended state

Very few – not Western donors, not reluctant neighbors, not even Syrians themselves – expected the conflict to go on so long, but as reality sets in, institutions are slow to switch course from crisis mode to long-term development strategies.

Meanwhile, billions of dollars donated by 43 countries and 26 organizations disappear into efforts to hold the line.

To understand where all the humanitarian aid went, we analyzed the International Development Statistics datasets, which provide the most comprehensive database of humanitarian aid.

The dataset shows that $39 billion in aid was disbursed over the time 2011-18 to ease the burden of the humanitarian crisis on Syrian asylum seekers around the world.

By the end of this time, Turkey topped the list of donor countries, providing $58 out of every $100 raised by all donors. The United States comes second providing $11, Germany provided $9, Britain provided $5, and the rest of the countries provided less than two dollars out of every $100 disbursed by donor countries.

Despite the huge amount of the disbursed aid, it never intended to help asylum seekers settle but rather forestall immediate disaster. For disbursements classified by the purpose of aid, in total over the same time, out of each $100 disbursed, $75 went to Material relief assistance and services and $11 to Emergency food assistance, $3 to Civilian peace-building, conflict prevention and resolution, $2 for Relief coordination and support services, $2 for Higher education, and all other sectors shared the remaining $7 of the assistance.

In the following visualization, we can review all the money that the international community has spent to aid Syrians around the world. By clicking on the circle that contains the name of the country, we can view the money spent by this country and it’s budget. To go back, click anywhere that is empty. You can also use the filter to display expenditures by sectors.

The trade-off: does it really pay to turn away refugees?

Suddenly in 2015, the Turkish government reported spending more than $2.7 billion on Syrians in the country. In the previous years 2011-14, that bill was zero, and by the end of 2018, the total amount of spending exceeded $22.5 billion, which constitutes more than half of the global humanitarian spending on Syrian asylum seekers.

The conflict between Turkey and Europe escalated when nearly a million Syrians reached the European continent through Turkey between 2015-16. At that time Turkish President Erdogan announced that his country cannot bear the burden of the Syrian asylum to Turkey alone, and literally “threatened to flood Europe with migrants” demanding the Western countries to participate bearing these expenses.

Back to the International Development Statistics website data, our analysis revealed that Turkey received two types of financial support, Non-Repayable in Grants an amount of $10 Billion, and Repayable as Investment, Loans, and Credits an amount of $45.7 Billion.

For both types of financial support, Europe was the major supporter which makes it clear that Europe never even slowed its payments to keep Syrian refugees in Turkey and out of Europe. During 2011-18, the international community provided Turkey $55.7 billion financial support. The European Union and European institutions were the major supports providing $73 out of every $100 of international aid to Turkey.

The numbers also show that, by the end of 2016, international aid to Turkey grew by $20 for every $100 provided in the previous year, and reached nearly $9 billion, and settled at that level for the next year, and finally only $11 of every $100 of European Grants were allocated for the Syrian asylum seekers in Turkey.

And it seems that the agreement paid off for Europe almost immediately. Measures taken by it in October 2016 managed to prevent 74 Syrians from reaching the EU for every 100 who trekked to in 2015, and by April 2020, 94 Syrians were prevented from reaching the EU out of each 100 Syrians reached in 2015.

All those numbers give us great confidence to say that Europe has bought Turkeys’ consent in order to secure the EU-Turkey refugee agreement to stop the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe.

This EU-Turkey refugee agreement was the second shocking surprise for Syrian asylum seekers in that year. Shortly before that, US President Trump signed Executive Order 13769, under which Syrians were prohibited from entering the USA.

Meanwhile, the new EU policy aimed to increase the rate of return of third-country nationals who don’t have the legal right to remain within EU borders continues to be tight. On the other side of the globe, the US migration policy is becoming tighter, so each year fewer Syrian refugees are likely to find somewhere to live permanently.

The costs and benefits of resettlement vs the costs of keeping them in camps in the long term

Quoting UNHCR estimated global resettlement needs “page 12”: Syrian refugees represent the population with the highest estimated resettlement needs globally in 2020, with more than 646,000 refugees to be in need of resettlement out of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.

This huge number of refugees placed a burden on these host developing countries that are already experiencing economic stagnation, and it seems that the most affected is Lebanon. While in Turkey and Jordan there appears to be a small negative effect on native employment.

The Economic Growth Pillar Researcher from Wana institute Kareem Al-Sharabi also supports this view, as he said in the Jordanian context, Syrian refugees were the lowest-paid workers in Jordan. Also, their employment has impacted failing wages in the informal labor market, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged Jordanians.

However, it is never fair to limit the impact of massive refugee waves only on the host country’s labor market. Likewise, there are onerous burdens imposed on the infrastructure in order to provide services, such as energy, water supply, transport, education, and health care.

On 27 September 2017, the EU Commission presented a recommendation on a new resettlement scheme; the cost of the status quo is estimated at approximately €49 billion per year. But the more interesting figure is the estimated costs related to the control and prevention of irregular migration, smuggling, and human trafficking €19.7 – 33.2 billion.

This means that if we assume the most optimistic scenario and the most conservative costs, Europe is spending an enormous amount of money –€53.7– to keep people out. And during 2018-20, the European Union is going to spend –to cut off refugees’ arrival– approximately six times more than the money spent on aid for Syrian asylum seekers for the last 9 years.

On the other hand, paradoxically, Professors of Economics William N. Evans and Daniel Fitzgerald from the University of Notre Dame, using the tax program calculations found that refugees pay $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in benefits over their first 20 years in the U.S.

From this angle precisely the economist at the Center for Global Development and the IZA Institute Michael Clemens delves into the economic impact of refugees on the European Union, so far he found that the impact of refugees on the host country is positive on the long-term, and depends only to the local economic policies of the state.

But does the positive impact of refugees apply to rich countries only? According to a UNHCR and the World Bank Group, 180,000 refugees in and around Kakuma in Kenya camp were contributing to an economy worth US$56 million a year.

Moreover, the Wana institute study in Jordan came up with 3 recommendations on how to increase the absorption of Syrian workers and gain a profit harnessing this additional manpower.

No one knows how many years Jamil will stay wandering in the Zaatari camp looking for someone to pay him for his gifted hands completely depending on international aid charity to provide his family, While Saeed’s life settles down little by little, and soon he will start working and paying taxes as a European citizen.


Data on international aid to Syria and Turkey for 2011-2018 was sourced from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development database, as it provides the most comprehensive annual data on an individual project level, including country of origin and type of aid.

Refugee location and registration data was sourced from the UNHCR Operational Portal to track refugees who remain in the region, and from EurostatU.S. Department of State Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Refugee Processing Center, the Government of Canada’s official website, and the UNHCR’s resettlement program page to track refugees who made it to Europe. To calculate the number of refugees per capita I used  the World Bank country population estimates.

Finally, the estimated cost for keeping refugees out of Europe was based on The Cost of Non-Europe in Asylum Policy study and for context, The Economic And Social Outcomes Of Refugees In The United States, The Real Economic Cost of Accepting Refugees, Why Including Refugees Makes Economic Sense, Measuring The Impact Of Refugee Labour Inclusion On The Host State Economy”. In all cases, I used the most conservative estimates.


ميزر كمال- صحافي عراقي
Mizer Kamal
Iraqi Journalist

The war was over in Mosul, but other battles were still unfolding. The returnees to the old Iraqi city are still dealing with poverty and disease, and with unidentified bodies buried under the rubble of demolished and mined buildings. Their recovery has become a daily occurrence, no longer newsworthy.

حزم المازوني - صحافي وحقوقي سوري
Hazm Al-Mazouni
Syrian Journalist and Human Rights Defender

"The countries that have responded to the Syrian conflict with the largest amount of aid are among the countries that have closed their doors to refugees and asylum seekers, at a high cost..."

لتصلكم نشرة درج الى بريدكم الالكتروني