Lessons for Ukraine's refugee crisis from the Middle East

Lessons for Ukraine's refugee crisis from the Middle East
6 min read
28 April, 2022
In-depth: As millions of Ukrainian refugees flee to host cities in neighbouring Poland, reassessing the experience of Syrian refugees in the Middle East can provide vital lessons for sustainable resettlement.

In the two months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, more than two million refugees - mostly women and children - have crossed over the border from Ukraine into Poland.

These people have sought out shelter in border towns, including Przemysl and Medyka, as well as in the main Polish cities, namely Warsaw and Krakow.

When large-scale military attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure occur, they inevitably result in a rapid exodus of people fleeing into cities and towns in neighbouring countries. In response, the general public promptly praises these refuge destinations for their unconditional hospitality.  

But after absorbing millions of Ukrainian refugees, Polish mayors are now warning that their cities are over capacity as municipal infrastructures are under strain and any sort of shelters, such as gyms, theatres, and local houses, have become overcrowded.

As a result, the media narrative turns to one of 'saturation' and of host cities “reaching capacity”.  

Here, lessons can be learned by drawing on the case of Middle Eastern cities that received large numbers of Syrian refugees in the wake of Syria’s civil war. There are two important lessons to embrace: firstly, how the 'hospitality' and 'reaching capacity' discourse may prevent us from understanding the capacity of cities from a historical perspective.

"Lessons can be learned by drawing on the case of Middle Eastern cities that received large numbers of Syrian refugees in the wake of Syria's civil war"

Second, the tensions in collaboration between urban and humanitarian actors in crisis-affected contexts often cause resource wastage and political power deadlocks, and cooperation between the two still needs to be strengthened.

The infrastructural pressure that cities experience when receiving new residents cannot be denied. However, there is a problem with the idea of cities reaching capacity: it assumes that cities were doing just fine before refugees arrived.

In the Middle Eastern context, which has a long history of people fleeing conflict - from Palestine, Iraq and Syria, among others - the arrival of refugees is blamed for weakening local infrastructures and depleting resources while, in reality, the pressure from an influx of refugees simply exposes the current status of a city’s capacities and the type of governance in place. 

In reality, especially given the dynamism of the job market, cities are constantly evolving to accommodate people, among whom some are refugees.

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If we consider that there are an estimated  84 million displaced people across the world, the fact that refugees tend to permanently relocate to cities is a part of normality; yet, the discourse of hospitality and capacity implicitly keeps refugees as permanent 'guests'. 

For example, Turkey has received nearly 3.8 million Syrian refugees since the conflict started in 2011. Due to such large numbers, the country's refugee hospitality was largely praised, like in today’s Poland.

However, academic studies have shown how the hospitality of the recent past can give way to today’s legitimation of refugee return programmes, which are borderline deportations.

Such 'invitations' to return to Syria are justified by the discourse that perpetually keeps Syrians in Turkey as 'old guests' after more than a 10-year long displacement.

In this vein, the ‘reaching capacity’ mantra makes such host cities look like they were all functioning perfectly before refugees arrived, and that the return of refugees to their country of origin is the only requirement to rescue urban infrastructure, local labour, and resources.  

Lessons for Ukraine's refugee crisis from the Middle East
Ukrainian refugees rest in a temporary shelter at a gym of a primary school in Przemysl, near the Polish-Ukrainian border on 12 March 2022. [Getty]

With many media outlets depicting war refugees from Ukraine as hordes of people who literally "overwhelm" cities, crisis functions as a litmus test for the city’s normal capacities as well as its malfunctions.

The hospitality rhetoric presently used to comment on Polish cities echoes the wider public’s praise of local hospitality in reference to Syrian refugees, but the responsibility of refugee reception, sufficient welfare provision, and infrastructural support in the countries receiving refugees from Syria was not equally shared by European countries. 

Today we are provided with an image of well-received Ukrainians, while tomorrow they will be said to endanger local labour and resources in their host countries. By doing so, such accounts overshadow the (sometimes longstanding) presence of Ukrainian labourers and their past contribution to national welfare in such countries.

Future social relationships between new and old refugees and migrants and locals never come out of the blue, but rather they are built on long-standing dynamics and socioeconomic factors. The media representation of a massive exodus of Ukrainians into other countries in Europe can thus engender the misconception that there is no social and economic continuity to learn from. 

"Academic studies have shown how the hospitality of the recent past can give way to today's legitimation of refugee return programmes, which are borderline deportations"

Over the last two decades, with the increasing number of refugees in urban areas, international humanitarian actors, who generally come to provide assistance in the spaces where most refugees reside, have largely been working in cities. This means they have to learn how to work in closer cooperation with urban actors (e.g. mayors, schools, and hospitals) and other local aid providers in host cities.

Moreover, foreign interventions typically bringing in resources and support can alter the urban fabric as well as local relationships. Therefore, international humanitarian actors also need to learn about the social relationships at play in the host city, including its infrastructure or pre-existing services and systems, urban governance, and welfare, as well as informal and community-based networks.

As transient actors, they also need to build their own relationships with the population at large and gain local trust. 

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Despite the increasing importance of the urban-humanitarian nexus, research on Syrian displacement suggests that humanitarian agencies often arrive too late to recognise local authorities and integrate urban infrastructure into humanitarian programming when intervening in host cities.

In other words, rather than burdening responsibilities on 'local knowledge', it is fundamental that international humanitarian actors enlarge their own knowledge of local urban life. This enables them to understand what form of support may be more viable in the long run. 

In the countries that received large numbers of refugees from Syria, the humanitarian system initially acted with a traditional, short-term, and urgent action-oriented focus. Indeed, foreign assistance providers who came to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon tended to neglect municipal and regional governors, as well as informal providers, who were all able to face emergency crises to different extents.

In the Lebanese context, aid agencies resorted to urban authorities to guarantee their own local legitimacy and to build quicker access to people in need, rather than developing a fine-grained knowledge of the local context.

"The management of Syrian displacement in Middle Eastern cities is a key example of the missed opportunities between urban actors, local service providers, and foreign humanitarian actors"

A deeper mutual understanding between urban and humanitarian actors and their respective approaches to crises have often proved to be lacking, thus losing the opportunity to complement each other.

In countries like Jordan and Lebanon, top-down humanitarian efforts, such as training urban actors and merely asking for their formal approval to operate, have been mistaken for substantive engagement.

As a result, there has been a delay in the meaningful and consistent collaboration between urban and humanitarian systems. More meaningful and grassroots knowledge exchanges could eventually engender more synergy in aid provision. 

In this respect, the management of Syrian displacement in Middle Eastern cities is a key example of the missed opportunities between urban actors, local service providers, and foreign humanitarian actors.

What has happened in the countries neighbouring Syria over the last decade therefore provides many lessons for Polish cities today.

Learning from the survival and reception mechanisms in place at a local and national level is key to the sustainability of host cities in the future.

Estella Carpi is a lecturer of Humanitarian Studies in the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction at University College London. 

Follow her on Twitter: @estycrp