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Syrian Refugees: Reliance on Camps Creates Few Good Options

[Syrian refugees at Reyhanli refugee camp in Antakya, Turkey. Image by Syria Freedom via Flickr] [Syrian refugees at Reyhanli refugee camp in Antakya, Turkey. Image by Syria Freedom via Flickr]

[The following report was issued by Refugees International on 5 December 2012.] 

Syrian Refugees: Reliance on Camps Creates Few Good Options 


The civil war in Syria has forced large numbers of Syrians from their homes, and in many cases from the country entirely. Refugees continue to flee in record numbers, and there are currently almost 400,000 registered or waiting for registration in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey combined. The United Nations has said it expects this number could reach 700,000 by December 31, 2012. About half of all the registered Syrians are living in camps, but the other half remain in local host communities trying to get by on their own.

In October 2012, Refugees International spent several weeks visiting Syrian refugee camps and urban Syrian refugee populations in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. The situation facing Syrians varies from country to country. For example, in Turkey, many of the refugees, aid workers, and activists RI interviewed said that the Turkish government’s camps are acceptable, even if not ideal. In Jordan and Iraq, the camps need improvement, but people living in them can obtain minimal services. A major challenge that exists in all three countries, however, is the specific vulnerability of urban Syrian refugee populations.

Many of the Syrians who now live in neighboring countries brought some financial resources with them, but these will not last long – and for many families, they have already run out. Once they are unable to obtain shelter on their own, they face a stark choice: either move to a camp for assistance, or struggle through the winter in urban areas where there is very little support and where the numbers of Syrian refugees needing help get larger and larger. Though urban refugees generally also need assistance with the costs of food, medical care, and transportation, their most pressing need is often maintaining their residence so that the alternative (relocating to a camp) does not become necessary.

The camps in all three countries RI visited are already at capacity or overcrowded, with more Syrians crossing the border every day or moving in from urban areas. These camp residents are not always free to come and go as they see fit – whether for work, specialized medical care, or to visit family. But as the attached reports make clear, each country also faces its own unique problems in dealing with fleeing Syrians. Thousands are stuck inside Syria, just beyond the Turkish border, where they are waiting for the Turkish government to build more accommodations and let them in. Service providers in the Jordanian and Iraqi camps are struggling to meet even the most basic protection needs, such as registration and emergency medical care. In all three countries, circumstances are already extremely difficult for both refugees and service providers, but the lack of progress toward a political settlement in Syria points toward even further deterioration.

While camps may make it easier for governments and aid agencies to locate, register, and protect people by keeping them in a defined location, they also prevent people from being as self-sufficient as possible. Living outside of camps in host communities can afford refugees opportunities to work and provide for themselves, to learn new skills, and to develop support networks in a community. All of these facilitate reintegration—in this case, return to Syria—when the time comes, as people will have resources to take back with them. Life outside a camp also helps maintain dignity by offering people a more independent life. The Syrian refugee camps in all three countries RI visited are either at or over capacity and cannot keep up with the pace of arrivals. For all of these reasons, it is essential that assistance programs support the integration of refugees into non-camp situations whenever possible.

Policy Recommendations 


  • The U.S. Government and European donors should support Turkey as it maintains open borders and provides humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees. U.S. and European government funding for refugees in urban settings would fill important service gaps.
  • The Government of Turkey should (a) make public its directive of April 2012 establishing temporary protection for Syrian refugees, and provide official guidance as to how the policy applies to Syrians outside of the camps; (b) establish a registration process, in coordination with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), as a fundamental protection measure for Syrian refugees not living in camps; (c) establish services for registered and unregistered urban Syrian refugees, or allow other groups to establish them.


  • The Government of Jordan should allow Syrians entering the country with documents to retain them in order to minimize the risk of undocumented individuals leaving the Zaatari camp.
  • The Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO) and the UNHCR should designate more funds and better coordinate and publicize services for urban refugees so that Syrians can find assistance – in particular rental and cash assistance – without having to relocate to a camp.
  • The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) should increase the amount of money available to inter-governmental and non-governmental organization partners operating in Jordan both in the camp and urban settings. 


  • International donors must provide more funding for the Syria Regional Response Plan, with a particular emphasis on the operation in Iraq.
  • The UNHCR should work to increase the capacity of its partners in Domiz camp in order to provide effective humanitarian response in basic protection, medical care, education, and services for those with special needs.
  • The UNHCR and its partners should implement cash assistance programs – including rental assistance – for the urban refugee population to avoid a mass movement of Syrians into the camp at Domiz.

[Click here to download the full report.] 

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