This entry is a first in a series I am titling “Common Questions.” These will be questions I hear frequently that, while perhaps understandable, reflect the lack of knowledge that people have about refugees, immigration, and migration management broadly. So if you have one of these questions yourself or you hear other people ask them, I hope this series will be a good resource for you!
There is a very quick answer to this question: Muslim countries ARE accepting Syrian refugees. In fact, Muslim countries have accepted the MOST Syrian refugees. Muslim cultural values of extending hospitality may be part of this, but the big reason is really location. Most refugees go to the countries bordering their own. Take a look at a map and you’ll see why most Syrians have fled to another predominantly Muslim country.
The best resource for finding out where Syrian refugees are is the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Syrian Regional Response. In addition to having the best count of where Syrians are, they provide a map so that you can see WHY so many Muslim countries have taken in Syrians.
I took this screen shot of the Syrian Regional Response Map on November 20, 2015. This matters because each circle represents the proportional distribution of Syrian refugees in each country, which may change over time. That would change the size of the circles. So if you want up-to-date information on where Syrians are, you should check out the UNHCR’s Syrian Regional Response website.
As of November 17, 2015 (the most recent UNHCR update available when I wrote this entry), there were 2,181,293 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey, the most of any country. From my own personal experience living in Istanbul, there are many Syrians who are not registered with UNHCR, so this number is likely an underestimate. At a later date, I’ll write about why some Syrians don’t want to register. The reason is important for understanding refugee politics.
While Turkey has the most Syrian refugees, there are also substantial numbers in Lebanon (1,075,637) and Jordan (633,644). Smaller numbers of Syrians are registered in Iraq (244,765) and Egypt (127,681), with a relative handful in North African countries (which are also predominantly Muslim) like Libya (26,772).
In total, that comes to 4,289,792. That is vast majority of the refugees that have been displaced out of Syria.
The next question one could ask is, why can’t those countries keep those refugees? Well, since since resettlement is only an option for less than 1% of the world’s refugees, many Syrians will have to stay in the region. However, these different Muslim countries have different capacities for permanently integrating Syrians.
Take Jordan for example. Here is an aerial photograph of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, taken in 2013:
This is clearly an unsustainable situation. And the problem is that Jordan has very little water, as they have experienced a devastating drought that made water scarce for their pre-Syrian crisis population (which already included a large number of refugees, many Palestinian but also from Iraq).
Turkey, on the other hand, is in a better position to absorb the Syrian population that they currently have. They have more natural resources, a better economy, and while it has not been without bumps the Turkish government and people have already done a tremendous job sheltering the large Syrian population that has been growing since 2011. Their camps are the best in the world, and many Turks have stepped up to advocate for the integration of Syrians.
But it is not easy for anyone. Turkey’s economy, while relatively strong, has been and will continue to be challenged to absorb the Syrians. The sheer numbers of people alone is challenging. People in the U.S. complain about the number of Mexican immigrants, but imagine if in a period of four years we had 9,160,109 Mexican immigrants cross our border. That is the equivalent refugee population Turkey has accepted proportional to their pre-crisis population. And these would not be like the largely able-bodied, hard-working Mexican immigrants looking for work that come to the U.S., but war-ravaged, injured, very old and very young, widowed and orphaned people that flee conflict. I suspect our country would be in flames over such a migration flow. The Turks have shown amazing hospitality and resilience in the face of this influx. But they can’t be expected to shoulder this responsibility alone. Resettlement is not just a way of protecting human rights; it is a release valve to the pressures created by refugee crises. Non-Muslim countries will need to pitch in as well, the U.S. among them.