The refugee crisis is destabilising nations

The greatest fear among all the countries involved, however, is about the kind of Syria that will finally emerge from the conflict.

The human cost of the increasingly savage civil war in Syria can be seen in the faces of its displaced children. Some outlined their deeply disturbing stories to me earlier this month at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where about 60 per cent of the current population of 180,000 is of school age. Boys and girls described experiences that hardened soldiers would find it difficult to cope with, all the while displaying physical and psychological wounds that in many cases will never heal.

That the youngest victims of Syria’s violence are among the best placed to tell us about its wider effects is beyond doubt, but there is a great deal more to be learned from the refugee communities growing on the country’s perimeter. Spend just a few days in camps such as Zaatari – which opened less than a year ago but is now the fourth-largest city in Jordan – and you soon begin to realise that these new settlements threaten to provoke an economic, social and security crisis that could have repercussions as grave as the fighting that created them.

The scale of the refugee problem was made clear by the United Nations recently when it called for a $5.2bn fund to help cope with the flight of men, women and children from Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny. This amounts to the largest appeal of its kind in history. Even that enormous figure might not be enough, as the UN estimates that the number of Syrian refugees across the region – now 1.6 million – could reach 3.5 million by 2014.

Aid workers I spoke to pointed to growing resentment among host populations. Despite the lavish wealth often displayed by Jordan’s monarchy, many of the 6.5 million people living in the country are relatively poor – yet their government is currently accommodating roughly half a million Syrian refugees. Up to 2,000 more arrive every day, putting an immense strain on resources.

While in Jordan, I often saw local people being turned away as they demanded a share of the aid being distributed by charity groups to Syrian newcomers. Water is becoming particularly scarce among Jordanians, who are unhappy about the 35 litres per person each day that the Syrians are using. This is six times more water than the average Jordanian gets through.

Water deliveries are few and far between in towns and villages where crowds took to the streets as recently as December to complain about the high cost of gas and electricity. As summer droughts begin and the lack of water drives up food prices, many believe it could be the catalyst for severe civil unrest.

“It is always economic shortages which trigger the street demonstrations,” said Hind, a teacher who lives close to Zaatari. “Jordan is considered one of the most secure countries in the region but, with more and more Syrians arriving every day, there will be a breaking point. It will be the same in other countries nearby.” Syrian rebels are openly using refugee camps for rest and recuperation. Zaatari is just five miles from the border and an obvious place for combatants to travel to. Armed groups can establish a firm and relatively safe base in a neighbouring country before heading back to the front line. This raises the prospect of conflict proliferating across the region.

Lebanon, which has experienced a 20 per cent increase in its population since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, is the home of Hezbollah militants who are fighting for and alongside President Assad’s troops. Turkey, which is pro-rebel, is sheltering more than 200,000 Syrians. Turkey, like all of Syria’s immediate neighbours, is becoming increasingly fearful of terrorist attacks directly linked to the civil war.

The greatest fear among all the countries involved, however, is about the kind of Syria that will finally emerge from the conflict. It was King Abdullah II of Jordan who, in April, presented President Barack Obama with a map of Jordan’s neighbour divided into rival fiefdoms and – most sinisterly of all – showing its surrounding deserts dotted with terrorist training camps.

The prospect of sectarian hatred and murderous extremism being formalised by new borders is terrifying, especially when one considers the role that ordinary Syrian people played at the start of the Arab spring in 2011. It is easy to forget that it was their street protests demanding change that grew into a nationwide movement – one that was crushed by Assad as he set about massacring his own people.

As many of the surviving protesters find themselves forced abroad, their problems not only remain unresolved but are being exported to countries that are increasingly unable to cope with them.

This is the latest of our weekly reports exploring aspects of the war in Syria

Syrian refugees at the Oncupinar refugee camp in Kilis near Syria border. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.