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

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.