The economy of the Middle Eastern country is collapsing and the refugee exodus is leading to a tragic loss of skill sets, knowledge base and capital that will have an impact on the future of the region. The crisis is increasingly being framed in sectarian ways

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Last update: 2022-04-22 09:37:06

The economy of the Middle Eastern country is collapsing and the refugee exodus is leading to a tragic loss of skill sets, knowledge base and capital that will have an impact on the future of the region. In addition, the crisis is increasingly being framed in sectarian ways: the hollowing out of the population under these circumstances coupled with the rise of the armed groups, whilst the entrepreneurs of war has silenced the voices of those who are advocating a national Syrian project.

The Syrian refugee crisis is having two interconnected consequences. The first is the ‘brain drain’, the loss of skill sets, knowledge base and capital that results from the departure of such a massive amount of people. In Syria’s case the impact of the brain drain alone is staggering.

The second consequence of this exodus is more unique to the specific context. Particularly, it has to do with the displacement taking place at a time that the crisis in Syria and the Levant more broadly is increasingly being framed in sectarian ways. Most of the previous waves of mass migration out of Syria in the past century occurred during eras of rising Syrian and Arab nationalist sentiment. The hollowing out of the population under these circumstances coupled with the rise of the armed groups and the entrepreneurs of war has silenced the voices of those who are advocating a national Syrian project.

And yet, with the panic accompanying the dramatic rise of refugees and migrants entering the European Union in 2015, it is easy to forget who is suffering the real burden of this crisis. Hungarian PM, Viktor Orbán claimed that if Europe continues to receive Muslim migrants it will “crush the lifestyle...values and strengths [it has] developed in the past several hundred years.”[1] The former British prime minister David Cameron among other conservative politicians, used economic arguments that put forth the idea that refugees will make EU nations poorer by putting pressure on public services, damaging the labor market and pushing down wages. The portrayal of the refugee crisis as a European problem overshadows the fact that it is primarily a crisis for Syrian refugees, Syrian society and the neighboring countries in the Middle East that host 55 per cent of the world’s refugee population.

Moreover, this narrative of the crisis conceals the fact that European states inflate the burden on poorer states in the Middle East by spending a lot of money on techniques of excluding refugee populations. While Jordan has taken over 600,000 refugees, the UK, which has 78 times the GDP of Jordan, has said it would allow only 20,000 refugees over the next five years. Lebanon now holds about 1 million registered Syrian refugees with estimates of an additional half to one million involuntarily displaced Syrians not registered as refugees, which taken together make up between 25-40 per cent of the Lebanese population.


The Seriousness of the Emergency

To truly comprehend the extent of the damage caused by the population exodus in Syria it is important to review some basic history of the crisis.

As of mid 2016 the number of registered refugees is estimated to be about 4.8 million, most of whom are spread out across Syria’s immediate neighbors. A further estimated 6 million Syrians are internally displaced, taking the total number of those who have left their homes since March 2011 close to 10 million out of a pre-war estimated population of 22 million.

A number of factors make the evolving refugee crisis particularly difficult:

-          The displacement happens alongside a continued brutal conflict. Even if the conflict abated and a peace process was in the making, the outcome would be uncertain as other, latent conflicts may erupt. Waiting until the “end of the conflict” to discuss the long term consequences of the refugee crisis is unrealistic and dangerous given the large humanitarian assistance requirements of meeting the basic needs of the refugee and IDP populations.

-          As of now a large refugee population is located in at least six different countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Algeria, which implies the existence of a large scale internationally coordinated effort for relief, let alone an attempt at durable solutions, whether it be resettlement, integration or return. All three solutions are difficult due to political, security and economic barriers raised by the host countries. Integration has been ruled out completely in all neighboring countries except Turkey.

-          The displacement takes place alongside a process of regional upheaval, where some of the countries of destination are also active participants in the Syrian crisis itself or are experiencing their own civil strife, making the status of Syrian refugees extremely tenuous.

-          As we will expand upon later in this essay, the refugee population is not immune to the process of sectarianization of the Syrian conflict and the polarization borne of the overall upheaval in the Middle East. In fact, the mere presence of the Syrian displaced population is one of the main ways in which the Syrian conflict is reshaping the physical and social geographies of the region itself. For example some regions of Syria such as the very north of the country are being tied closer to the economy of Turkey, while areas controlled by Kurdish political parties have seen greater trade with the Iraqi Kurdistan.

-          The Syrian refugee population lies at the intersection of different kinds of forced migration: war/persecution, ecological or economic life threatening raisons, and ethnic, religious or tribal conflict. Syrians also exist as three of the main legal categories of international migrants: refugees, legal immigrants or guest workers, and illegal immigrants. In many countries, their legal status is unclear with direct implications on both their daily social welfare as well as long-term security.


A Civil Society in Exile

Despite the hardships, there are possibilities that have emerged in exile. One of the most remarkable aspect of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, and to some extent parts of Turkey and Jordan, is the number of middle class Syrians dedicated to building a civil society in exile and helping other Syrians in Lebanon. For instance, a director of a Syrian NGO remarked “as soon as I arrived here after life in Syria became untenable, I decided that we need to work for the kind of society we want Syria to be after the revolution. We thought it would not take a long time, so we dedicated ourselves at targeting our society here in Lebanon to try and build the values we want for future Syria.” This is a typical sentiment echoed by many Syrian refugees elsewhere. The director’s remarks show that many middle class Syrians thought, at least early on in their displacement, that a primary way to build the future society they wanted in Syria was to assist other Syrians. The range of activities that Syrians are participating in is wide-ranging, from providing food and non-food essential items, rent assistance, and aid to those in informal tented settlements, to cultural, educational activities and finally to education around issues of citizenship, and transitional justice. This flowering of this civil society is remarkable. Many Syrians explicitly state that these organization are the first experience with democracy they have ever had. Though many small scale NGOs exist, the successful ones have made a large impact. Basmeh and Zeitooneh one such Syrian NGO based in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut claims to serve about 20,000 Syrians with a staff of 90 members while running 11 programs all over Lebanon. “We can’t wait till the war is over; we have to start from now to build a society that lives in dignity and independence. There’s an opportunity for something to be that is not the regime and not Daesh [the Arabic shorthand for the ISIS],” says Hallisso, one of its co-founders. “We don’t see ourselves as only an emergency response. We will return.”

Other Syrian organizations explicitly tried to tackle the issue of social cohesion. An organization known as Wrd (pronounced Ward, as in flower in Arabic) based in Tripoli launched several campaigns aimed at soothing over refugee-host community tensions. One of their campaigns, labelled “bread and salt”, was a huge success according to Ashraf Hifni, a former Syrian red crescent worker who was displaced to Lebanon. The campaign’s aim was to distribute fresh bread to Lebanese on the street as a “thank you” from Syrians in Lebanon. This was part of a larger set of activities taking place in several villages to stress the bonds and appreciation of Syrian society to their Lebanese counterparts.


The Figures of the Catastrophe

Nevertheless these positive examples cannot hide the losses being incurred at the social level. By late 2015 the Institute of International Education said that that as many as 450,000 refugees are between the ages of 18-22 and of those about 110,000 are qualified for university, but fewer than 6 per cent are actually enrolled. For the overwhelming majority of those students, the costs of a university education, should it be available where they are located, are simply beyond their reach. At the elementary and secondary level, substantial effort by the host countries and international organizations have boosted the number of schoolchildren receiving a formal education to about half or two-thirds of total school age children, but even there considerable gaps exist. In fact receiving an education is usually among the top reasons why many young Syrians cite for their attempt to reach Europe despite the dangers involved in the journey.

Comparison with regional countries that have experienced conflict earlier is useful. In Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the country witnessed a hollowing out of the middle class. According to Joseph Sassoon[2] a large part of the Iraqi middle class was targeted and persecuted by religious extremist groups for being even vaguely affiliated with the Ba‘th party. A large number of academics and lawyers were assassinated. Religion began to infiltrate academic and intellectual life as religious militias scouted academic campuses. Unemployment reached 40 per cent among young educated people. For these reasons Iraq lost doctors, academics and lawyers to the extent that its health care and educational systems crumbled. The loss of so many educated people also affected the functioning of Iraqi government bureaucracy, which in turn affected the execution of any capital or investment budget.

If the regional situation of Syrians is very difficult, conditions inside the country are in a free fall. Multiple reports by the Syrian Center for Policy Research, an independent research center which operates from Damascus and Beirut have documented the shocking level of deterioration inside the country. At one level, there’s the economic destruction, in large part due to both the economic sanctions imposed on the country as well as the impact of the violent conflict taking place there. The accumulated losses for the Syrian economy by the end of 2015 was estimated at a staggering USD 254.7 billion. In other words the GDP loss is about three times Syria’s 2010 GDP. All formal sectors of the economy suffered losses except one: the NGO sector, which had a negligible quantitative contribution but an important symbolic one. The rise of the NGO sector reflects the loss of any semblance of a normal functioning economy and the rise of aid based organizations for basic subsistence. Manufacturing has declined significantly, which has been exacerbated by the destruction and looting of factories. As a result of this collapse, the income level for those residing inside the country dropped precipitously at the same time the cost of living was dramatically rising. The predictable result was that poverty rates skyrocketed, with over 80 per cent of the population inside Syria living below the poverty line.

The main thriving sector on the domestic scene is that of the war economy. The SCPR report shockingly reveals that an estimated 17 per cent of the economically active population in Syria is tied to the war economy, which includes activities such as smuggling, theft, weapons trade and trafficking in people. The rise of the war economy and the accompanying destruction of the social fabric are deeper problems that are likely to persist the longest. Armed militias have spread throughout the country on all sides of the conflict and they control substantial licit and illicit economic networks that often tie them to regional and even transnational economies far beyond the country.

The bonds that tied Syrians to one another prior to 2011, despite the imposed silence of the authoritarian regime, have deteriorated dramatically after a brief moment of hope in the early stages of the uprising. Almost all of those militias and armed groups with a few exceptions use religious (sectarian) identity as a primary rallying factor. Even politically, from the outset of the conflict both of the regime and opposition political parties insisted on a political discourse that addressed their ardent followers rather than attempting to develop a political platform for all the people.

Adding to this toxic mix of the decline of an inclusive national narrative and the rise of economies of violence, is the sectarianization of the conflict something dramatically heightened as a result of the regional confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran along with their respective allies and backers. One of the major problems confronting Syrians is that there was never an open and honest discussion about sectarian identity, citizenship, and national identity. Prior to the 2011 uprising, such discussions were outlawed by the government’s desire to suppress difference even while it instrumentalized sectarian cleavages in a process of divide and conquer. Consequently Syrians would not speak of let alone publicly discuss religious and ethnic differences in their everyday lives even while being hyper-aware of the sectarian makeup of the top echelons of the regime’s political, security, and military apparatus. Unfortunately, the start of the uprising did not remedy this either.

Despite the attempts by many Syrians, regardless of their political loyalties, to keep sectarian differences muted, they were quickly seized upon by Syrian and regional political entrepreneurs. The crisis empowered those speaking in sectarian terms and disempowered those holding the values of equality and citizenship. The refugee crisis has only served to exacerbate this problem.

The way that the Syrian conflict is resolved is likely to play a major role on what kind of Syria emerges in the future. The role of the international community and the peace brokers here is crucial. The multiple peace meetings in Geneva in 2012, 2014 and 2016 as well as a variety of other international and regional efforts at peacebuilding have stressed the urgency of winding down the war. However, there is tension between ending the violence at all costs on the one hand and laying the groundwork for an inclusive and equitable post-conflict state on the other. If the peace process accepts religious or ethnic based power sharing or allows the conflict’s warlords to transition to powerful political actors and entrench themselves in the future Syria, it is likely to result in long-term instability. Even seemingly desirable processes, such as rushing to hold national elections, can inadvertently create conflict and relapse into violence. As with their brethren in the Arab countries, many Syrians went to the streets in 2011 for a progressive, democratic and inclusive project. Only a gradual, inclusive and consensus-based peace building process is needed to allow Syrian society to mend and eventually assert itself and begin to realize those aspirations.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation



[1] David Cameron, Speech on immigration, 21 May 2015,

[2] Joseph Sassoon, The Iraqi Refugees: The New Crisis in the Middle-East (I.B. Tauris, London, 2008).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Omar S. Dahi, Helen Makkas, “The Brain Drain and the Future of Syria”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 22-28.

Online version:
Omar S. Dahi, Helen Makkas, “The Brain Drain and the Future of Syria”, Oasis [online], published on 16th March 2017, URL: