The Lives and Livelihoods of Syrian Refugees in the Middle East: Evidence from the 2015-16 Surveys of Syrian Refugees and Host Communities in Jordan, Lebanon, and Kurdistan, Iraq

Nandini Krishnan, Flavio Russo Riva, Dhiraj Sharma, and Tara Vishwanath


This paper characterizes the displacement and welfare of Syrian refugees living in Jordan (Amman governorate, Za’atari and Azraq camps, and areas surrounding these camps in Mafraq and Zarqa governorates), the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), and Lebanon. The analysis is based on refugee registration data from UNHCR, quantitative data from the 2015–16 Syrian Refugees and Host Communities Surveys (SRHCS), and qualitative data from focus groups and in-depth interviews.
Key findings:

  • Violence preceded decisions to migrate. The data shows that the emigration of Syrians is clearly associated with the level of violence experienced in the current and previous month. In the regression analysis, death-related variables predict roughly half of the variation of migration flows within a given month in a Syrian governorate of origin.
  • Refugees had little time to prepare for departure. More than 75 percent of refugees in KRI and Jordan had a week or less to prepare, while half the refugees in KRI and 36
    percent of refugees in Jordan had at most a day to prepare.
  •  Most refugees abandon assets such as homes and vehicles. Among homeowners, only a small fraction—1 percent in Lebanon and 4 percent in KRI—were able to sell their homes prior to migrating. Among owners of vehicles, between 15 percent of refugees in Jordan and almost 50 percent in KRI sold their vehicles prior to leaving Syria.
  • The distance travelled to the first destination is determined mostly by factors outside refugees’ control, including location of origin, timing of displacement, and the direct effect of the conflict on household assets and the ability to capitalize them. Home destruction is negatively related to distance traveled, while households that sold assets
    travelled further. Refugees in Jordan and KRI who had no time to prepare travelled a shorter distance. In KRI, economic opportunities at destination (measured by expected monthly income) had a statistically significant but small influence on distance travelled.
  •  Refugees eventually migrate to places with better economic opportunities—those with more assets travel further. Larger households make fewer moves within the country (costlier to move). Households with social networks in the host country move more often than households without social networks. In Lebanon, families with higher educational attainment move more frequently than families with lower educational attainment.
  • Refugees have very low levels of educational attainment. Less than 1 percent of refugees have completed university, and only about 10 percent have completed high school. Compared to refugees, Syrians active in the labor market prior to the crisis were almost twice as likely to have attained (or attended, in the case of Lebanon) secondary and post-secondary education. Refugees were less likely than the typical employed Syrian to be working in high-skill jobs (public administration, health, and education industries) or in professional services (financial or legal services). Refugees were more likely to have experience in low-skill jobs in construction and other service services (ranging from repair and installation of equipment to transportation/storage and communication).
  •  For most refugees, forced displacement meant a change from living in houses and apartments to living in non-standard facilities (collective centers, worksites, abandoned buildings, and dwellings not built human habitation, e.g. garages and storage rooms). Refugees living outside camps in 2015 and 2016 have experienced an improvement in housing since then. Refugees tend to live in crowded conditions in absolute terms, especially in camps. More than 95 percent of Syrian refugees living outside camps rent their dwelling, and the vast majority report difficulty in doing so.
  •  Irrespective of policies governing refugees’ rights to work, Syrian refugees in all three samples are seeking work. A little less than half of the working-age population (age 20 to 60) is actively seeking work.
  • Success in finding employment has been more limited. In KRI, one-third of refugees of working age were employed (70 percent of those in the labor force). In Lebanon, 44 percent of refugees of working age worked in the last week (almost 90 percent of those  in the labor force). Among out-of-camp refugees in Jordan, 69 percent of the labor force
    was employed (one-fifth of the working-age population). Most employment for refugees comes from wage work (rather than self-employment). Refugees employed in the wage
    sector largely do not have a written contract. Most refugees who have found work are employed in service sector jobs (construction, wholesale and retail trade, including
    household work).
  •  A large proportion of refugees reported having faced shocks related to their incomes and cost of living over the past year. While subjective poverty rates are high
    for all refugees, data suggest improved financial wellbeing among refugee households in KRI relative to Jordan.

The analysis demonstrates that the migration decisions of Syrian refugees can be characterized as forced displacement, with little scope for economic decision making. The largest migration flows come right after peaks in violence, refugees had little time to prepare for their departure, are unable to capitalize on their assets, and have little control over the distance that they travel. The study also documents vulnerability along several dimensions, such as housing access and quality, labor market attachment, and financial security.