The Middle East is once again the world’s biggest producer of refugees, due primarily to the catastrophic war in Syria.
It is a distinction that has belonged to the region for much of the century since World War I. The aftermath of that conflict saw the Greek-Turkish “population exchange,” the forced death march of the Armenians and the resettlement of Assyrian Christians from Turkey in Iraq. Thirty years later, some 750,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homeland during the fighting after the creation of the state of Israel. For decades after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghans made up the largest refugee population in the world, their numbers ranging between 2 and 3 million. Successive wars in Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and elsewhere uprooted millions more. In 2007, with civil war and anti-occupation insurgency raging at the same time, some 2 million Iraqis had crossed into Jordan or Syria in search of safe haven.
Sometime in the last two years, Syrians passed Afghans as the largest refugee population on earth. More than 4.8 million people have escaped into neighboring countries, fleeing the indiscriminate attacks of regime and rebel forces alike, not to speak of the depredations of the Islamic State, or ISIS.
None of these figures capture the immense scale of wartime displacement, since in many cases, most of the displaced persons do not traverse an international border. More than 6 million Syrians, for instance, have been pushed out of their homes but are still living in Syria. Many of these people are compelled to move several times. The family of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year old boy whose drowned body awoke Western opinion to the Syrian refugee crisis in the fall of 2015, fled from Damascus to Aleppo to Kobane to Turkey before the attempted Mediterranean passage that took the lives of Alan and his mother and brother. Before the war, some 560,000 Palestinian refugees lived in Syria, and almost all of them are now displaced again, either inside or outside the country.
Still less visible are the 2.4 million internally displaced persons in Yemen, where factional fighting and Saudi-led bombardment continues despite peace talks in Kuwait. Yemen’s neighbors closed the borders, and the Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies maintain a strict naval blockade. It is probably only because very few Yemenis can get out that there is no mass flight from southwestern Arabia, as well. A mere 30,000 or so have managed to leave by boat to Djibouti or Somalia.
Global media attention to refugees of any origin was intermittent until mid-2015, when Syrians in particular began heading for Europe in large numbers, due to temporarily loosened asylum laws in Germany and Sweden. The Kurdi tragedy, the thousands of other migrant deaths in capsized boats in the Mediterranean, the 71 Syrians who suffocated in a ditched tractor trailer in Austria, the weary columns hiking through Hungary—the swirl of wrenching images was suddenly non-stop. The media began to refer to a “migration crisis” in large part because the displacement in the Middle East now impinged on Europe’s domain. Political backlash and retightened asylum procedures soon put an end to the round-the-clock coverage. But the exodus of Syrians, together with Afghans, Eritreans, Somalis, Sudanese and others, constitutes the largest movement of refugees since World War II. This enormous displacement is a crisis whether the mainstream media is paying attention or not.
The crisis consists of multiple humanitarian emergencies, to be sure, but also of a political-economic impasse. For the better part of a century, the Middle East has been not just the biggest producer of refugees but also the biggest host of refugee populations. Most of the Palestinian refugees and their descendants reside in Jordan, Lebanon and (formerly) Syria, as well as the West Bank and Gaza. Afghan refugees dwell in Iran and Pakistan; Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen; and so on. The clear pattern is that refugees wind up in states that are poor, weak and maybe even imploding themselves. Stronger states, such as the Gulf monarchies, can keep them out. Unable in most cases to go home, and often blocked from gainful employment in exile, the refugees live in permanent limbo. The host governments regard them warily at best.
The international legal regime created after World War II to deal with refugees is no remedy for inequalities of state power, on either the regional or the international level.
The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear” is unwilling to return. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), founded in 1950, is charged with providing relief to people thus classified and to protect them from refoulement—deportation to their country of origin. The UNHCR is also tasked with helping people with refugee status find a “durable solution” to their exile—repatriation if possible, asylum in the host country or resettlement to a third country. Not every refugee population enjoys these protections—Palestinians, for instance, are regarded as ineligible, though they do receive aid from an agency established for them. But the UNHCR’s ability to carry out its mandate when refugees are considered refugees is heavily dependent on circumstances. Look at the case of Syrians.
The frontline states in the Syrian crisis do not consider themselves bound by the international legal regime. Neither Jordan nor Lebanon, the second and third largest host countries of Syrians, respectively, is a signatory of the 1951 Convention. Turkey, the largest host country, did sign the compact but with the proviso that it would treat only fleeing Europeans as refugees. To limit the size of the refugee population, all three states have closed their borders, at least for a time, and sent people back to Syria against their will. In the spring of 2015, Lebanon asked the UNHCR to deregister all the Syrians who had entered the country since that January and then to suspend registration of subsequent arrivals. In Jordan, though the government has softened its stance against work permits for Syrians, there is likewise little possibility of a “durable solution.” Turkey claims to have an “open-door policy,” but in practice has turned Syrian refugees into a political football in its contentious relations with Europe.
With the war in Syria continuing, and repatriation a distant prospect at best, resettlement outside the Middle East would seem to be the most “durable solution” for Syrian refugees. But there, too, the spirit of the times is uncongenial to the letter of international law. In both Europe and the United States, the politics of the Syrian refugee crisis are very ugly, replete with assumptions that all Syrians are potential members of ISIS. The northern-tier European states offering liberalized asylum terms in the fall of 2015 changed course under domestic pressure. Instead, the European Union has stepped up its prime border control measure—bribing countries like Turkey with aid packages to prevent refugees and migrants from heading north in the first place. The Obama administration has tried to dispel the crazier xenophobia surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis, but has done little to ameliorate the crisis itself. As of early April, according to Human Rights First, the US had resettled 1,285 of the mere 10,000 Syrians it pledged to welcome in 2016. These paltry numbers suggest that Syrians cannot look westward for succor.
None of the foregoing addresses the invidious distinction drawn between “refugees,” people fleeing violent conflict or persecution as per the wording of the 1951 Convention, and “migrants,” people escaping economic hardship and truncated life chances, often in countries where political repression is also severe. The mainstream media has often used the terms interchangeably in its coverage of the “migration crisis,” in deference to state narratives that most of the arrivals on European shores were seeking jobs rather than asylum. This substitution is doubly sly: It hints that the legal and moral responsibilities of Western nations to war refugees are not that great, and it reinforces the notion that migrants are not deserving of assistance or sympathy. Indeed, it is common for applicants for EU asylum to be rejected on the grounds that they are “migrants” rather than “refugees.” Such decisions are particularly cruel, as Parastou Hassouri writes in this issue, in the case of people who departed their war-torn home countries as refugees and then left their host countries for economic or other reasons. Serial displacement, it seems, can strip away the protections of the international refugee regime.
Mass displacement, finally, is a crisis for the countries that are losing their people. Syria, where fully half the population is either in refuge abroad or internally displaced, has lost a whole generation, many of whom, one must surmise, will never go back. Many of these people, as Killian Clarke and Gözde Güran write in this issue, were active in the 2011 uprising, in which they learned leadership skills and gained organizing experience that Syria will need badly when, at long last, it comes time to rebuild. The inadequacy of the formal relief effort, ironically, has prompted many of these activists to mount efforts of communal self-help, some of which have a civic component. There is perhaps a sliver of hope for Syria to be found in the work of these enterprising Syrians as they endure life in exile.