Refugees: the wave that will become a tsunami


Bernadett Szabo / Reuters

More than 5.5 million refugees in the Middle East are seeking shelter outside the region. More than 12 million people who have fled their homes remain in the Middle East region in desperation.

The number of people displaced for reasons ranging from warfare to famine and natural disasters is projected to triple by 2050. The fate of refugees will remain a key challenge in the Middle East for the next decade.

The largest migration crisis is unfolding here. Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan have become the main suppliers of refugees and internally displaced persons. People are fleeing the war in the hope of finding a new home in other countries. But no one is waiting for them there.

In Lebanon, for example, there are 1 million refugees for every 6 million Lebanese. And while the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is busy counting the total number of displaced people in the region, which is constantly changing, in the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, shots are again being fired and blood is being spilled.

Local authorities prefer not to interfere in the internecine squabbles of criminal Palestinian groups using mortar shells and anti-tank missiles, Al Nashra news portal reported. Lebanon’s army command has officially stated that no army operations are planned in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian camp in the south of the country.

Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the Central Committee of the Palestinian Fatah movement, urgently arrived in Beirut. As a special envoy of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he declared that «there is a conspiracy to cover the whole of Lebanon with military clashes». The statement was designed to grab the attention of the regional community. But Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and other prosperous countries of the region expressed their concern about the situation in a very peculiar way — they called on their citizens to leave Lebanon.

By the way, the Ain al-Hilweh camp is only one of more than 50 Palestinian refugee camps located not only in Lebanon. There are dozens of similar shelters in Jordan, in the Palestinian Authority itself and even in Syria. People are forced to live there in harsh conditions, without civil rights or access to social services.

The fate of refugees in Jenin camp in the West Bank is unenviable. Despite the fact that 13,000 Palestinians from Jenin work in Israel and another 1,500 in nearby Jewish settlements, the town has become, according to Israeli leaders, the epicenter of regional terrorism. It is estimated that hundreds of Islamic Jihad activists and dozens of Hamas activists operate in the Jenin area with the support of a quarter of local residents.

«We will eradicate terrorism for as long as it takes», a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces General Staff said during the military’s latest operation in Jenin against armed units of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

In general, Israel has a complicated position on Palestinian refugees, especially in the context of the conflict with the Hamas organization that controls the Gaza Strip. Israel does not recognize its responsibility for creating the refugee problem and believes that their situation should be resolved as part of a final agreement on the status of Palestine.

The depth of anti-immigrant sentiment in Turkey was revealed by the recent presidential election. Recep Erdogan’s main opposition rival chose the tactic of criticizing his opponent primarily for «allowing 10 million refugees into the country, a number that many times exceeds the capacity to help in this country». Although Erdogan won the election, the opposition’s promise to expel all Syrians from Turkey within two years if it came to power appealed greatly to its citizens.

The rich Gulf states also fear the influx of refugees will cause discontent among the local population. They motivate their refusal to accept the suffering Arab brothers by worrying about the security and stability of their states.

Egypt, which has constantly expressed empathy for the plight of people in dire conditions and survivors of war, especially the Palestinians, decided to suspend the process of their widespread acceptance. The reason was the same: the refugees who appeared in the country exacerbated already existing tensions.

More than a million Syrians have sought refuge in Jordan since the war began. But Jordan, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees points out, by accepting them, immediately restricted access to international aid to refugees of other nationalities, such as Sudanese and Somalis. Overall, UN regional aid to Syrian refugees has the largest shortfall to date, with only $2.4 billion allocated out of a total request of more than $6 billion.

Support for refugees in the Middle East is waning. Growing fatigue from protracted displacement and acute economic crises is fueling hostility toward migrants. The calming effect of international injections is wearing off as donor countries themselves are experiencing major problems on all fronts.

Millions of displaced people in the region are now in limbo. Most refugees have no prospect of socializing in host communities, just as they have no prospect of returning to their homes — because they simply don’t exist. A recent study by the UN refugee office confirms this. The survey found that only 1.1 percent of Syrians have the intention of ever returning to Syria.

What is the prognosis? You don’t have to be a great strategist to guess where the displaced within the Middle East region will go. The answer is known: they will go to the neighboring region, that is, to Europe. And perhaps at a pace that Europeans have never even imagined before. Over the past decade, millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East have already had a significant impact on the economy and well-being of a number of countries, including France, Italy and Sweden. After five years of decline, the number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach the shores of Europe at any cost has begun to rise again. A new wave of people fleeing conflict and hunger could upend the old Europe’s sedate pace of life. With this in mind, Brussels has adopted a tough policy to contain migrants. So, most likely, the main flows will have to circulate within the region.

Most experts agree that humanitarian and military-political problems will increase. In the coming years, the negative processes affecting the region will not be reversed or even significantly limited. Their inertia is too significant and, according to widespread opinion, will press on the Middle East for at least one or even two more generations.

However, against this bleak picture, there is a chance for a positive outcome. First of all, the prosperous states of the region should take advantage of it. The tandem of oil-rich Gulf states needs to put on the top of the agenda support for their neighbors in the region, who are under particular pressure due to the presence of refugees.