Refugees and Displacement in the Middle East

By Marc Lynch, POMEPS and George Washington University and Laurie Brand, University of Southern California

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Refugees and Migration Movements in the Middle East workshop organized in collaboration with POMEPS and the Center for Middle East Studies at USC and held at University of Southern California on February 2-3, 2017. Download the entire collection as an open-access PDF here.

The Middle East has experienced a dramatic flood of refugees and forced migration over the last fifteen years. The UN High Commission on Refugees reports more than 16 million refugees and 60 million displaced persons around the world today, including asylum seekers and the internally displaced. The wars in Syria and Iraq have produced the greatest share of the Middle East’s refugees in recent years, but many more have fled wars and failed states in Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. Neighboring states have faced severe challenges in absorbing millions of refugees, while North African states and Turkey have emerged as key transit hubs for refugee flows into Europe.

To examine the situation of current refugees and exiles in and from the region, the Project on Middle East Political Science and the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Southern California with support from its Center for International Studies convened a workshop in February 2017 bringing together a dozen scholars from multiple disciplines. These scholars represent a new wave of scholars conducting original field research from refugee camps and communities in the Middle East, primarily in states bordering Syria and Iraq. Their research demonstrates the transformative impact on every aspect of politics, economies, societies and states of these massive forced population movements, both within and across borders.

The workshop and papers raise a number of important research questions and challenges:

What is new about this wave of refugees?

The brutal realities of the last century suggest that there is nothing particularly novel about the large-scale forced movement of populations. What, if anything, makes this era different? Is it simply the number of people in motion? Is it their concentration in areas of conventional strategic and political interest? Is it the immediacy of social media? Is it because those refugees began to arrive on European shores in unparalleled numbers, as Achili suggests, and been made into a security issue in American politics?

While scholars of migration differ on whether the current period has produced the largest migration flows in human history, there is no question of the tremendous number of people involved. Much such population movement takes place within countries, often from rural to urban areas. Yet, the highest profile cases are those that involve the crossing of national boundaries, whether as the result of economic crises or proximity of physical danger.

These population movements should be placed at the center of political science and contemporary history. Across the globe the 20th century witnessed numerous, major population movements: the rise of nationalism, fascism and totalitarianism, the disintegration of empires, the emergence of modern nation-states, all led to large-scale forced movement of peoples.

Of course, inter-state wars are not the only triggers of large-scale population movement. Decolonization following World War II and the conflicts surrounding the Cold War also produced dramatic episodes of dislocation. The state-building that followed the withdrawal of the imperial powers from their former colonies often failed to secure the bases of sustainable economic and political development. As a result, labor recruitment ties established prior to independence were continued or reactivated to provide a safety value to lessen unemployment by exporting laborers to the global north. In other cases, interference by external powers, whether through internal subversion or direct military intervention prevented new leaderships from consolidating power. The resultant conflicts have also often created significant refugee flows. The process by which these new nations and states emerged generated new ideas about citizenship and helped drive the construction of international regimes governing migration and the treatment of refugees.

While refugee production is by no means particular to the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, episodes of forced migration have shaped a good deal of its post-world war II history. The partition of Palestine in 1947 and the subsequent 1948 War generated one of the longest-lasting and most politically fateful refugee waves. Refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as well as in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are constant reminders of the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians in 1947-48. The 1967 June War then displaced many of these 1948 refugees for a second time as it also added to their numbers.

The region has witnessed many other large-scale forced population movements. Modern Turkey was created through the dispossession of vast numbers of non-Turkish residents of the Ottoman Empire, most notably in the genocidal treatment of the Armenians. The liberation of Algeria from French rule drove hundreds of thousands of pieds noirs and harkis to mainland France. The Lebanese civil war (1975-91) led to the departure of some one-quarter of the Lebanese population. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and then Desert Storm saw a mass exodus of both Arab (overwhelmingly Palestinian) and non-Arab expatriate workers from Kuwait, as well as the expulsion from Saudi Arabia of hundreds of thousands of Yemeni workers. The brutal sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in the wake of the military conflict led many Iraqis to leave their homeland in the 1990s.

The current waves of refugees from the Levant can largely be traced to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent civil war, which produced an estimated 6 million refugees and a similar number of internally displaced. The ethnic and sectarian transformation of Iraq triggered region-wide sectarianism and galvanized jihadist movements. The population movements put enormous strain on the infrastructure of Jordan, Syria and other neighboring states, while introducing a semi-permanent presence of international organizations into the everyday governance of these non-citizen populations.

These same regional dynamics then influenced the way the so-called Arab spring affected Syria, one of the most devastating elements of which has been a refugee crisis that dwarfs even that of Iraq. The U.N. estimates that more than 6 million Syrians have fled the country, while another 10 million have been internally displaced. The size of the displacement of the Syrian population, both internally and beyond the country’s borders, can distract from other parallel catastrophes. The collapse of the Libyan state has produced a wave of Libyan refugees, while migrants from sub-Saharan Africa whose passsage Qaddafi once served to interdict continue to transit through Libya and depart from there and other parts of the North African littoral en route to Europe. The war in Yemen has also produced massive internal displacement, even if a naval and land blockade has prevented most from fleeing the country. The situation of these (and other) refugee populations in the region will continue to have an impact, not only on regional security, but also on the regional political economy and political development into the foreseeable future.

Are refugees changing the practice of sovereignty in the Middle East?

Several of the papers examine how the massive movement of peoples is challenging core elements of state sovereignty. The most obvious manifestation of this challenge relates to undocumented border crossings and what Diongi calls the softening of borders. Borders, as Arar, Hamdan and Mourad demonstrate, are not what they used to be. War economies and the provision of refugee support involve cross-border networks of people, goods, services and weapons. Borders filter these flows in varying ways, sometimes allowing nearly uninterrupted movement into war zones (as with Turkey during much of the Syrian war) and sometimes tightening them to choke off flows (as with Jordan during the Syrian war’s later years.

Other less formal aspects of sovereignty are also under siege. States like Jordan and Lebanon, already poorly equipped to provide security and services—from education and health care to basic foodstuffs and affordable housing– to their citizens now face the demands of millions of non-nationals. In some cases, services required by refugees have been outsourced to or taken on by NGOs and international organizations, as Hamdan and Arar observe, creating structures resembling those of state. This poses serious conceptual and political questions when refugee populations in states such as Jordan and Lebanon, where refugee populations (Syrian, Iraqi and Palestinian) constitute well more than a quarter of the total population and most are not housed within geographically distinct refugee camps.

What political forms may emerge in these refugee diasporas?

As it becomes clear that Syrian and other refugees will not soon return home, will they develop extraterritorial forms of political/national identity and activism? Will there someday be a Syrian equivalent of the Palestinian Liberation Organization? How will diaspora political institutions relate to the homelands and the delicate political arrangements emerging from theses wars?

The papers in this collection document surprising trends in activism and organization among refugee communities. Clarke and Khoury each point to forms of political activism within refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, examining the nature of refugee protests as well as ways in which political activism may be channeled into non-political activity. Sometimes these activities focus on the provision of services and the representation of refugee interests within camps, while other activism focuses on supporting the broader war. Zeno points to the centrality of narratives of humiliation and pride, thereby interrogating both changing identities as well as the possibilities for future national reconciliation But many refugees, as Sheldon observes among Iraqis in Jordan, will likely wish for nothing more than to forget politics and build new lives far from the destroyed homeland, raising the question of the lifespan of the desire for return and blurring the lines between refugee and exile.

What can become of the next generation?

Save the Children recently released a report documenting almost unbelievable trauma among Syrian children. Hundreds of thousands of these children have known nothing but war, death, dispossession and loss. Enrollment in primary education has dropped from 98 percent before the war to 61.5 percent this year, leading many observers to speculate that an entire generation risks being lost both in human terms as well as to Syria’s future rebuilding. Significant research has been done globally on the experience of children in war zones that shows the daunting challenges for the next generation. Some of that research shows far greater resilience and adaptability than might be expected, however, particularly after the fighting ends. Political scientists should be working now on identifying the conditions and the mechanisms by which these displaced children might be best reintegrated politically and socially in the years to come.

How may the presence of refugees or refugee camps/concentrations contribute to security threats and radicalization?

Radicalization may not be the most important question for the lives of the millions of displaced citizens, but it is the one, which most interests governments around the world. Lichtenheld explores the underlying strategic logic of the decisions of militias in the Syrian conflict to uproot or displace certain populations. Many fear, based on past historical experience, that refugee camps and communities would become prime recruiting grounds for jihadist organizations and other extremists.

The securitization of the refugee issue, understanding the problem primarily through the lens of security threats and radicalization, carries many costs. As Pearlman has observed, radicalization captures very little of the lived experience of the vast majority of Syrian refugees. Most are ordinary people struggling to rebuild their lives from the ruins of overwhelming trauma. Treating these refugees primarily as potential security threats, whether through the destabilization of host countries or through recruitment into terrorism, does a profound injustice to their real problems. Researchers must find ways to take seriously the security challenges posed by large refugee and displaced communities without giving in to the unwarranted securitization of these populations.

What ethical obligations do political scientists have towards these refugees? A final thread ran through the margins of the workshop. A significant body of new research has treated Syrian refugees as an available group of interview subjects for survey experiment research. This work is generally well intentioned, has produced important findings, and is the only plausible way to get access to Syrian opinion. Still, it raises troubling ethical questions. What are the ethical implications of treating traumatized, displaced populations primarily as objects of research? Are we qualified to conduct interviews with traumatized populations? Is it acceptable to conduct experiments of any kind on traumatized populations, or to use them for normal political science questions? What expectations of aid or concern are raised by the simple act of asking questions?

These fundamental questions of research ethics will only become more central to the practice of political science as the demand for research on and with refugees grows. Political scientists working in and studying the Middle East should learn from and remain constantly engaged with the vibrant literature and debates about research ethics in conflict areas.

Overall, the papers in the workshop represent an important window into a vitally important research area for the political science of the Middle East. The questions they raise are at the center of today’s challenges to states and societies, and will become ever more so in the coming years.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science at the George Washington University and is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.

Laurie Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Southern California. She is also the Chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.