The Real Refugee Crisis is in the Middle East, not Europe

By Kelsey P. Norman, University of California at Irvine, Lisel Hintz, Cornell University and Rawan Arar, University of California at San Diego

*This piece originally appeared in the Monkey Cage at the Washington Post

*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. POMEPS Studies 25 is a collection of their memos from this workshop, available as an open-access PDF here.

The Syrian conflict has reached its fifth year, but the European aspect of the refugee crisis it generated has dominated news headlines since the summer of 2015. Numerous  academic panels have been convened to discuss how the European Union is (not) coping with its increasing numbers of asylum seekers. A supra-national entity of 500 million, the E.U. is up in arms at the 1 million Syrian refugees who entered its borders last year. To put this in perspective, that’s about the same number of Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, a country of just 4.5 million. While the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region currently hosts around 4.8 million Syrian refugees alone (not to mention Iraqi, Palestinian and many others), they are treated more as passive refugee-hosting vessels than as actors with their own interests.

Hosting refugees is not easy, logistically or politically; the E.U. has made this abundantly clear. MENA host communities are already struggling with myriad challenges including recent regime upheaval and ongoing ethnic and sectarian conflict. Foisting the responsibility of hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees onto states such as Jordan and Egypt with the assumption they are intrinsically willing and able to care for them is a seriously misguided case of passing the buck. Shoving money at states such as Turkey in the hopes of making the problem go away while turning a blind eye to how that money is spent is equally thorny.

Because refugee displacement has largely been framed as a European challenge by European actors, major MENA refugee-hosting states have fallen outside conversations on durable solutions. When the E.U. does give MENA states a seat at the table, such as in recent negotiations with Turkey, its strategy involves pledging money and making impracticable promises in the hope the problem will disappear without adequately considering the challenges the states and the refugees they host will face.

Based on our fieldwork conducted in Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, we argue that MENA host states must be taken seriously as actors with specific stakes in the refugee system. Acknowledging these stakes, and the complex internal dynamics that shape them, will help develop a more broadly international refugee regime that addresses the needs of refugees and host communities alike.

Turkey: Payoffs, politicking, and empty promises

Turkey has taken responsibility for by far the largest number of refugees: about 3 million. Like Lebanon, Turkey already struggles with perceived cleavages along ethnic, sectarian and other identity lines. Also like Lebanon and its influx of Palestinian refugees, Turkey has faced repeated demographic destabilizations in hosting refugees fleeing violence in neighboring countries such as Bulgaria and Iraq. The challenges of incorporating millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey’s already contentious social fabric need serious attention.

While policies enacted by Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) can be criticized as increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad, Turkey’s response to rising numbers of refugees was commendable. Initially eschewing international support to prove Turkey could handle the influx of refugees without the West via an open-door, “zero problems with neighbors” policy, AKP leaders proudly welcomed refugees as Muslim coreligionists, spending billions of dollars to host them in generally well-run tent cities. When it became clear, however, that an end to the Syrian crisis was nowhere in sight, the AKP government turned to the international community for assistance.

Turkey’s recent “1-for-1” deal with the E.U., in which Syrian refugees entering Greece will be swapped for an equal number of Syrians already in Turkey’s refugee camps, can best be understood as “opportunistic transactionalism.” In exchange for agreeing to host Syrians sent back to its territory, Turkey will supposedly receive billions in European aid along with reinvigorated visa liberalization and E.U. accession processes.

The deal is legally dubious; it appears to violate international humanitarian law’s prohibitions on mass deportations and insistence that refugees be returned to safe third countries. Equally worrisome, the deal is structured around the morally dubious practice of burden-shifting. In doing so, the E.U. essentially pays Turkey to deal with a problem of which its member states would prefer to wash their hands — when in reality its member states are much better equipped to engage in burden-sharing than its MENA neighbors. An agreement that commits member states to host numbers of refugees proportionate to their populations may be politically challenging, especially given the reactionary rise of ultra-right nationalist parties in some states, but is by no means infeasible.

In the future, treating Turkey as an equal partner rather than as a holding tank means keeping the AKP accountable for its end of the bargain. Turkey’s worryingly erratic and bullish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to send busloads of refugees to Europe if his financial demands were not met during E.U. negotiations, casting serious doubt on Turkey’s commitment to the refugees’ well-being.

Opposition party claims that funding for refugees is being distributed along partisan lines create further cause for concern. Of more imminent concern is the ouster of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu for someone more willing to do Erdogan’s bidding, which threatens to “upend” the (albeit flawed) E.U. deal.

The refugees in Turkey, and their host community, deserve better than payoffs, politicking, and empty promises. Hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking work in Istanbul’s formal and informal sectors live in dire conditions but are blamed by Turkey’s citizens for rising residential rents and declining wages. Istanbul is not unique in this predicament; only about 10 percent of Turkey’s refugee population lives in the tent cities the state constructed. Many other urban centers, crowded with refugees seeking work opportunities unavailable in tent cities, are in desperate need of well-supervised programs providing education, job training, and clean and safe housing. Research shows that these forms of aid, if delivered well, can help refugees become an economic and social boon to their host communities rather than the burden they are too often judged to be.

Jordan: ‘Host community fatigue’  

For almost 70 years, Jordan has accepted generations of refugees from the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Syria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates that 638,000 Syrian refugees live in Jordan; official Jordanian statistics put the number at 1.3 million.

Refugees settle in Jordan, but they also flow through en route to Europe. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, 2.5 million Syrians have entered Jordan, according to Jordan’s Refugee Affairs Coordination Office. In addition to the 1.3 million Syrians now settled in Jordan, approximately 150,000 refugees returned to Syria, while the rest are assumed to have traveled to Turkey or North Africa in search of a route to Europe. Jordan is an important host country as well as a transit country for asylum seekers.

These numbers matter. They matter to the Jordanian state because the number of refugees hosted by the country is proportional to the amount of international aid the state receives.

Jordan has been accused of exaggerating the number of refugees within its borders to solicit greater financial contributions. Meanwhile, Jordanian officials have accused the United Nations of exaggerating the number of refugees stranded at the border to embarrass Jordan into accepting more refugees. It should not be assumed that MENA states are expected to accept all refugees while Western states have the right to control who crosses their borders and when. “Jordan is a sovereign state. We have legitimate security concerns,” emphasized Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Momani.

Jordanian officials have not used the same xenophobic rhetoric that surfaced in Eastern Europe, the United States and Australia to discourage refugee settlement. But Jordanians have vocally criticized a perceived decline in their standard of living and feel the ache of “host community fatigue” as the refugee burden includes rising costs and crowded schools, streets and hospitals.

“It is … essential to ensure that doing the right thing does not come at the expense of Jordan’s youth and the opportunities our next generation will have in life,” King Abdullah II wrote in an article for the Independent. He urged Western donor states to finance humanitarian relief and “sustainable development-based goals.” Investing in Jordan’s infrastructure not only helps Jordanians and refugees in Jordan, but it also serves the interests of Western states that wish to stem the flow of refugees.

Egypt: Turning a blind eye

While not typically thought of as a refugee host state, Egypt ranks as one of the top five countries hosting Syrians, with approximately 267,000 refugees, including 140,000 Syrians, although the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimated in 2015 that 100,000 Syrians were living unregistered in the country. Egypt tends to turn a blind eye to its refugee population and generally refrains from providing state-funded services directly to individuals. But this ambivalence does not mean that the Egyptian state is unaware of certain gains derived from hosting refugees.

One benefit for the Egyptian state is the presence of organizations such as the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, in addition to smaller migration-focused international non-governmental organizations. These entities bring in international funding that also translates into development financing for the broader Egyptian populace, and also directly provide essential services for refugees that the Egyptian government might otherwise have to provide itself.

This is the “perverse incentive” facing many MENA host states; if refugees appear self-sufficient and integrated into their host communities, the international community will feel less obligated to contribute aid in the name of burden-sharing.

Refugees themselves also provide economic benefits to Egypt. Because of the country’s large informal economy, some refugees have found jobs in the garment, food, artisanal and industrial sectors — in addition to others who do domestic work in wealthy Egyptian households as cleaners, nannies and drivers. Yet another benefit is remittances from the Persian Gulf region, Europe and North America to refugees living in Egypt who then spend the money locally. Lastly, Egypt receives international credibility for its willingness to host refugees, a topic that is raised during negotiations with European countries regarding the treatment of Egyptian emigrants abroad.

Giving MENA states a meaningful seat at the table while making sure that they are holding up their end of the hosting bargain is a tricky balancing act but one that is needed to develop a more broadly international and effective refugee-protection system. Failing to take the needs of host states seriously creates the risk of governments’ reacting rashly to perceived inequality of responsibility, as was evidenced last week in Kenya, with the government’s decision to close its refugee camps, potentially displacing 600,000 individuals. Only in considering these needs can we propose feasible solutions that address the well-being of refugees and their host communities  immediately and in the longer term.

Rawan Arar is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California at San Diego and a researcher at the Center for Comparative and Immigration Studies. Lisel Hintz is a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. Kelsey P. Norman is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California at Irvine.