Refugees and the Making of an Arab Regional Disorder

Refugees and the Making of an Arab Regional Disorder
Maha YahyaCarnegie Middle East Center

Wars in Iraq and Syria have displaced around 12 million Syrians and 4 million Iraqis as of June 2015, marking a historic turning point for the region. The increasingly sectarian nature of these conflicts is dismantling the idea of a nation-state built on societal diversity and is affecting the refugee policies of Lebanon and Jordan,

Wars in Iraq and Syria have displaced around 12 million Syrians and 4 million Iraqis as of June 2015, marking a historic turning point for the region. The increasingly sectarian nature of these conflicts is dismantling the idea of a nation-state built on societal diversity and is affecting the refugee policies of Lebanon and Jordan, the two Arab countries hosting the most refugees. A substantial new underclass of citizens has emerged, along with an evident expansion in militant identities. Without effective policies, these trends will have profound repercussions on regional and international stability.

A Historic Turning Point

Wars in Iraq and Syria are generating 90 percent of Arab refugee flows as of 2015. These displacements represent the catastrophic humanitarian implications of a profound political crisis.
The fallout from the Syrian crisis mirrors the repercussions of Iraq’s conflicts but on an amplified scale.
Governments as well as rogue entities are targeting communities based on ethnic and sectarian identities. These identity politics are playing a significant role in determining patterns of displacement and the potential for return.
Identity politics inform the refugee policies of Lebanon and Jordan. Fears of prospective changes to current social orders fuel national anxieties.
The international response to these conflicts is inadequate, while the ongoing course of territorial fragmentation in Syria and Iraq and the absence of immediate political or military solutions are creating a protracted refugee crisis.

Major Lessons for Future Policy

Addressing the refugee crisis is a political and developmental imperative. Finding adequate resolutions to the catastrophic fallout from the conflicts is primarily a political challenge, and political responses should steer clear from identity-based partition. But a developmental approach is also essential for political stabilization, societal reconciliation, and peace building.

Actors should prepare for protracted displacement. Lebanon and Jordan need to adjust their refugee policies accordingly. International and regional actors should step up to their responsibilities toward host countries
and refugees.

The internally displaced problem requires quick international action. Assistance is needed in the form of either protection for those facing imminent threats to their lives or humanitarian and other support.

An international partnership is needed. The scale of the crisis and its wide reach means that responsibility for addressing the fallout must go beyond the United Nations and include partnerships with the private sector and civil society organizations.

Education is essential. Inadequate funding for educating millions of children in the region must be rectified. Keeping these children in school gives them a foundation for a better future and makes them less vulnerable to recruitment by extremist organizations.

A Brutal Transition in the Arab Levant

Warring parties in the Iraq and Syria conflicts are increasingly targeting individuals and communities based on sectarian and ethnic identities. The most visible consequences of such actions are brutal population movements that are taking place at a scale and pace unprecedented in the Arab region’s recent history.1 Meanwhile, borders and state control of territory are crumbling in the face of subnational entities. This trend is dismantling the idea of a nation-state built on societal diversity and replacing it with the notion of a sectarian or an ethnic enclave that celebrates uniformity.

Brutal population movements are taking place at a scale and pace unprecedented in the Arab region’s recent history.

Both Iraq and Syria have become wastelands of death and destruction that account for 90 percent of the displacements in Middle Eastern and North African countries.2 Close to 12 million Syrians and 4 million Iraqis have forcibly fled the mayhem in their countries as of June 2015. The displacement of Iraqis is more protracted, beginning with the first Gulf War in 1990, increasing and decreasing with successive external wars and internal conflicts, and intensifying after the emergence of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Today, Lebanon and Jordan are the two Arab countries hosting the largest number of these refugees, with around 1.1 million Syrians and 8,000 Iraqis registered with the United Nations (UN) in Lebanon and 629,000 Syrians and 30,800 Iraqis registered in Jordan as of July 2015.3

The scale of forced displacements, coupled with widespread political upheaval, signals a historic turning point for the region, the likes of which have not been seen since the end of World War I. As international borders between Iraq and Syria have crumbled under the onslaught of the Islamic State, parties to the various conflicts are seeking to reshape state geographies and ensure control of territories by targeting individuals and communities based solely on identity in what amounts to acts of ethnic cleansing.

These forced population movements represent a demographic undoing of the Sykes-Picot agreement, the French-British treaty that drew the borders of countries in the Arab Levant. Ongoing identity-based population displacements are not only reconstituting Syrian and Iraqi societies but also affecting neighboring countries, namely Lebanon and Jordan. Furthermore, this process is dismantling the ethnic and sectarian diversity that has characterized these societies for millennia. It is also driving the militarization of society as some ethnic and sectarian communities seek to arm themselves for protection.

Concerns with identity are not limited to warring parties.

In Lebanon and Jordan, national anxieties related to identity increasingly dominate policy and public discussions about the refugees, albeit in different ways. Policymakers and the populace at large are increasingly alarmed that the dramatic spike in the number of refugees fleeing into their countries is altering current demographics and undermining existing social orders. In Lebanon, the fear is that the predominantly Sunni Syrians will disrupt the delicate sectarian balance in the country. In Jordan, this concern focuses on questions of national origin.

With the escalation of conflict, Syria’s neighbors hardened their refugee policies. The initial open-door and humanitarian approach has shifted to a narrower security agenda. Public narratives and official discourse about refugees in both Jordan and Lebanon no longer consider fleeing populations to be “guests” but rather consider them to be “burdens” on their host communities and a potential security threat.

International and regional reactions to the crisis and the inability to either stem the conflict or address its fallout have fueled these anxieties further. Political deadlock at the international level, particularly in the UN Security Council, has allowed a prolongation and escalation of the conflicts. In both Syria and Iraq, different regional and international actors are backing a wide variety of local groups on the ground, while diplomatic efforts best embodied in the Geneva process have yet to bear fruit.4 This has tilted the scales in favor of military and security options in dealing with the unfolding conflicts, including the broad, U.S.-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State and the more recent Russian military action in support of the Syrian regime.

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