A Long View of the Middle East
James Gelvin, 67, is a leading historian and American scholar of Middle East history. His 2004 book, The Modern Middle East: A History, which surveys five hundred years of Middle East history, is a core text in Middle East studies.
Gelvin has written extensively on the making of the modern Middle East, taking a particular interest in country nationalisms and cultural history. He has produced notable works such as The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War (2005), The New Middle East: What Everyone Needs to Know (2017), and The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (2012), among others.
Given Gelvin’s extensive knowledge of the region, he is one of the most prominent pundits on Middle Eastern affairs. As a historian commentating on current events, Gelvin believes he has a special responsibility, despite his expectation that not much will change in the Middle East. “[I understand the] Saudi tail will continue to wag the American dog, governments in the region will continue to jail prisoners of conscience, and Syria and Yemen will continue their descent into hell,” he once wrote, “However, to paraphrase former Czech dissident Václav Havel, appalling circumstances demand clarity, accuracy, and directness from those equipped to provide it.”
Gelvin spent most of his life teaching Middle East history. After almost two decades at the University of California at Los Angeles, Gelvin was awarded the 2015 Middle East Studies Association Undergraduate Education Award.
Among other distinguished positions he held were co-director of UCLA’s Center of Near Eastern Studies, and the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahyan visiting professor at the American University of Beirut.
Cairo Review editors Sean David Hobbs and Leslie Cohen spoke with Gelvin on July 2, 2018.
CAIRO REVIEW: Why has Syria turned out the way it has?
JAMES GELVIN: We tend to look at all the uprisings through the lens of Tunisia and Egypt, and that’s a problem. There’s a real difference in the way the uprising in Syria broke out and the way the uprising broke out in, say, Egypt. The uprising in Syria began like the uprising in Libya. It was spontaneous, broke out in multiple locations, and it was leaderless. There were three factors in general that made the Syrian uprising end up the way it has: the extent to which it was militarized, the extent to which it was sectarianized, and the extent to which it became a proxy war.
In the beginning, the Syrian government relied on its security services to put down the uprising. But as the uprising leapfrogged from city to city, town to town, the government brought in the army to destroy the resistance. The government laid siege to neighborhoods and cities, then bombed and shelled the besieged areas indiscriminately to destroy the opposition. Armed members of the opposition—mostly deserters from the Syrian army—who had been protecting unarmed demonstrators from government snipers, had to flee into the countryside where they regrouped as the Free Syrian Army. This severed the connection between the military and political wings of the opposition. The military wing came to dominate the uprising and the civilian wing atrophied.
The government sectarianized the conflict to ensure that a society that had been polarized between the government and its supporters, on the one hand, and opponents of the government, on the other, would repolarize along sectarian lines. Seventy-five percent of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim; the remainder consists of Alawites (who form the core of the ruling group), Christians, and other minorities. While the opposition initially included members of all sects, the government attempted to identify it with the most radical elements of the Sunni community to break it up.
They did this in several ways. As soon as the uprising broke out, the regime labeled its opponents Salafis, terrorists, jihadis, and agents of Saudi Arabia. To ensure this would be a self-fulfilling prophecy, the regime released Salafis, Islamists, and jihadis, including those associated with Al-Qaeda, from prison.
Many ended up in the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria or in ISIS. The regime also polarized society through violence. It organized armed “popular committees” to protect Alawite villages, and it equipped pro-regime vigilantes with knives and clubs for use in street battles with mostly unarmed protesters.
The regime strategy worked, and among the minority population the government achieved what the United Nations Development Programme has called “legitimacy blackmail.” In other words, minorities came to see the government as their only protection from the majority Sunni population.
Finally, the Syrian civil war has been difficult to resolve because it became a proxy war. Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran support the government; the West, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have supported the opposition. Every time one side looked as if it were gaining the advantage, the patrons of the other side would increase their support to offset that advantage. This has killed the possibility for a negotiated settlement, which depends on what political scientists call a “mutually hurting stalemate” among belligerents. All sides have to see they have nothing to gain from further fighting.
How the proxy nature of the war has worked can be seen in the history of the conflict. In the summer of 2015, the government was on the ropes, mainly as a result of Western and Gulf assistance to the opposition. The tide turned after the Russians intervened on the side of the government in the fall of 2015 and began their bombing campaign. And that’s where we are now.
CAIRO REVIEW: So, it appears that Al-Assad and his allies are headed toward victory.
JAMES GELVIN: There’s no doubt that Al-Assad is on the road to victory. Let’s first eliminate some possible endgames. Since this is a proxy war and each side is supported by outside powers, it is unlikely that either the Syrian regime or the opposition can completely eliminate the other. Syria will not be divided, since neither the outside powers nor Syrians want that. There is no possibility of a negotiated settlement. Now that the government holds 99 percent of the battlefield cards, why would it want or need to negotiate?
The most likely end is what former United Nations and Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi called “Somalization.” As in the case of Somalia, Syria would have a single government, which will reign, but not rule, over the entirety of its territory. It would have a permanent representative to the United Nations, issue passports and postage stamps, and even, if it so desires, send a team to the Olympics. As in the case of Somalia, armed militias would control swaths of territory outside the control of the government. There will certainly be a devolution of power downward to the local level in many places, but this system will likely resemble warlordism, not democracy. And the government will be the largest and most powerful warlord.
But even though the government is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of this outcome, what’s Al-Assad going to win? We are, after all, talking about a country that’s suffered at least 500 thousand deaths, with close to half the prewar population displaced, where more than 80 percent of the population is below the poverty line, and almost half of all children of school age are not attending school. We’ve seen a reappearance of diseases that had been eradicated, like polio. You have an unemployment rate of close to 60 percent, with about one-third of those employed working in the war economy. There’s been about $180 billion worth of damage to infrastructure. And who will fund recovery? Russia? Yes, it’ll be a government victory, but a Pyrrhic victory at that.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is there a way that the people of Syria can eventually move toward a more representational government? Economic freedoms? Perhaps with some areas not controlled by the central government, but where the country comes through what looks like a brutal peace?
JAMES GELVIN: I’m afraid I don’t see that happening. When people talk of economic freedom these days, they usually mean the adoption of neoliberal economic policies, like those at play in the United States. Neoliberalism has been nothing but a big, fat failure everywhere it has been introduced in the Arab World. Instead of free market capitalism, it has brought crony capitalism. By destroying the social safety net, it has severed the bond connecting governments with their citizens. Instead of integrating the Arab World into the global economy, the Arab World remains the world’s second-least globalized region. Before the uprising, the Syrian government tried an economic policy it called a “social market economy,” that was, in fact, written by the IMF [International Monetary Fund]. It led to minimal growth but widespread corruption and grumbling.
In terms of politics, I doubt there will be any movement toward a more democratic system. Any voices for democratic change will be silenced, if they haven’t been already. The population has been totally brutalized, and very likely the psychological effects of the war will keep it demoralized. Things may simmer below the surface, but for now most of the population is focused on little more than survival. I don’t see democracy on the horizon, not in five, ten, twenty years. Then again, I didn’t see an uprising on the horizon either.
CAIRO REVIEW: What are the prospects for the “Deal of the Century” and such a peace under the Donald Trump administration?
JAMES GELVIN: I’m doubtful that there will be an Israeli–Palestinian peace under Trump, or frankly in the foreseeable future for a number of reasons. The most important of these is that the Israelis don’t want a deal. The last thing [Benjamin] Netanyahu wants is to see his coalition fragment, which it would in the unlikely event of his offering to compromise on territory or settlements. So it’s easier for him to not make a deal. Under [Barack] Obama he pretended under pressure that he was interested in a two-state solution, but under Trump he won’t even have to pretend. There won’t be any pressure. And the fact that the Palestinian national movement is hopelessly divided is another disincentive.
Two other factors are important to consider: First, you have the most pro-Israel government in American history, which will not say no to any Israeli action, no matter how outrageous. Would Trump say anything were the Israelis to annex the West Bank? He would probably applaud it. This is the guy who moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, after all.
Second, the Israelis are doing quite well for themselves regionally, so they have no incentive to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. There used to be a time when Saudi Arabia or some other state would hold out the incentive of diplomatic ties or trade. Now Saudi Arabia is dropping hints that normalization may be in the future, and other Gulf nations have warmed up to Israel. This is because Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries are on the same page when it comes to Iran—a problem they’ve inflated for their own purposes—and Saudi Arabia and its allies would be more than willing to betray the Palestinian cause for the strategic depth an alliance with Israel would bring.
CAIRO REVIEW: Is the American moment over in the Middle East?
JAMES GELVIN: There really are two questions here: Is the American moment over in the Middle East, and is the American moment over as the “indispensable” broker of an Israeli–Palestinian peace? In terms of the first, the answer is both yes and no. During the Cold War, the United States and its allies were linked in a common purpose: to maintain the status quo in the region.
This meant not only blocking the spread of Soviet influence but blocking the emergence of any regional power that might upset that status quo. The United States was quite successful in both, mainly because America’s interests were the interests of its allies, and its allies took on much of the policing of the region while the United States gave them support from afar. True, there was the occasional American foray into the region—Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, for example—but for the most part Israel acted as America’s proxy in the west and Saudi Arabia and prerevolutionary Iran in the Persian Gulf. Alignment with the United States became the rule and alignment with the Soviet Union became the exception.
You have to remember, however, that even during the Cold War the United States was anything but omnipotent. There were outliers to the American order—for example Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and for a time, Egypt. There were significant failures (Iran in 1979) and times when allies went rogue (Israel in Lebanon in 1982). There were also a number of surprises, like the 1973 [Arab–Israeli] War and the oil price revolution. The first brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, the second nearly collapsed the global economy. This is what I meant by “yes and no.” But in the main the premise of your question is correct: if measured in American terms, the Cold War represented America’s moment in the Middle East.
With the end of the Cold War, that community of interest between the United States and its allies was gone. Furthermore, as the sole superpower the United States fell under the spell of imperial hubris, overreaching in Iraq and elsewhere. The result was Obama’s Middle East policy. Obama believed the United States had expended far too much blood and treasure in the Middle East under George W. Bush. The Middle East has no comparative advantage in anything, and suffers from multiple, deep-seated problems. Its only major exports are oil and unemployed youths.
For Obama, Asia would be the epicenter of global competition in the twenty-first century. His policy was to get the United States out of the Middle East and instead “pivot to Asia.” Obama wanted the United States to lighten its footprint in the region and to tamp down conflicts: hence the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the Iran nuclear deal, and attempts to restart negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. This is not necessarily a bad thing for the United States, but it led to two inevitable results: the loss of American influence in the region, and a scramble by mostly regional players to strengthen their position.
That’s where we are now, only Trump’s made everything even worse. By basing his policy on doing the opposite of what Obama did—by being the “Unbama”—he’s made American foreign policy a wholly owned subsidiary of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and involved the United States in their paranoid fantasy that the biggest problem in the Middle East is terrorism and Iran is the biggest purveyor of terrorism.
CAIRO REVIEW: And about America being a peace broker?
JAMES GELVIN: American “mediation” of the various conflicts involving Israel has done as much harm as good and still hasn’t resolved the conflict that is at the root of the overall problem, which is between Israel and the Palestinians—not Israel and the Arab states. Whenever the United States intervened in the conflict it has been because U.S. interests were at stake, and the United States naturally intervened primarily to further those interests whatever the cost.
Let me give you an example: at the end of the 1973 war, Israeli and Egyptian commanders engaged in what became known as the “Kilometer 101 Talks,” which began with the disentangling of forces in Sinai, then moved on to more substantive issues. Where those talks would have gone will never be known, because the United States—in fact, Henry Kissinger—put pressure on [prime minister] Golda Meir to break them off. Kissinger wasn’t particularly interested in peace—he was interested in enhancing America’s position in the region, and he believed any talks between Israel and its neighbors had to include the United States. Hence, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy made the United States indispensable as a mediator but ended up resolving only limited issues.
The United States has never initiated negotiations that panned out. The two lasting peace treaties signed between Israel and its neighbors came about as a result of local initiative, as did the Oslo Accord. So I guess in answer to your question, under Trump the United States has irrevocably lost its position as mediator in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but maybe that’s not a bad thing.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you see the divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran as connected to some of the failures of the Obama administration?
JAMES GELVIN: I think that at its root there are three reasons why Saudi Arabia has become as paranoid as it has and felt that its best option is to gather its closest allies around it, including the United States, to form a coalition against Iran.
The first is the uprisings, which threatened other status quo powers in the region, which were Saudi allies. Second, the Obama administration frightened them by pulling back and telling them they would have to “learn to share the neighborhood” with the Iranians, something they desperately wanted to avoid. And third, the extraordinary drop in oil prices between 2014 and 2016, which forced them to draw on past earnings to maintain solvency and continue to pay off their population in exchange for their compliance.
Saudi Arabia and Iran operate on different models of governance, have different goals in the region, and have different survival strategies. Saudi Arabia promotes submission to the dynasty at home and adherence to the status quo abroad. The Saudi government does not like to see Islamic activism anywhere because it threatens that status quo. Saudi Arabia has also been aligned with the United States, the dominant status quo power in the world and the guarantor of the Middle East state system.
The profile of Iran is the polar opposite of that of Saudi Arabia. Iran was a staunch ally of the United States in the region before the revolution of 1979. Then, Iranian foreign policy flipped 180 degrees. The newly established Islamic Republic viewed itself as a revolutionary power intent on shaking up the status quo and defying and rolling back American imperialism. While Iran has largely backed away from spreading the revolutionary model in its rhetoric and actions, it has taken advantage of cracks in the system, particularly those borne of the Arab uprisings.
CAIRO REVIEW: What do you think is the future of human rights in the region?
JAMES GELVIN: There are global norms of human rights to which the region will move in the future. I’m not optimistic about that in the short term or even midterm, but overall, it’s going to happen. There’s enough of a political constituency to keep this on the agenda.
The United States began pushing for human rights in the 1970s alongside neoliberal economic policy simply because the two were compatible. You need individuals able to make autonomous decisions, have access to information, form associations among themselves, and represent their interests in government to have neoliberalism. And the United States used human rights as a stick to beat both the Soviet Union and the Third World during the 1970s.
The United States was growing increasingly paranoid of the Third World flexing its muscles in global economic relations, blocking the West’s access to raw materials, and demanding a place at the table. So the United States began to fight back with human rights, and one of the first places it did so was the Helsinki agreement of 1975. While neither the United States nor the Soviet Union that signed on to it cared about the human rights language in the agreement, populations in the Soviet bloc used it as a stick with which to beat their governments.
In the Middle East, the United States asked its allies to establish toothless human rights councils. It didn’t do this because the United States thought they would be effective but for domestic American consumption. Now, everybody knows the Saudi government doesn’t care about human rights, and yet there is a Saudi commission that is supposed to monitor human rights in Saudi Arabia. The citizens of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab World do, however, care. To monitor the monitors, Arabs founded their own human rights groups. The first of these was founded in Tunisia two years before Human Rights Watch was founded.
In other words, populations use human rights in the Middle East in exactly the same way that populations in Eastern Europe used human rights: as a stick with which to beat their governments. And this is how it became part of the political discourse in the region. Governments that would never even think of giving in to their populations on anything at least pay lip service to human rights. So win or lose, human rights has come to be embedded in the political discourse of the Arab World. This is the only cause I have for optimism.
Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly?
For years after its uprising, those who considered Tunisia the sole success story of the Arab Spring assumed it could serve as a model for other Arab nations. Scholar of North African history Safwan Masri insists that view was misguided.
Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly is the title of Masri’s new book, published in 2017, which seeks to finally answer the trite question: why—when other countries went on to experience political and economic instability, turmoil, and civil wars—did the revolution in Tunisia succeed? Indeed, Tunisia today stands out among other Arab Spring countries for having what is regarded as a successful political transition after the 2010 uprising, political agreement among its parties, and signs of a fledgling democracy. “I’m not suggesting that other countries cannot achieve similar results,” Masri said in an interview with the Cairo Review, “but that’s going to take fierce political will.”
Discussing his book at a recent talk at the American University in Cairo, Masri, who is the executive vice president for Global Centers and Global Development at Columbia University, attributes Tunisia’s development following the Arab Spring to the country’s unique history and geopolitical position. Masri contends that Tunisia has enjoyed a history of civil society involvement which featured women having more freedoms than in other parts of the Arab World. Masri also attributes Tunisia’s embrace of democracy to the country’s small size and anomalous relationship with French colonialism, explaining that Tunisians did not completely reject involvement in their country like other former French colonies. Most importantly, Masri points to Tunisia’s tradition of liberal, secular education as well as policies set in place by the country’s first independence leader and founding father, Habib Bourguiba. Because of those and other reforms, Tunisia has been on a 150-year path to democracy, making it ripe for transition when other countries, including Egypt—despite being its closest peer—were not.
Tunisia is small, comparatively, and has not been subject to as much recent foreign intervention as many other Arab nations. It has a mostly secular education system when many countries in the region do not, and there has been little military meddling in its political life. For example, at a pivotal moment during the 2010 uprising, when the time came for the Tunisian army to defend Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, it did not step in to prop up Ben Ali.
For Arabs who want democracy, Masri’s conclusion that no other Arab country can achieve or replicate the Tunisian success story is bleak. His book has received largely positive reviews, but it is clear that Masri’s argument does more than hint at Tunisian exceptionalism, which Masri does not entirely cast off. “We live in a moment where democracy is under tremendous stress all over the world and the example of a small country like Tunisia that is democratizing can be a source of inspiration for all of us,” Masri said. However, Masri stated that the conditions which allowed Tunisia to transition to democracy have been in the making for a long time, and have largely been absent elsewhere in the Middle East.
Tunisia’s recent local elections last May—the first since the uprising—bode well for the country, Masri stressed. The election led to the first woman mayor, as well as a number of young people running, and a higher voter turnout than was expected. Moreover, the election of the Islamist party Ennahda, which has recently accepted its place in the secular political system, as well as the success of independents, were all promising signs.
And yet Tunisia’s path forward is still tenuous. The country is fraught with economic concerns, disenfranchisement among the youth, and rising rates of extremism. Recently, women have taken to the streets to protest legislation like the inheritance law, which many Tunisian women feel disenfranchises them. Masri acknowledges the anxiety surrounding these issues, but has retorts for each. Tunisian women were granted the right to vote in 1956 and the right to legal abortions in 1973. A majority of Tunisian women are educated, and an electoral quota system mandates that an equal number of women candidates as men candidates run for local and national elections. “Women are the greatest protectors of the advances of the revolution,” Masri said, adding that the inheritance law is one of the last-standing examples in Tunisian society of a strict Quran-based legal practice.
Additionally, 30 percent of young people remain jobless as the Tunisian dinar continues to devalue. Terrorism, the global economic crisis, and the financial crisis in Libya have contributed to Tunisia’s present economic situation. Finally, as food and fuel prices rise, the country falls victim to austerity measures from its nearly $3 billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan.
Despite these problems, Masri is confident that these tightened monetary conditions, along with fuel and tax hikes, budget cuts, and high unemployment rates for women and young people, will not work against the country’s democratic mission. Even the controversial reconciliation law that promises amnesty for former government officials accused of corruption is a sign, according to Masri, that Tunisia is trying to move forward. “I can only interpret to the best of my ability the historical narrative that led to where things are,” Masri said, “But if I were a betting man, I would take a bet on the future of Tunisia.”
Building Fortress Europe
The so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015, which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called the biggest displacement in Europe since the Second World War, has tested the commitment of the European Union to the very principles of the international legal framework meant to protect refugees. This legal framework, enshrined in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, was promulgated in the aftermath of the world war, to address the displacement in Europe.
Although the events leading to today’s refugee crisis began prior to 2015, it was in that year that the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned as his family was trying to reach Europe, circulated across global media. It was in 2015 that a boat bound for Italy capsized off the coast of Libya, resulting in the drowning of more than 800 persons—one of deadliest of such shipwrecks. And it was in 2015 that Germany almost unilaterally suspended the Dublin Convention—the rules regulating refugees and migrants coming into the European Union (EU) “irregularily”—resulting in record arrivals of asylum seekers to Europe.
In 2015 alone, a record 1.3 million asylum applications were lodged in the EU. To put this in perspective, in that same year, more than five times as many asylum seekers reached the EU by sea than in the previous year. The staggering number of arrivals, the fast pace at which it was happening, and the fact that there seemed to be no end to the political crises causing these arrivals led to a pushback by the end of the same year. As the political tide shifted and as countries like Germany and Sweden, which had admitted the lion’s share of asylum seekers, started pushing back, many of the transit countries en route also closed their doors for fear of being stuck with the refugees. EU member states, which have grappled for decades with the issue of migration, and specifically the question of how to ascribe responsibility for asylum seekers among various states, were once again mired in political stalemate as they sought a way to respond to the unfolding crisis.
What has come in response to this crisis have been a series of measures that can generally be described as “border externalization.” The externalization of migration describes actions that states take extraterritorially to prevent migrants, including asylum seekers, from entering their territory or legal jurisdiction. As such, they become legally inadmissible and relieve the states of the legal obligation to consider their protection claims. Externalization measures can include unilateral, bilateral, or multilateral state actions, as well as the enlistment of private actors. They can be direct actions or indirect ones, whereby support or assistance is provided to third countries.
As migration policy has become an increasingly politicized issue, externalization policies are often framed as a humanitarian endeavor—meant to protect migrants from perilous journeys. Or, externalization policies have been sold to the public as a security imperative, a necessary evil to combat exploitative traffickers and smuggling rings or to prevent entry of would-be criminals onto European soil. Some measures are presented in the guise of development assistance to the host countries. That is to say that development funds become incentives for cooperating (or penalties for failing to cooperate) with deportation or repatriation procedures. In the end, externalization policies are strategies of migration containment and control.
In examining these various measures, two overarching questions arise: what is their moral cost, and are they, in fact, effective in achieving their purported goals? Border externalization policies, which aim to prevent refugees and migrants from reaching Europe’s shores, undermine the principle of non-refoulement—which forbids states from pushing back refugees to territories where their lives and freedoms may be at risk. In addition, externalization policies result in other human rights abuses. However, beyond their moral cost, which is significant, it can be argued that externalization policies are not effective. Though their immediate result is often a reduction in numbers that reach Europe, the reduction is temporary, since migration routes shift to circumvent the newly placed obstacles. Given that the social, political, economic, and environmental factors that push migration will continue to be a reality for the foreseeable future, an alternative to externalization is required—one that takes into account demographics, economics, and human rights, and creates more legal channels for migration.
Legal Framework and Obligations
Before looking more closely at border externalization, it is worthwhile to lay out the legal landscape—the rights that refugees and migrants enjoy which are undermined by externalization policies.
All human beings theoretically enjoy the right to freedom of movement. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1976 both stipulate that individuals should enjoy the right of free movement within the borders of their own countries, the right to leave any country, including their own, and the right to return to it. Though both instruments grant all persons the right to leave their country, they are both silent with regards to the right to enter another country. Indeed, in today’s world, it is assumed that a fundamental attribute of state sovereignty is the right to control one’s borders and the entry and exit of non-citizens (and even one’s own citizens).
In short, freedom of movement exists in theory only. In practice, the ability of any individual to leave his or her country at will and enter another is circumscribed by the passport they hold (and of course having the economic means to travel). In fact, today’s visa regimes are in place precisely so that governments can filter out or place restrictions on undesired passports.
Article 14(1) of the UDHR states that “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, once again practically speaking, this right exists in a more theoretical sense than an actual one. The visa regimes in most countries delineate who can enter their country, for how long, and for what purpose. And, generally speaking, “seeking asylum” is not a purpose for which one can seek permission to enter a country.
However, states are bound by the principle of non-refoulement, which forbids them from sending or pushing back refugees to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened. The principle of non-refoulement, crystallized in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is the cornerstone of the international legal framework that governs refugee protection to this day.
As stated, the 1951 Convention was drafted in the aftermath of two world wars which devastated Europe and led to large-scale displacement. The convention has been ratified by some 148 state parties. However, the principle of non-refoulement has been elevated to the status of customary international law, meaning that all states are bound by it, regardless of whether or not they are signatories to the convention.
There have been many debates about the parameters of the non-refoulement principle: at what point is a state “bound” by this principle? Who is protected? Yet for our purposes it is enough to consider the following key points: (1) a state’s obligation to abide by the principle of non-refoulement begins as soon as the person seeking asylum is subject to the state’s jurisdiction; (2) the prohibition on refoulement applies in any circumstance where the state and its organs, or any agent authorized to act on behalf of the state, are involved; and (3) the non-refoulement principle applies to both asylum seekers and refugees.
From a legal standpoint, the term “refugee” is reserved for those who have gone through some sort of formal determination procedure, and have been found to fulfill the legal definition of a refugee (whether as defined under the 1951 Convention, or other applicable legal instruments). Until the formal declaration is made, the term used for persons seeking refugee status is “asylum seeker.” However, as the non-refoulement principle protects both, states may not deport or push back those seeking asylum until their status has been clarified. And as stated above, the non-refoulement principle is triggered not only when the asylum seeker is physically on the territory of the state, but as soon as he or she is subject to the state’s jurisdiction (at the border, in transit zones, in territorial waters).
It is for this reason that classifications such as migrant versus refugee are significant. To be a refugee under the 1951 Convention, a person has to show that they are at risk of persecution based on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular group. Persons fleeing conflicts may or not be refugees under the 1951 Convention, but often receive complementary forms of protection. Economic migrants are excluded from the refugee definition and are not seen as needing international protection.
Externalization policies are used as a way of circumventing the non-refoulement principle. If those seeking asylum never reach the point where the obligation would be triggered, then it cannot said to be violated. They are also justified in part on grounds that “irregular” entries to Europe include many economic migrants, who are not protected by the non-refoulement principle.
Two things must be considered in confronting these arguments. First, the distinction between economic migrants and refugees is not always so clear cut. Often, there is a link between economic impoverishment and political repression and corruption. Wars often lead to the disruption of livelihoods and it is during times of scarcity and economic pressures that some people are compelled to leave their home countries. Furthermore, some of those trying to reach Europe, who may have left their countries for economic reasons, find themselves caught up in trafficking rings, which could qualify them for refugee status. All this is to say that things are not always black and white. Second, migrants also have rights. Externalization policies themselves render migrants vulnerable to a host of potential rights violations, especially as many of the countries with whom deals are made not only lack domestic legal frameworks for asylum, but also criminalize migration.
Externalization Policies and Key Countries in the MENA Region
Externalization policies generally refer to the measures taken by states to prevent migrants from reaching their territories or areas within their legal jurisdiction. In the context of the EU, externalization is nothing new. As previously mentioned, as the EU has moved toward open internal borders, it has wrestled with the issue of how to manage its external borders, and specifically, how to assign responsibility for asylum seekers within member states. The Dublin Regime—starting with the Dublin Convention first signed in 1990 and currently with the Dublin III Regulation which came into force in 2013—stipulates that the member state through which an asylum seeker first entered the EU will be the one responsible for adjudicating the claim. Given that visa restrictions mean most of the persons seeking asylum enter the EU irregularly, the Dublin Regime places the burden on southern European countries. In turn, these countries took steps to contain the problem. For example, by entering into multilateral agreements with Morocco, Mauritania, and Senegal, which has included significant financial and technical support to surveil the coastline, boat arrivals to the Canary Islands dropped from 31,600 in 2006 to 2,250 in 2009, and even to as few as 170 in 2012.
Similarly, the EU, and Italy in particular, concluded many treaties with Libya, after the sanctions and arms embargo were lifted, in an effort to curb irregular migration. In 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi signed a Treaty of Friendship, whereby Italy pledged $5 billion (over a twenty-year period), part of which funded deportation flights from Italy to Libya, the construction of detention facilities for migrants in Libya, and technical support for coastal surveillance.
Many of these same measures continue to be implemented today, but with added urgency as the numbers of those seeking European shores have increased. Some of the principal measures used to enhance and facilitate border externalization include the following:
Safe countries of origin
EU Asylum Directives permit member states to designate a country of origin as “safe,” provided certain criteria are met, and which then allows the state to conduct accelerated asylum procedures. One problem is that there isn’t total agreement among member states about which countries may be considered “safe.” Furthermore, human rights organizations have criticized the idea of such designations in principle, because asylum claims should be assessed on an individual basis—even a country that is generally safe may not be so for particular individuals.
Readmission agreements refer to formal accords or informal memoranda of understanding (which may be concluded bilaterally or multilaterally among several countries) in which a government pledges to accept deportees from another country. Readmission agreements are used to place pressure on migrant transit countries to control migration flows to Europe since the country that has signed a readmission agreement becomes responsible for migrants or failed asylum seekers who are returned there. Thus, it is assumed that countries with readmission agreements will be more likely to prevent migrants and refugees from entering their territories en route to Europe (in effect, pushing Europe’s borders even further). Readmission agreements are generally accompanied by aid and technical assistance programs to build up the migration control capacity of the country in question. As stated above, for example, in July 2003, Spain and Mauritania concluded a readmission agreement which obliged Mauritania to readmit not only Mauritanians, but also other nationals who reached the Canary Islands off the Mauritanian Coast. This is just one example; the EU as a unit and its individual member states have concluded hundreds of such bilateral agreements over the years. The most famous of such recent agreements is the one concluded between the EU and Turkey, to be discussed below.
Patrolling operations and interdictions at sea
European member states have conducted interdictions in international and even territorial waters of foreign states for decades. For instance, for a period of five months in 2006, EU vessels patrolled waters off the West African coast, intercepting thousands of migrants on the high seas and the Spanish territorial sea and territorial waters of Senegal, Mauritania, and Cape Verde. These operations have intensified over the years, and especially in 2015, in response to the increasing number of arrivals. For instance, the mandate of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (known as FRONTEX) was expanded and its budget almost doubled to deal with the onset of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015, three major operations were deployed in the Mediterranean Sea: the European Union Naval Force Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED—later labeled “Operation Sophia”), a joint EU military operation with the mission to identify, capture, and dispose of vessels used by smugglers and traffickers, the FRONTEX Operation Triton, which focused on patrolling waters off Italy and Malta, and NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2, which was deployed in the Aegean Sea.
In addition to these measures, the November 2015 Valletta Summit on Migration, which took place between the EU and thirty-five African nations, led to the creation of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and a Partnership Framework on Migration (launched in June 2016). The initiative resulting from the Valletta Summit provided the impetus to allocate millions of euros for an array of migration management projects. This includes funding for the training of police and border officials, the development of extensive biometric systems, the donation of equipment including helicopters and patrol ships, and other surveillance and monitoring equipment, and the funding of detention facilities and transit centers.
What has been particularly concerning to human rights advocates about these latest intensified externalization processes is the fact that negotiations and agreements are being made with third countries known to be authoritarian and with poor human rights records, with aid and support going specifically to those government organs most responsible for repression and human rights abuse.
In order to implement the aforementioned externalization measures, the EU has engaged with a host of countries, focusing particularly on Africa since the Valletta Summit. Three examples from the MENA region will be discussed at more length.
Turkey: The Joint Action Plan
Due to its proximity to ongoing violence in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey has been deeply affected by increased refugee flows. To date, it is estimated that more than 3.5 million refugees are registered in Turkey, more than any other country in the region. In addition to being a major host country, its geographic position has also made it a transit country for refugees wishing to reach Europe. In 2015 alone, over 850,000 refugees entered the EU via Greece from Turkey, more than through any other migration route. It should come as no surprise that the EU focused on Turkey as a partner in preventing irregular border crossings.
This partnership took shape with the Joint Action Plan announced at the October 2015 meeting of the European Council, which provides Turkey with incentives (mainly in the form of funding and visa liberalization for Turkish citizens) in return for Turkey’s cooperation on preventing refugees from reaching Europe. The deal involved the following: the EU pledged 6 billion, some of which was meant to go toward improving living standards for refugees in Turkey; a promise to resettle refugees from Turkey (a “swap” of sorts that would involve the resettlement of one Syrian from Turkey to Europe, for every Syrian being returned to Turkey from the Greek Islands); and visa liberalization for Turkish citizens. In return, Turkey was to commit to cracking down on smuggling networks (in cooperation with the EU, member states, and FRONTEX), and to agree to accelerated return procedures for irregular migrants in line with established bilateral readmission provisions.
In the aftermath of the deal, arrivals did indeed drop significantly. For example, arrivals by sea to Greece dropped from 850,000 in 2015 to just under 30,000 in 2017. In a way, this “success” has led to the deal becoming a blueprint for subsequent ones. However, this “success” has come at a cost. There are many reports of increasing violence toward refugees in Turkey, some describing refugees being prevented from entering Turkey and violently expelled while others highlight the detention and mistreatment of refugees who are intercepted by Turkish authorities as they attempt to cross into Greece.
As such, the Joint Action Plan has also been criticized by the UNHCR, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, and a number of human rights organizations. The criticisms center on two particular issues. The first is the question of whether Turkey can truly be considered “safe” as a country of return, and the second touched on the possibility of mass expulsions due to accelerated procedures that will be implemented in accordance with previous bilateral agreements.
As mentioned above, the principle of non-refoulement prohibits the return of refugees to territories where they are at risk of persecution, or where their lives or freedoms are threatened. The prohibition on refoulement also protects a person from return to any state that would not effectively protect him or her from onward transfer (called indirect, chain, or secondary refoulement). So, one concern is that Turkey would send returning failed asylum seekers to countries where they could be at risk—not entirely invalid given reports of Turkey pushing Syrians back to Syria.
Furthermore, it has been pointed out that following the attempted coup by the Turkish military in July 2016 and the imposition of martial law, there has been increasing violation of fundamental freedoms in Turkey, so much so that it should not be considered a “safe” country any longer for returning or sent back refugees. Finally, it should be noted that the number of refugees meant to be resettled from Turkey to the EU was limited by the Joint Action Plan to around seventy-two thousand, which represents a miniscule fraction of the 3.5 million total refugees in Turkey.
Subsequent to the enactment of this deal, in order to prevent onward migration from mainland Greece to other parts of Europe, Greece also enacted a containment policy, restricting those who arrive to the islands where they land until their cases are adjudicated. The refugees and asylum seekers on Greek islands are mainly confined to camps where living conditions are quite poor.
Despite pledges from the EU that they would increase support to handle the caseload, the adjudication of cases in Greece has been slow. In addition, in September 2015, EU member states agreed to a two-year plan to relocate some 160 thousand refugees to other EU countries (in light of Greece’s own financial crisis and limited ability to absorb large numbers of refugees). However, as of September 2017, only 20,666 asylum seekers from Greece and 9,078 from Italy had been relocated to destinations within the EU. In addition, some of the main relocation countries, such as Germany, have announced that they can no longer accept refugees.
Libya: Collusion with Militias
As previously stated, attempts to curb irregular migration from Libya predate the current refugee crisis. Qaddafi used the issue of migration as a bargaining chip in his dealings with the EU and secured billions of dollars in assistance in return for migration control.
In the years since the uprising and fall of Qaddafi’s regime in 2014, Libya’s government institutions weakened and fractured to the point that today, three separate governments compete for power, divided along geographical lines and with limited control over the country. The collapse of state security left a gap that has been filled by armed groups and militias.
In addition, the high numbers of refugees fleeing conflicts, lawlessness, and insecurity within Libya itself—and the closure of other routes for reaching Europe—have led to greater numbers seeking to reach Europe via Libya and increased crossings. These factors have allowed armed groups, criminal gangs, and militias to find a highly lucrative business in the smuggling and trafficking of persons, operating with total impunity.
The increased crossings have also meant increased deaths at sea (since the smugglers use unseaworthy, overcrowded boats with no safety features), which for a time led to some rescue efforts, in particular Mare Nostrum, launched by Italy in 2013 to lead search and rescue operations. However, as the tens of thousands of people who disembarked in Italy continued their journey to other parts of Europe, European leaders started to criticize Mare Nostrum, seeing it as a pull factor that allowed refugees and migrants to enter Europe informally.
The Italian government ended Mare Nostrum at the end of 2014, and the following year—rather predictably—deaths at sea rose again, with two major shipwrecks in the space of one week in April 2015 claiming over 1,200 lives. In response to this incident, the EU expanded the resources and operational area of FRONTEX and deployed military vessels in the Mediterranean Sea (an operation again called EUNAVFOR MED). NGOs also set up private rescue operations. Once again, EU member states intensified actions aimed at reducing the number of people arriving in Europe.
The Partnership Framework on Migration, launched by the European Commission in June 2016 as a follow-up initiative to the Valletta Summit, and which includes Libya, has meant increased support, financially, technically, and logistically, to the Libyan Coast Guard, which is known to be partly made of militia members. There are documented cases of the Libyan Coast Guard shooting at and attacking boats carrying refugees, as well as NGO-operated rescue boats.
In February 2017, the Italian government and the Libyan Government of National Accord concluded a bilateral memorandum of understanding—which was integrated into the Malta Declaration and adopted by members of the European Council—to adopt a three-pronged strategy to reduce the number of refugees and migrants crossing the central Mediterranean Sea.
First, they have committed to providing technical support to Libyan authorities for the management of “reception” (that is detention) facilities where refugees and migrants are held and routinely exposed to serious human rights violations; second, they have provided the Libyan Coast Guard with increased training and equipment in order to enable the Libyan guardsmen to intercept growing numbers of people at sea and take them to Libya; and third, they have struck deals with Libyan local authorities, including the leaders of non-state entities, to stop the smuggling of people.
Again, although the implementation of these strategies has led to a decrease in crossings, it has come at a cost. It has led to migrants seeking even deadlier routes for crossing. It has also left those in Libya trapped in horrific conditions. Amnesty International, for example, has reported extensively on the use of torture in Libyan detention facilities, used as a means of extracting ransoms from relatives of migrants. And in November of 2017, CNN footage depicting what appeared to be a slave market in Libya sparked international outrage.
Unfortunately, however, the outrage has not translated into meaningful measures to address the abuse of migrants and refugees in Libya, ultimately showing that the EU’s primary concern is more with its own externalization plans than the plight of the refugees and migrants.
Egypt: Intermittent Progress
Egypt, which for years has been hosting forcibly displaced persons from some African countries, especially Sudan and Somalia, as well as other countries of the Middle East, mainly Iraq and Syria, is also an important transit point in the Mediterranean region. In addition, as a developing country Egypt itself is a source country for labor migration to Europe. In fact, in September 2016, when an Italy-bound boat capsized off the port of Rosetta, the overwhelming majority of the survivors were found to be Egyptians. Consequently, Egypt is also an important target country for the EU’s externalization policies, with Germany taking a leading role in these efforts. In July 2016, Egypt and Germany signed an agreement on security cooperation, with Germany committing to train Egyptian police and provide equipment.
The agreement between the two countries is broad in scope, and has been presented as necessary to combat crime and terrorism, but border security is an integral part of it. Human smuggling is among the list of crimes prioritized for attention. Support was also provided in the form of information exchange, training, and provision of equipment, like document verification readers and technical support to incorporate biometric features into travel documents. As a result of the enhanced capacity for monitoring and surveillance of irregular migration, there has been a reduction in boat departures from the Egyptian coast across the central Mediterranean Sea.
Germany is not the only country focusing on Egypt. Italy, which is a main destination country for migrant and refugee boats leaving Egypt, signed a readmission agreement with Egypt in 2008, under which Italy could send back unauthorized persons to Egypt without asylum screenings. In December of 2009, Italy and Egypt signed a memorandum of understanding to control irregular migration.
Also, in 2016, the EU Trust Fund granted 11.5 million euros to fund a project to strengthen migration management in Egypt, and support the newly created National Coordinating Committee on Preventing and Combating Illegal Migration. An additional 60 million euros were provided in 2017 to increase capacity building.
Although Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Convention, there is no domestic legal framework that grants refugees rights. Many refugees in Egypt complain about the difficulties of securing employment, of abuse by security agents, and in the case of African refugees, racism and discrimination. In 2013, in the aftermath of the removal of then-president Mohamed Morsi from power, Egyptian media circulated rumors alleging that Syrians in Egypt were supporting the Muslim Brotherhood which in turn reportedly led to cases of violence against Syrian refugees. Egypt criminalizes illegal entry and exit, such that those seeking to leave via boats. When apprehended, they often face criminal charges and long periods of detention in overcrowded prisons and police stations. There is a real and legitimate concern that increased externalization measures in Egypt will exacerbate the situation.
Consequences of Border Externalization
Border externalization policies have far-reaching consequences. As already discussed, one of the most significant effects of externalization policies is the violation of the non-refoulement principle, which is the cornerstone of international refugee law. However, border externalization has other significant and negative outcomes.
More dangerous migration routes
As Europe’s borders are extended beyond its immediate shores, and as those seeking to reach Europe are confronted by more border security and border control measures, they are pushed to explore other routes. Time and again, it has been shown that closing down migration routes does not stop people from fleeing, but rather leads to the shifting of migration routes to even more dangerous ones. So, even though numbers of those reaching Europe’s shores in 2017 were lower than in 2015, the ratio of deaths to arrivals was five times as high.
Furthermore, the smugglers helping migrants cross borders seek higher prices for their work and expose migrants to greater dangers. The abuse and exploitation of migrant women and girls in particular have been highlighted by many international advocacy groups and NGOs. As crossing becomes more difficult, forcibly displaced persons are also compelled to spend longer periods of time stranded in transit countries, often in difficult circumstances, where they are subject to exploitation and abuse.
Fueling human rights abuse outside Europe
Increased border externalization also translates into more human rights violations—however because much of it is happening outside Europe, it becomes easier to turn a blind eye to it. As mentioned above, smuggling networks become even more ruthless and abusive the more dangerous routes become. Many forcibly displaced persons recount experiences of serious abuse while in transit, including sexual and gender-based violence, detention, and exploitation while in custody.
Additionally, the implementation of these externalization policies has required European powers to engage with some authoritarian forces known for human rights abuse. Specifically, much of the training and equipment provided to security sectors can also be used for other forms of repression. Of course, European support for border externalization perpetuates cycles of abuse and repression that cause people to flee in the first place.
Undermining development and diversion of development priorities
Externalization policies and the one-sided focus on measures meant to stop migration show a disregard for the consequences this may have for the target countries, many of which are characterized by fragile internal economic and political realities.
As migration management becomes the primary funding priority for Europe, money from development projects is diverted toward security-focused ones. As stated earlier, some migration management measures are presented in the guise of development aid—the language used is to eradicate “root causes” of migration. However, a significant amount of the funding goes toward the security infrastructure to prevent migration, rather than development projects. It is estimated that 80 percent of the budget for the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa (an outcome of the Valletta Summit) comes from the European Development Fund and other development and humanitarian aid funds.
Generally speaking, it is not the poorest people in a country that are able to migrate, since migration requires money. There is also concern that migration management takes away the focus of aid from those who are most in need of it. The target countries also end up prioritizing security expenditures at the expense of health, education, and other development initiatives. Thus, there is a real concern that the excessive focus on preventing departures and tightening borders ignores the conditions that are driving people to migrate in the first place.
Continuation of neocolonialism
The rhetoric at summits like the one held in Valletta in 2015 may be one of cooperation between the EU and other—in this case, African—countries. Yet, it is very clear that this is an unequal relationship, one in which Europe is imposing its priorities and its interests on the African continent.
As the countries of the African Union aim to move toward more internal free movement within Africa, externalization measures require them to crack down on movement within their countries in order to prevent onward migration toward Europe. The externalization policies also ignore the critical importance of remittances that migrants send back home and on which many of the African economies depend. Although many so-called “source countries” repeatedly emphasize the need for more legal migration routes, European countries seem uninterested in creating those pathways. By ignoring the priorities and needs of these countries, EU member states perpetuate the unequal relationships that are a continuation of the nineteenth-century colonial era.
A Radical Rethinking
One of the primary problems with the EU’s external approach toward the issue of irregular migration is that it addresses symptoms instead of causes—the focus on reducing numbers and shifting the burden elsewhere demonstrates a lack of a long-term vision on the issue of migration and on permanent strategies of cooperation that would benefit all sides.
It should be noted that in the context of the current crisis, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean where the bulk of those forcibly displaced are Syrians, the majority fled to and continue to live in neighboring countries, with Turkey (3.5 million), Lebanon (1 million), and Jordan (650,000) hosting the largest numbers. Externalization policies then are directly impacting the rights of refugees. This contradicts the EU’s obligations under international law and its own European Convention on Human Rights.
It is also important to note that no immediate solution is foreseen for the Syrian crisis. In fact, globally, there has been an increased tendency toward protracted refugee crises (defined as situations where refugee populations of more than 25,000 remain in exile for longer than five years). What this means is that many refugees are simply unable to go home. Many remain in host countries where they are unable to benefit from all the social, economic, and political rights to which they are entitled. Legal channels for movement to third countries, namely resettlement (conducted primarily via the UNHCR) are available to a very limited number of refugees. The combination of these factors can only mean one thing: they will seek to move irregularly.
The terms “refugee” and “migrant” need to be used interchangeably because both terms apply to the circumstances that push humans to take the risk of perilous journeys across desert and sea to nodes in the Global North where wealth congregates. The current international legal framework that protects refugees ignores economic migrants. However, there will continue to be economic migrants and migrants who are displaced due to development and climate change. This is the reality of our times.
What is required is a radical rethinking of the issue—one that takes into account Europe’s demographic challenges, its labor needs, the rights of refugees and migrants, and creates more open channels for legal migration. Until we rethink all that creates migration policy, we will continue to maintain a morally untenable status quo.
Parastou Hassouri is an independent researcher and consultant in refugee law and migration policy. She has served as a consultant with different UNHCR operations and with several NGOs in the MENA region. She has also taught international refugee law at the American University in Cairo. Prior to that, she served as an attorney advisor at the immigration courts of New York City and Los Angeles. In addition, she designed and directed the Immigrant Rights’ Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, where she focused on responding to ethnic profiling and other forms of anti-immigrant backlash in the United States in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11.
Migration Myths and the Global South
Far from seeing human movement as natural and essential, we live in a world of obsessive border policing: walls and fortresses; gated compounds and ghettos; camps and detention centers; and proliferating zones of elite luxury alongside shrinking public spaces. Whether through calculated legal processes or gradual gentrification and de facto apartheid, we maintain ever-stricter distinctions between migrants and refugees, citizens and non-citizens, insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots. The dominant discourse on migration helps create and perpetuate such a world by privileging certain types of individual suffering—discrimination, persecution, torture—as worthy of international notice and protection, while normalizing the more widespread and systemic suffering caused by poverty, inequality, disease, famine, drought, climate change, and environmental degradation, from which one is neither expected nor permitted to flee across borders.
The human species is by nature migratory and its spread from Africa across the globe has occurred through great climatic shifts, the spread of deserts, and the ebbing and flowing of ice ages. These movements spurred the onset of agriculture and civilization as resource scarcity and insecurity drew people to the great river valleys such as the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, and Indus. As such, human migration has been and will continue to be fundamental to our survival and evolution. Yet, the categories, classifications, and dichotomies through which we understand and purport to govern migration today are inconducive to this historic reality. It is important to understand how dominant discourses on international migration limit or constrain our knowledge, governance, and practices, particularly with regard to implications for the Global South, which makes up most of the world yet rarely receives most of our attention. The dominant discourse of migration assumes that most migration happens in the Global North and ignores that movement and mobility of people had taken place in the South long before the emergence of European-like nation-states limiting migration. Movements of people seeking protection for their lives are heavily influenced by the Refugee Convention, which was negotiated and adopted in 1951 in response to realities different than those of today. Only when all issues facing the Global South and the Global North are equally considered can human mobility be effectively addressed.
Migration has catapulted to the center of public attention in recent years and seems likely to remain there, with mass media showing no signs of abating interest. Has increased attention translated into a more accurate understanding of migration among policymakers and the general public? Are we, as a result, able to debate the issue in more useful ways? Much of the renewed interest is due to displacements from the Arab region into Europe, particularly from Syria but also Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. However, the tendency to pay more attention to migration from the Global South to the Global North precedes the current refugee crisis, and has created distortions in discourse and knowledge production about migration.
Scholars in this field are used to the waxing and waning of public interest, which at times bears little correlation to real change in migrant numbers or movement. The number of international migrants has hovered at roughly 3.3 percent of the global population in recent decades. Despite being a comparatively minor and remarkably stable global phenomenon, migration has always captured perpetual, cyclical, and disproportionate amounts of public attention in the past.
Dominant Discourse vs. Reality
Predominant discourse shapes public debate in respect to any subject. It reflects the productive power—the ability to produce ideas and to make them acceptable and legitimate as sole subjects of debate—of those who articulate it. Predominant discourse on international migration emphasizes large flows to, and stocks of migrants in, the Global North, originating in the Global South. It represents international migration as a threat that undermines the social, economic, and cultural systems of host countries and their security. Besides the large volumes of people, this discourse underlines the irregularity of migration status, which is explained as mostly resulting from criminal smuggling activities. Not all actors in the Global North have adopted this discourse. However, it certainly is the predominant one.
The reality of flows and stocks of international migration may be viewed differently in the Global South. According to the 2017 United Nations International Migration Report, the total number of international migrants from 2000 to 2017 increased from 173 million to 258 million. Half of the increase took place in developed countries of the Global North and the other half in developing countries of the Global South. During the same period, the number of international migrants residing in the South increased from 40 to 43 percent, the corresponding percentage thus decreasing in the North. Between 2000 and 2017, the share of international migrants residing in Asia increased from 29 to 31 percent and in Africa from 9 to 10 percent. In Europe, the share declined from 33 to 30 percent. Incidentally, despite this decline, international migration helped Europe’s population grow by 2 percent. Without net migration, it would have fallen by 1 percent, which would have obviously undercut economic activity and the social systems the predominant discourse purports to protect.
In 2017, 38 percent of international migration was from South to South countries, 35 percent from South to North, 20 percent from North to North and 6 percent from North to South. In Africa and Asia, 80 percent of international migrants headed for destinations in the two regions, the corresponding share being 60 percent for Latin America and the Caribbean. From the origin perspective, 60 percent of international migrants originating in Asia remained in the Asian continent, while the corresponding figure for Africa was 53 percent. However, for West Africa, the proportion of international migrants whose destination country was in the sub-region rose to 84 percent, seven times larger than migration to any other part of the world. Only four countries in West Africa had emigrant populations who chose an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country as their top destination.
All of this means that migrants from the Global South are staying more and more in the Global South when they migrate. This flow of South–South migration looks only to increase in the coming years.
Governing Human Mobility: A Southern Perspective
Mobility within sub-regions in Africa, and also elsewhere in the South, predates the emergence of the European nation-state model after early or late decolonization. One function of nation-states is to regulate international mobility, especially for non-citizens. Naturally countries in the South have had to regulate their citizens’ high intraregional mobility through principles, policies, and institutions that together constitute the governance of this special type of international migration.
Two conflicting factors contributed to how states in the South approached the governance of migration in their sub-regions. First is the reality of mobility in the sub-regions that responded to logics of economic activity and of ethnic and cultural kinships. Sub-regions were considered economic units within which trade and services flowed and people moved freely. Second is the restrictive logic of nation-states, which emphasizes the privileges of citizens in labor markets and social benefits, in addition to security considerations.
However, as late decolonization unfolded in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a contradiction emerged. European integration came about and progressively recognized the rights to freedom of movement and employment. Freedom of movement was considered necessary for integration, which in turn was an approach to ensuring peace and realizing accelerated economic growth. This positive development in nation-states’ perspective was encouraging for states of the South. It allowed for the recognition and reinforcement of old mobility circuits and for the creation of new ones, thus permitting rapid economic growth and development. On this basis, nation-states in the South embarked on processes of sub-regional integration. In Africa, sub-regional integration schemes are intended to eventually converge in regional and continental integration. Virtually all sub-regional integration processes had freedom of movement as an objective and means of action. Some went further, putting in place regimes of freedom of movement and labor.
It was in this vein that the 1979 Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Protocol relating to the Free Movement of Persons, the Right of Residence and Establishment, and its supplementary protocols emerged. The 2009 Protocol on the establishment of the East African Community Common Market prioritized the community’s accelerated economic growth and development through free movement of goods, persons, labor, services, capital, and the rights of establishment and residence. The Protocol dedicated its chapter 11 to the free movement of workers.
Meanwhile in Latin America and the Caribbean, regimes for freedom of movement of persons and labor were developed in the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and the Community of Andean Nations (CAN). The most advanced regime or plan for free movement of workers in Latin America was that of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR) whose member states adopted the Residence Agreement in 2002. In Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) put in place its own free mobility regime. In sum, in many sub-regions, regional integration and free mobility are considered means to overcome often artificial borders that split communities and obstruct development.
Sub-regional integration schemes vary in the extent of freedom of movement, establishment, and employment they recognize for nationals of their member states, in the rights they grant them, and in their actual implementation. Often, freedom of mobility is authorized before the right to work. Freedom of mobility is frequently granted to the highly skilled before the low-skilled workers. Freedom of establishment is facilitated by holding capital. In Africa, ECOWAS, and especially MERCOSUR in South America, have made significant progress in their labor mobility regimes. The MERCOSUR Residence Agreement authorizes nationals of a member state to reside and work for a period of two years in another member state if they can prove citizenship and a clean criminal record. The agreement also provides a number of rights to these migrants, including the right to equal working conditions, family reunification, and access to education for their children. After two years, the permit may be transformed into permanent residency.
According to migration law expert Diego Acosta, the driving force behind the MERCOSUR agreement was (unlike in the European Union) to find a solution to irregular migration and not to pave the way for an internal trade market. The agreement’s main objective, as declared in the preamble, is to solve the situation of intraregional irregular migration while deepening the regional integration process and implementing a policy of free circulation of people. The predominant discourse on international migration is thus again put into question. For states of the South, situated in the same sub-regions, irregular migration as a concept does not have the same meaning. Nor should it be criminalized in letter or in practice. It seems that for at least some of the states in the South, following age-old routes across recently traced borders is not completely illegitimate.
Despite the advances, problems persist. Member states may not incorporate provisions of their freedom of movement regimes in their own laws and policies. Domestic laws and policies may even be in contradiction with the sub-regional mobility regimes and thus partially invalidate them. More importantly, political disputes and economic interests may frustrate altogether attempts at setting up sub-regional integration schemes and associated mobility regimes. In Northwest Africa, political disputes frustrated the development of the Arab Maghreb Union, making a free mobility regime between its member states inconceivable. Despite the large labor migration from both Egypt and Tunisia to Libya, no labor mobility regime was put in place between either of the former two countries and the latter.
Between Egypt and Sudan, the implementation of the Four Freedoms Agreement is subject to political vicissitudes between the two countries. In southern Africa, the considerable disparity in development and economic structures between South Africa, and Botswana and Namibia, and other countries in the sub-region stood in the way of adopting a protocol on freedom of movement for persons in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The same may be said about the entry into force and implementation of the regime for free movement of persons and labor in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). Freedom of movement is unimaginable in the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Besides political disputes and defending economic interests, preserving customs revenues and weak institutional capacity of regional integration organizations have been advanced as explanations for the unsatisfactory realization of sub-regional integration in the South, including the design and implementation of regimes for the free movement of persons and labor. Accordingly, a Southern perspective on international migration, its dimensions, and its governance may differ from the more prevalent discourse on the subject in the Global North. Such a perspective raises different issues that need to be addressed. It is only when an open international discourse which discusses all issues—those facing the Global South and the Global North—are equally considered that questions of human mobility and migration will have a chance to be effectively addressed.
Refugees in the South: Beyond Binaries
While migrants are presently 3.4 percent of the world population, refugees are a much smaller subsect of all migrants, a mere 0.3 percent of the total population, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends report in 2017. Despite cries of refugee crises from rich countries in recent years, since 2000 refugee numbers have increased only from 9 percent of all migrants to 10 percent. Countries of the Global South host 84 percent of the world’s refugees, and this percentage is increasing, with the current number the highest in more than two decades. The poorest countries in the world—the least developed states or (LDCs)—host 28 percent of all refugees, and this number is also increasing. Indeed, just ten states host 57 percent of all refugees. What is clear from these statistics is that, first, the refugee issue is almost entirely confined to the Global South; and second, those least able to bear the responsibility are forced to shoulder it. This situation is not happenstance but a systematic process of externalization by rich states in which control over knowledge production plays a key role.
Much of the dominant discourse on migration turns on binaries: some migrants are voluntary, others are forced; some are international and others are internal; some are legal and others are irregular; and, perhaps the most formative of the binaries, some are migrants whilst others are refugees. In actuality, people usually move for reasons of economic betterment. This type of movement is characterized by law and policymakers as voluntary and subject to domestic regulation. When migration is perceived as involuntary, or forced, then in such cases the application of international protection is attempted in specific instances where state protection is seen to be absent. The primary means through which international protection is applied is the 1951 Refugee Convention that requires state parties to provide refugee status to persons fulfilling the following conditions: first, refugees should be outside their country of nationality; second, they should prove a well-founded fear of persecution; third, this persecution needs to be attributable to discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a particular social group; and fourth, their state should be unable or unwilling to protect them.
The 1951 Convention has been central in shaping migration discourse. Refugee status is a unique exception to the otherwise absolute sovereign prerogative to control migration and as such refugeehood has been carefully defined and closely interpreted by states. Despite popular usage of the term “refugee” to mean anyone fleeing their home, in reality refugee protection is only assured to the small group of people that fit the aforementioned carefully circumscribed conditions.
The convention operates only when a person has left their state of nationality. It privileges a particular type of forced migration—that which is attributable to persecution—above all else. More narrowly, it privileges only persecution that is attributable to a particular type of discrimination. That is to say, there is no international protection for other types of movement that normally would be understood as “forced” in the ordinary usage of the word like for example, displacement due to widespread conflict or human rights abuses, natural or manmade disasters such as famine, drought, desertification, floods, earthquakes, submersion of territories, and so on. The 1951 Convention was the product of its culture and history and reflected Western concerns in the aftermath of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War. Yet, nearly seventy years later, the convention remains in place today and is widely ratified, albeit with important exceptions in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Arab region.
What are the consequences of understanding migration through the voluntary/forced distinction? We treat political persecution and religious persecution as intolerable, but we see drought and famine as natural. We see war and conflict as terrible evils, but we see the millions of preventable and unnecessary infant deaths from unsanitary water or malaria as normal. We see ethnic strife as a serious threat to international peace and security, but we treat widening inequalities in power and wealth as natural. We see terrorism as an abomination, but we see climate change as an inevitability. Because of our fixation with an artificial, irrational, and unsubstantiated distinction between forced and voluntary migration, in its current state, our discourse makes it almost impossible to talk about migration in a useful way.
The reasons people move cannot be understood through the rubric of choice, or lack thereof. Through its categories of privilege and protection, our modern-day discourse around migration and refugee status and the laws and institutions this discourse produces arbitrarily creates hierarchies of suffering as a means of legitimating international protection in certain areas and abdicating responsibility in others. Renouncing international responsibility for internally displaced peoples ignores the greater protection needs of vast numbers who do not have the means to cross an international border but whose suffering is otherwise identical to those who managed to seek refuge internationally. Abdication of international responsibility over so-called voluntary migration allows a thriving system of domestic migration policies that maintain a growing body of exploitable laborers rendered invisible because of their irregular or undocumented status. These people—obscure and disposable to the international system—are mostly women and people of color.
Historically, people have moved—for the most part—because of environmental and economic causes and this is not going to change. Migrations brought about by climate change have already begun and they will be vast, protracted, and unstoppable. The present discourse is inadequate to understand or govern such a phenomenon. It cannot stop movement but will increase suffering and vulnerability as sites of irregularity and exploitability exponentially multiply. As the habitable zones of our planet change, the ensuing movements are inevitably producing challenges of public order, health, and security. These are challenges that policymakers could potentially ameliorate. Yet, current discourse prevents us from addressing these issues as they are beyond our purview—rendered unspeakable by the terminology we have created for ourselves. The most visible manifestation of this quandary today is negotiation of the Global Compacts, separated into one compact for migrants and another for refugees.
The predominant discourse tells us what a crisis is and how we should react to it and by that time it is usually too late to address systemic causes. By that time, we can only apply Band-Aid solutions such as widespread detention, refugee camps, safe havens, temporary visas, more money to UNHCR, offshore processing, international zones, visa conditionalities, border policing, and so on. The discourse obfuscates the questions of justice that permeate the systemic causes of migration. Who is responsible for economic inequality and climate change? Who is responsible for war and widespread human rights abuses? The causes of migration are rarely the responsibility of the Global South, yet flows of migrants and refugees often are.
Our discourse around migration tells us the nature of the problem and circumscribes the range of possible solutions. In this way, it shapes governance, laws, and institutions. In its current state, it prevents us from developing rational and effective approaches to governing migration, a situation made more evident in an era of climate change.
Discourse plays a role in institutionalizing the misery that increasing numbers of migrants endure today, providing protection against some types of violence but also structuring, maintaining, and normalizing others. The ethics of migration are rarely subject to scrutiny. For the most part, we are reluctant to examine ourselves too closely on an issue that has long been a repository for some of our most deep-seated and fundamental fears and insecurities. Though small in proportion to the global population, migrants are magnified in the public psyche because they act as a receptacle for broad and at times subconscious cultural fears about belonging, security, and significance.
For these reasons, asserting discursive and governance authority and control over migration is a high-stakes endeavor, centering on the issue of identity, in which dichotomies such as South and North, rich and poor, black and white, maintain a stranglehold on our imagination. Paying more attention to migration in the South—who is moving, where, and why—is one way to change how we understand and talk about migration. It can move us toward a more accurate, effective, and just governance of migration.
Ibrahim Awad is professor of practice of global affairs and the director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. From 2005 to 2010, he acted as director of the International Migration Programme at the International Labour Organization (ILO), Geneva, and prior to that, between 2005 and 2010, he was the ILO’s director for the North Africa sub-regional office. His most recent publications include “The Challenge of Global Governance in the Sustainable Development Agenda,” “The Multiple Levels of Governance of International Migration:Understanding Disparities and Disorder,” and “Towards a Joint Approach to Migration and Asylum in the Euro-Mediterranean Space,” to name a few.
Usha Natarajan is associate professor of international law and associate director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. Prior to joining AUC, she worked with international organizations including the UNDP, UNESCO, and the World Bank. In 2016, Natarajan received the IUCN Academy of Environmental Law research prize from the leading global institution in her field. Natarajan has authored and edited numerous books and articles, including most recently Third World Approaches to International Law: On Praxis and the Intellectual, and articles in Third World Quarterly, Leiden Journal of International Law, and Transnational Legal Theory. She has also contributed chapters to books such as Bandung, Global History and International Law: Critical Pasts and Pending Futures, Strengthening the Rule of Law through the UN Security Council, and Arab Spring in Egypt: Revolution and Beyond.
In a Storm Not of their Making
The influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, an initial trickle after 2011 and then accelerating in 2015 and 2016, has appeared to have changed the political landscape of the continent. However, the reality is that the Syrians and hundreds of thousands of others from Sub-Saharan Africa to Afghanistan to the Maghreb have played into European nativist and populist narratives, rather than create them. Indeed, the growing power of populist parties in Europe has been branded by the Institute for Global Change as the single most significant transformation of European politics since the end of the Cold War.
Fear of refugees and migrants played a prominent role in the Brexit referendum as it did in the 2016 U.S. elections, setting the stage for electoral victories that were unthinkable a few years ago. While the nativist trend was held at bay in the Dutch, French, and German elections, Austria saw the rightwing Freedom party join a ruling coalition in December 2017; in the Italian 2018 elections the far-right League and the Five Star Movement took 50 percent of the vote, establishing a government in June 2018. Central and Eastern Europe have also seen their share of populist movements with populist parties taking power in Hungary and Poland.
The social and political changes that led to surges by populist parties are much older than the Syrian refugee influx into Europe. These changes range widely from the impacts of globalization and the loss of jobs to foreigners, to feelings of political disempowerment as unelected technocrats from Brussels and national capitals seemed to gain power while Europe’s established mainstream political parties prove unequal to the challenges of globalization. In fact, we can start to see that the populist wave began to rise well over a decade ago, exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis and Europeans’ and Americans’ alienation from a political discourse which featured multiculturalism and questioned traditional gender norms. However, the currents of the populist wave were even older, going back decades. As such, the arrival of the Syrians in Europe turned a rising populist wave into a fierce storm, one that has now blown over the halls of power in London and Washington.
The Syrians, then, played an important but certainly not a determining role in a European crisis that long predated their arrival. Mostly Syrian refugees became fodder for an exaggerated and dangerous narrative in Europe of an existential, civilizational struggle, especially (but not exclusively) with Muslim migrants who were often the target of increasingly aggressive rhetoric and, occasionally, physical violence as this minority played the much-needed “other” in the populist/nativist narrative.
The Flow of the Displaced to Europe
Syria’s forcibly displaced represent the largest such phenomenon since the Second World War. As of spring 2018, there were nearly 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees, of which 3.6 million were in Turkey, nearly a million in Lebanon, some 660,000 in Jordan, 250,000 in Iraq, 128,000 in Egypt and 34,000 in the Maghreb. The total number of Syrian asylum seekers and refugees in Europe is one million. Syrians who are Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) number well over 6 million. Overall, some 13.3 million Syrians out of a prewar population of 22 million have been forcibly displaced.
The flow of Syrians into Europe started as early as 2011 when Syria erupted in protests and civil war. As the West largely abstained from the fighting and providing meaningful support to more secular rebel groups, radical Islamist factions took over much of the uprising. The latter development would impact Europe’s sense of vulnerability as around 5,000 EU citizens, a tiny percentage of the over 26 million Muslims living in Europe, left to fight for the Jihadi cause in Syria.
From the European perspective, the Libyan uprising also added to the continent’s migrant and refugee challenge. It is instructive to note that the first migrant boats from Libya to Italy started years earlier, around 2005, including one of the first seaborne disasters in 2007 when a boat with fifty-seven immigrants went missing. Those numbers, reflecting political and economic challenges in various sub-Saharan countries, would also start to grow as the Libyan regime—which had an agreement with the EU to stem Europe-bound migrants—was overthrown and the country splintered.
The Syrian refugee influx increased after 2012 just as the flow from Libya also grew. Total asylum applications in Europe remained relatively steady at 20,000–30,000 a month from 2008 to 2012, then exceeded 40,000 a month in 2013 and reached 70,000 a month in 2014. At the end of 2015 when the massive spike occurred, some 1.3 million asylum claims were recorded in the EU, 400,000 or so from Syrians while the total number of people arriving in Europe that year was at over 1,800,000. By the end of 2016 a further 1.2 million people had applied for asylum in Europe.
Arrivals have been declining ever since. In the first quarter of 2018 a total of 18,000 asylum seekers arrived on European shores, less than half the number arriving in 2017 and a far cry from 2016’s 175,000. No Syrians were reported among the top ten sender countries via the Libya route, and those arriving via the Aegean Sea from Turkey were a trickle of the numbers arriving in 2015–16. This dramatic slowdown is in part due to an EU agreement with Turkey but also to many Balkan and Central European countries closing the route to West Europe via strict enforcement of their borders, with military forces deployed and walls and barriers built. Similarly, the sea route via Libya has also been largely blocked as Italy and the EU reached deals with the Tripoli government, various militias and several migrant-sending African countries.
Yet, with the war raging in Syria, well over two million IDPs in rebel-controlled areas like Syria’s Idlib province—with more elsewhere—and IDP movements within Syria continuing, further refugee flows are not out of the question. The even more frightening risk of an Israeli–Iranian confrontation potentially encompassing Lebanon, Syria, and beyond means that the danger of larger movements of populations within countries—as well as into neighboring countries and from there into Europe—cannot be discounted.
Leaving these dire scenarios aside, however, for now Europe’s so-called Syrian refugee crisis is over as far as the flow is concerned. The challenge now facing the newly arrived refugees is that of integration, which remains unresolved for significant parts of the earlier Muslim migrant communities in Europe.
Liberalism’s Crisis and the Perfect Storm
The “perfect storm” is an oft-used term when it comes to defining the surge in populist politics in Europe. Rogers Brubaker, professor of sociology at University of California, Los Angeles, points to causative trends that have been evolving over decades including the weakening of parties and party systems, and changing relations between the media and politics. As parties weaken, political leaders have become more inclined to directly address voters, facilitated by pervasive social media applications. There were also demographic, economic, and cultural changes which joined to create this confluence of events referred to as the perfect storm for populism.
One glaring issue resonated with populist constituencies across Europe. This was the permanent presence of resident migrants since the 1950s and 1960s, many of whom are Muslim, in many European cities. These migrants had been expected to return home after their work visas had finished. Yet many of them stayed in Europe and chose to make lives in wealthy cities and towns. While most adapted well, integration proved challenging for some and after their initial welcome to Europe to help rebuild after the Second World War, locals began to accuse the migrants of abusing welfare and stealing jobs. Almost inevitably, migrants were conveniently placed in the role of the “other” needed by nativist/populist politicians to galvanize votes.
This process of othering accelerated once globalization hit in full force in the 1980s and 1990s, leading to ever-greater income inequalities, the collapse of manufacturing jobs and flows of goods, services, investments and—of course—labor across borders. Protecting native laborers, goods, and services in a new nationalistic narrative was easy for the populists to adopt. This was especially so given the rightward and liberal drift among social-democratic parties at the end of the twentieth century prompting them to appeal to the center as their working-class base diminished, meaning that these parties were unable to take on new challenges and channel them in a more benign direction. Yet, there have always been limits to how far right and populist constituencies will vote given past experience with fascist regimes. Consequently, the examples of Greece and to a lesser extent in Spain and Portugal, in light of the relatively recent experience of Francoism, reflected the limited extent to which populist parties in recent decades have been able to gain a foothold in elections.
There has also been a cultural element to the confluence of the “perfect storm” as the multiculturalism and focus on minority rights of the left and liberal parties have attracted opposition from populists. These populists have defended “traditional” roles of families and women and targeted minority and LGBTQ rights, stating that a focus on minorities and transformative gender ideas has caused the degeneration in the West. The 2008 global economic crisis and the subsequent economic recession played a role as did the aloof and seemingly unaccountable and opaque workings of the EU itself and, of course, its narrative of open borders and inclusivity. The economic, political, and cultural changes that brought about populist movements are deep-seated and unlikely to change in the next few years.
The Challenge of Integration
It was into this changing and volatile landscape that the Syrian refugees and the other displaced peoples arrived in Europe, accompanied by a media blitz showing endless processions of refugees trudging through the Balkans or floundering in boats either in the Mediterranean or the Aegean seas. There were elections brewing in many countries and a growing terrorist threat symbolized by ISIS with the media focusing on various atrocities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, terrorist attacks in London, Brussels, Paris, Nice, as well as smaller but well-covered attacks in Copenhagen, Oslo, Berlin, and elsewhere.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s initial invitation to the refugees provided an immediate target for populists in Germany as the Alternative for Germany party emerged as a reaction against the influx and Merkel’s welcoming approach—she too would harden her stance as the elections approached. Sweden, which had accepted more asylum seekers on a per-capita basis than Germany, also saw a surge of support for the Sweden Democrats, a party which had been trying to shed its extreme right views. Already receiving some 13 percent of the vote in 2014, only three years after first entering parliament in 2011—long before the influx in asylum seekers—the Sweden Democrats are currently polling around 20 percent as the September 2018 elections approach.
In both Germany and Sweden, the surge in support for populist parties can probably be most directly linked to the fears around refugees and their perceived rather than actual impacts on crime and/or terrorism. Numerous studies in Germany and elsewhere show that refugees are less prone to criminality than local populations of the same income and demographics. As for fears of terror, by far the majority of terrorist acts have been carried out by Muslim citizens or residents of European countries who are almost always born in these countries and are the second or even older generations of their families.
The challenge the Muslim population poses in this new Europe is undoubtedly exacerbated by terrorism, but predates such atrocities and points to deeper conflicts around integration in European societies. This challenge of fuller integration is made all the more pressing given that Muslim population numbers are set to increase significantly. Using data from the Pew Research Center, given low immigration rates, there will be 36 million Muslims in Europe by 2050, accounting for 7.4 percent of the total population versus roughly 5 percent today. In an unlikely high immigration scenario, the number of Muslims could increase more to 76 million or 14 percent of the population. In a more realistic, medium migration scenario, the respective numbers are set to be 58 million and 12.6 percent of the European population by 2050.
Even in a scenario where there is zero migration to Europe, 11 percent of Belgium’s, 10 percent of Sweden’s, nearly 10 percent of the UK’s, 9 percent of Germany’s, and 13 percent of France’s populations are set to be Muslim by 2050. The realities of these numbers mean that continued anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narratives promise a future of greater turmoil and social tensions in the West. This need not be the case, however, especially since an aging Europe will need more, not less, immigration. It is also worth noting that most European Muslims identify strongly with their host countries. When asked, 96 percent of Muslims in Germany and France feel that they were connected to their host countries. That figure is 98 percent in Switzerland and 89 percent in the UK. Yet growing anti-Muslim rhetoric and increasing aggressiveness could threaten their sense of identity.
The rapidity with which even Eastern Europeans found themselves targeted in places like Britain once the populist wave took over underlines that even broader narratives around a European identity are vulnerable to narrow nationalisms. While Brexit figures heavily in anti-Eastern European narratives, “No Eastern Europeans” signs first appeared in the UK in 2013, well before the Brexit vote in 2016. Worth noting is that the infamous “polish plumber” character is not a British invention but a French one and its symbolism played an important role in the French “no” vote in the European Constitutional referendum of 2005. A spike in Serbians in German jails in 2018 underlines the potential for further problems in this arena. Once the genie of nativism is unleashed it is indeed hard to restrain.
Furthermore, the populists’ economic nationalism is a double-edged sword as it risks igniting a global trade war while seeking to protect local populations from the real and perceived dangers of economic displacement. Worse, nativist economic policies could lead to a global depression creating a situation uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1930s when nativist politics—foremost in Italy and Germany but not there alone—set the world on fire.
As to the Syrian influx and the broader flow of migrants in the 2014–16 period, the new arrivals served as fodder for, but did not create, the basis for the nationalist, populist reaction to the post-Second World War liberal era. What is clear is that unless that nationalist–populist reaction is contained with a renewed narrative emphasizing more inclusive values, we could be in for decades of turmoil in Europe and the United States—in short, decades of turmoil at the very core of the global economy.
Omer Karasapan is a Senior Operations Officer at the World Bank. He blogs regularly at the Brookings Institution and the World Bank, mostly on the Middle East with a focus on refugee issues.
A Horrible Game Changer
On January 16, 2018, the United States State Department announced that it will only release $60 million of its $300 million annual contribution to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), and hold the remainder of its pledge pending review. The decision is particularly impactful given that the United States has traditionally been the largest single donor to UNRWA. In 2017, for example, the United States contributed around $365 million, accounting for close to one-third of the organization’s budget. By way of comparison, the second-largest contributor—the European Union (EU)—provided approximately $143 million.
This decision to cut support to UNRWA came as a surprise. While U.S. support for UNRWA often faced some domestic criticism—particularly from some members of Congress—the U.S. government traditionally maintained support for the organization, arguing that it played a stabilizing role in the Middle East. In late 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley reassured UNRWA that U.S. assistance would be forthcoming.
The suddenness of the decision to cut aid and its potential impact on UNRWA’s ability to continue operating is cause for extreme worry given the depth and breadth of the services provided by the organization. Established in 1949, UNRWA today services more than 5 million registered “Palestine refugees” in five areas of operation: the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In these areas, the organization provides key social services: its schools educate more than half a million students, its health facilities address more than 8.8 million patient visits annually. In addition to these basic services, UNRWA also provides emergency assistance in times of crisis while also providing microfinance and other programs to promote self- reliance among its beneficiaries.
While the U.S. decision to suspend support to UNRWA may have produced some positive outcomes: namely spurring more equitable burden-sharing and signaling the need for reform in UNRWA, these outcomes pale in comparison with the decision’s negative impact. The overall humanitarian implications for the beneficiaries of UNRWA’s services, the impact on Gaza’s humanitarian and security situation, the destabilizing impact on U.S. regional allies, particularly Jordan, and the decision’s ineffectiveness in applying diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian National Authority, all overwhelmingly argue against this step.
While the humanitarian implications of a significant cut in UNRWA services are obvious, assessing the policy impact is more difficult given the conflicting messaging from the Donald Trump administration regarding the objective of the decision. Ambassador Haley, who first signaled the administration’s intention to defund UNRWA on January 2, 2018, indicated that the cutback in aid was intended to apply pressure to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to “agree to come back to the negotiating table.” In contrast, the State Department did not link the decision to the administration’s larger efforts regarding the Palestinian–Israeli peace process, and instead indicated that the decision was spurred by the need to improve UNRWA’s operations by focusing on reforms and burden-sharing.
It soon emerged that the confusion was not a result of a messaging failure, but rather a symptom of deeper disagreements and dysfunction in the administration’s policy-making process. In internal deliberations, Haley’s position to completely cut off aid as a tool to pressure the PA was supported by the White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and National Security Advisor Jared Kushner—the President’s son-in-law and senior advisor in charge of the Middle East peace process. The Department of State, which technically has the final say on the matter, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community opposed this decision, fearing its destabilizing impact. In the end, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had to personally negotiate with the president to secure the release of $60 million, just below half of the first tranche of the funds pledged to the organization.
The difference of messaging reflects not only disagreement regarding UNRWA itself, but also a difference of approach toward the larger issue of U.S. policy regarding international aid and international organizations. The Department of State used to see international assistance as a key tool for achieving American foreign policy objectives, and has traditionally been opposed to its politicization, particularly when it comes to humanitarian assistance. This traditional approach has come in conflict with the Trump administration’s overall aversion to foreign assistance and to Ambassador Haley’s own objective to bring the UN more in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives.
The lack of clarity regarding the decision’s objectives, however, has made it difficult to assess its success, and to identify the steps needed to reinstate U.S. support for UNRWA. Indeed, while some of the objectives identified by the State Department are reasonable and are being met, the ones articulated by Ambassador Haley are likely to be ineffective.
Improving UNRWA Operations
The points raised by the State Department cannot be dismissed out of hand. Like any large bureaucracy—particularly in the UN—UNRWA suffers from a degree of inefficiency and waste. Furthermore, credible reports of occasional misuse of UNRWA facilities, especially by Hamas in Gaza, warrant continuous vigilance both by UNRWA itself as well as its donors. While UNRWA has recognized this need and has embarked on its own reform efforts, a more robust reform and monitoring effort by the organization’s donors can be helpful. In this sense, using aid to effect reform is a legitimate tool, but for this tool to be effective, more clarity is needed regarding what kinds of reform are being sought.
Likewise, a situation where the United States disproportionally funds UNRWA is unreasonable. As Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi pointed out, this is particularly the case when it comes to Arab contributions to UNRWA, which—with the exception of Saudi Arabia—have been traditionally meager. Judged from the point of view of creating more equitable burden-sharing, the U.S. decision to review its funding is already bearing fruit: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, along with Canada and several European countries, have increased their contributions to cover some of the deficit created by the American decision. Yet, despite increased aid from countries, UNRWA’s finances are unsustainable without some degree of U.S. assistance. The open-ended nature of the suspension of U.S. assistance, along with the lack of clarity regarding what would constitute an acceptable level of burden-sharing make it difficult to effectively operationalize this objective.
Putting Pressure on the Palestinian Authority
While suspending U.S. aid could be leveraged toward improving UNRWA’s operation and funding, it is not an effective tool to achieve the objective outlined by Ambassador Haley: namely applying pressure on the Palestinian leadership to engage in negotiations. PA leaders are aware that the Palestinian public’s discontent over cuts in UNRWA services will likely be directed not at the PA, but against the United States, Israel, and UNRWA itself. As such, the PA can side with its public in expressing outrage while deflecting the blame onto others. Furthermore, the PA will probably judge that Israel also does not want an abrupt cut of UNRWA services given the move’s destabilizing potential, and that it will likely push for backchannel-lobbying efforts to get the United States to reinstate aid.
Instead, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas artfully has used the perceived attack on Palestinian rights represented by the cutoff of aid to UNRWA and the American decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem to his advantage. Domestically, through heightened rhetoric, he has sought to build an image of himself as the protector of the Palestinian cause. Externally, these moves have enabled him to position himself at the center of regional diplomacy. Now any Arab leaders who attempt to apply pressure on him may find themselves open to Abbas’s accusations of complicity and collusion with the United States against Palestine.
Impact on Gaza
While unlikely to succeed in diplomatically pressuring the PA, the U.S. cutoff of assistance will have a severe humanitarian impact. This will be most direly felt in Gaza. Home to 1.9 million people, of whom 1.3 are refugees registered with UNRWA, the economic and humanitarian situation in the coastal strip has been steadily deteriorating after years of Israeli closure and three wars between Hamas and Israel. On top of that, the strip has been pushed closer to the edge of humanitarian collapse as a result of sanctions imposed by the Palestinian National Authority in 2017. While UNRWA has always been a major provider of health and education services in the impoverished coastal strip, the compounded impact of Israeli policies and PA sanctions have dramatically increased demand on its services, including emergency assistance. For example, today one million Gazans have begun receiving food aid from the organization. In addition to the direct impact on UNRWA services in Gaza, a reduction of UNRWA activities will have wider implications for the overall economy in Gaza. With unemployment at 41 percent, UNRWA’s 12,500 staff in Gaza not only provide for their families, but also represent an important source of liquidity in the cash-strapped strip.
Ironically, therefore, the American decision to cut off aid to UNRWA undercuts a key U.S. and international objective, namely the humanitarian and economic stabilization of Gaza. In addition to the immediate imperative of meeting the needs of Gazan civilians, the renewed international focus on improving the situation in Gaza is also motivated by the urgent need to stabilize the security situation and reduce the chances of another war between Hamas and Israel.
In this regard, freezing aid to UNRWA undermines the efforts to stabilize Gaza in two ways. The first, and most obvious, is that undermining UNRWA’s ability to provide vital services exacerbates the existing humanitarian situation as mentioned above. But equally importantly, given the PA’s unwillingness to serve as a conduit for aid and reconstruction on the one hand, and the international community’s unwillingness to disburse aid through Hamas, UNRWA is the best-positioned UN agency to implement such a stabilization plan in the absence of legitimate Palestinian address, given its extensive networks and infrastructure in Gaza. In this regard, cutting aid to UNRWA would deprive the international community of an important partner in Gaza’s stabilization to the detriment not only of Palestinians in the strip, but also regional stability particularly for Gaza’s neighbors in Israel and Egypt.
Whether the objective is to effect UNRWA reform, or to pressure the Palestinians, the U.S. decision will have negative implications in other arenas. Jordan and Lebanon—the former hosting around 2.2 million registered Palestinian refugees and the latter 450 thousand—will be impacted. Both these countries are host to significant numbers of Syrian (and in the case of Jordan, Iraqi) refugees who have already strained these countries’ budgets and infrastructures. Adding refugees currently serviced by UNRWA into these countries’ limited national social services would further strain resources, possibly to the breaking point.
Besides the strain on budget and infrastructure, this decision could have a politically destabilizing impact on Jordan. UNRWA services ten official camps, home to some 370,000 registered refugees. Residents of these camps, along with many of the refugees living outside the camps, rely on UNRWA’s 171 schools, twenty-five primary health centers, fourteen women’s program centers, and a plethora of other educational and social programs. Throughout the Arab Spring and in the periodic economic protests that have taken place since—most recently in June of this year—these camps have been notably quiet.
A significant reduction of UNRWA services in Jordan will likely change this and lead to unrest in the camps. Such protests will obviously focus on the loss of services. Indeed, since the U.S. decision was made, UNRWA workers in Jordan have undertaken a number of limited strikes to protest a reduction of services by the organization. But such protests will also likely have a political dimension. Like in the past, any changes to UNRWA programs are perceived by many refugees as a prelude to prejudging the final disposition of the refugee issue in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, ensuring that protests will have a political dimension.
If such protests occur, they are not likely to directly target the Jordanian authorities. But—as with the American decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem—they are likely to touch upon the close relations between Jordan and the United States, and will add to a sense of instability at a time when the former is struggling to regain calm in the wake of the political turmoil resulting from unpopular economic measures.
A Grim Future
The American frustration with shouldering a disproportionate share of supporting UNRWA and the desire to see more reforms in the organization are understandable, particularly at a time when the United States is seeking to reduce its overall international aid. Yet the impact of this decision will be highly destabilizing. It would undermine the administration’s own objectives of stabilizing Gaza and could hurt Jordan, one of the United States’ most stalwart allies in the region. And rather than compel the PA to engage in negotiations, it will likely harden the position of the Palestinian public, who would see the measure as an attempt to deny refugee rights, and would further entrench their leaders’ decision to not engage in American-led diplomacy. And in the midst of these policy implications, millions of refugees who rely on UNRWA’s services will see their lives negatively impacted.
As of yet, there is no final decision in the administration regarding the disbursement of the remainder of its pledges to UNRWA. Ideally, these funds will be released once more equitable burden-sharing arrangements are reached with other donors, and once reform targets are met. But if the United States decides to stop funding UNRWA completely, then the prospects for the organization look grim, with overall negative implications. While other countries may step in to cover some of the funding gap, it is unlikely that this would cover the whole deficit left by the American decision given the other competing humanitarian demands in the wider region. And while UNRWA can reduce some services, such cuts will impact a beneficiary population, most of which is already in a precarious humanitarian situation. Such cuts will inevitably produce unrest.
Whether the United States ultimately decides to walk back from this decision or to crystalize it in a formal cutoff of aid to UNRWA will be indicative of whether the U.S. government has the will and skill to pursue its stated objective of bolstering stability and ultimately achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians, or whether the United States is in effect disengaging from this conflict.
Ghaith Al-Omari is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute. Previously, he was executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, and served as advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team between 1999–2006, where he participated in a number of negotiation rounds including the 2000 Camp David Summit. He has written for the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Al Arabiya, the American Interest, among other publications. On Twitter: @GhAlOmari.
A Compact for Syrian Refugee Women?
Every morning, Sawsan Al-Cheikh boards a bus in north Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp and travels to an industrial park for a day at work. It takes her around an hour to travel to the Jerash Garments and Fashion Manufacturing Co., where she will spend her shift at a sewing machine—work, she says, means everything to her.
She and her daughters earn a little more than $860 between them each month. Yet, the significance of their jobs is touted as being much greater. Publicity videos from the United Nations Refugee Agency and articles show Al-Cheikh declaring that she does not want “handouts” and believes one should “take a stand and go to work” to provide for a family. UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi, on a visit to the factory, praised her and thanked the Jordanian government for facilitating a project that gives refugees the chance to work.
The project is a deal called the Jordan Compact, struck between the European Union and Jordan in 2016. Donors promised to grant Jordan $1.7 billion in financing in exchange for the creation of 200 thousand jobs. Al-Cheikh’s job is tied to an arrangement that gives factories in Special Economic Zones (SEZs) tariff-free access to European markets if 15 percent of their employees are Syrian.
Jerash Garments has worked hard for the trade concessions: its founder Oryana Awaisheh spent months speaking to refugees and now provides childcare and charter buses from Zaatari refugee camp, where eighty thousand Syrians live. Awaisheh believes tariff-free access is worth it. The factory has become a flagship success story in the Compact. “At the beginning, it was difficult but now we are hiring,” Awaisheh said. “It is not easy work but it depends on how you can provide facilities to help women get to work. The daycare centre, transportation, a meal and a permit were important for us.”
The reality of the factory’s success, however, may not be quite as groundbreaking as it seems. Jerash Garments did not actually make the target of 15 percent of employed Syrians across the factory: it only qualified for tariff-free access when the entry bar was lowered to require the quota of Syrian workers on one production line. The headline achievement touted by the UNHCR is the employment of twenty-two Syrian workers—a small fraction of the 2,800 the company employs in total. The factory currently employs forty women, but hopes to take on one hundred workers in the coming months.
If the success of Jerash Garments has been muted, so too has that of the Jordan Compact itself. From the outset, manufacturing industries sat at the core of the project, and textile production—an export industry often based in SEZs and with a predominantly female workforce—has looked to recruit women in the hope of accessing EU markets. When a pilot was announced in 2016, it aimed to recruit two thousand workers. Organizations including the UNHCR and the International Labour Organization’s (ILO’s) Better Work program held recruitment fairs in community centers to drum up interest for work in the factories and sign up women who were interested. Launched to a fanfare, the project was anticipated to be received by Syrians with enthusiasm.
However, the drive, as Better Work’s Jordan Program Manager Tareq Abu Qaoud told me at the outset of the project, was not a success. Syrian women were far from ecstatic about the proposed jobs, and few signed up. By the end of 2016, only thirty Syrians had been employed under the pilot tariff-suspension program.
“This was a little bit surprising, especially for myself,” Abu Qaoud admitted. “I know about Syrians, how they’re living on the poverty line, and so on. I thought they’d very much like the opportunity to formalize their legal status. But somehow they were reluctant.”
The confusion was felt across the board. Why wouldn’t Syrians—a marginalized group, 80 percent of whom are living under the poverty line and barred from legitimate means of making a living—do anything but jump at the possibility of work? Employers, NGOs, and the EU were left scratching their heads.
Written for Women?
But there were reasons for the lack of interest in the program by Syrian refugees—ones that should have been clear from the outset. In Jordan, the garment sector is notoriously exploitative, requiring workers to spend hours hunched over detailed, repetitive work on claustrophobic production lines. Hours are often long and pay relatively low. “They earn 190 JD every month,” Abu Qaoud said. “It’s not sufficient to cover the needs of the household.”
Neither are the SEZs especially tempting locations to spend six out of seven days of the week. Stark gatherings of faceless buildings rising from the gray-yellow desert in the north and south of Jordan, they are located in isolated spots, exposed to the sweltering sun and at risk of sandstorms. Syrian refugees living in cities or refugee camps must travel to get to the factory, so an eight-hour day is bookended by an hour or more commuting.
These are obstacles for any job seeker, but they disproportionately affect the Syrian women being targeted by the sector. Women have caring responsibilities that mean they are unable, or at least reluctant, to remain far from home during the day. Linda Kalash, who campaigns for migrant workers with the Jordanian NGO Tamkeen, presents the idea that “women do not like to travel far distances.” Jordan’s poor public transportation disadvantages everyone, but while it is culturally acceptable for men to thumb a ride or cram themselves into a crowded intercity bus, it is unthinkable for many women. Conservative social attitudes, Kalash continued, mean women face the disapproval of family and friends over the prospect of working far from the home. And norms are entwined with very real concerns for women’s safety and harassment in public spaces dominated by men, and in which bigotry against Syrians means an added risk. For the wage offered at factories the costs are simply too high. “They’re excited to work, but when they consult their husbands, families they’re told ‘No,’” Abu Qaoud says.
For those who currently work in the garment sector, these problems do not loom so large. They are predominantly workers from Southeast Asia, often working abroad temporarily in order to save or send money home. These women frequently live in sparse, dormitory-type accommodation close to the factory site, and work ten- or eleven-hour days. It is a hardship that seems possible for migrants who regard their work as temporary, but Syrian women are in a different situation. Refugees have costs like rent and children’s clothes to think about, as well as family caring responsibilities. Because of dim hope that they will return to Syria, too, refugees are likely to be looking at their labor choices from a longer-term perspective—as work that fits with their lives.
When NGOs and the UN embarked on recruitment drives focused on Syrian women, they missed this crucial point. When recruitment began in 2016, it was based on the assumption that Syrians would take up the permits and jobs offered to them with enthusiasm—and that employers would be keen to hire them, too. In reality, the needs of Syrian women themselves were absent from the equation. Targeted with jobs that felt inappropriate to them, women have not taken permits with enthusiasm and at the last count just 5 percent of permits have been given to them.
“Women do have a problem with transport; they do have a problem with the patriarchal structure in the house. Men might not allow them to leave the house, they might have children,” Dina Mansour-Ille, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute, said. “Their roles are centered in the house. There is also discrimination in the workplace. When it comes to a woman and a man, employers will choose the man.”
Any attempt to get women into work has to address these realities—but the Compact has not managed to do so. It did not mention “how work and access to it might be gendered,” Mansour-Ille suggests, and tackle or try to resolve these obstacles. This was not a failing of the Compact’s ability to carry out its aims, she implies: the needs of women, vulnerable groups, and minorities were simply not incorporated at the outset.
This is widely recognized in critiques. While its ostensible purpose was to get Syrians into jobs, the Compact was negotiating a complex range of other considerations: attracting investment and courting donor interests, as well as domestic concerns like the perceived threat from Syrian workers to Jordanian jobs. In the terms and aims of the Compact, many of those concerns came before the needs of Syrians themselves, and certainly ahead of any effort to engineer a Compact that could push to secure work that met the needs of women or more vulnerable migrant minorities in Jordan. The Overseas Development Institute concluded that the Compact “did not integrate refugee perspectives at the outset” and has, as a result, “been slow to improve their daily lives.”
Resolving Tensions in the Refugee Economy
To cut through some of the publicity and figure out why the Compact has failed to get women into work, we must think more about the agreement itself.
The deal was formalized at the London Conference in 2016—an event that brought Syria donors and Jordanian leadership together with the ambitious aim of turning the refugee crisis “into a development opportunity.”
That long-term solutions were needed had been clear for some time. Around 650,000 Syrian refugees are registered with the UNHCR in Jordan; the government estimates nearly double that number live in the country. International aid donors had stepped in to support refugees and the Jordanian state, but as the crisis dragged on it began to become clear that this would not continue indefinitely. At the same time, in 2015, the fallout had begun to reach Europe. Western governments were alarmed at the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people risking their lives to escape conflict, or the prospect of a life in limbo in countries like Jordan. They wanted to keep refugees in the Middle East.
Helping refugees support themselves financially and pursue meaningful work is an obvious means of doing that. But that is easier said than done in Jordan, where the issue of jobs for refugees is politically explosive. This is a heavily aid-dependent nation with persistently high unemployment—now around 18 percent—and a sluggish economy. And despite the fact that waves of refugees from Iraq, Palestine, and further afield have contributed enormously to Jordan’s economy, anti-immigrant sentiment is rife. Syrians are simultaneously feared as a threat to jobs, and condemned as a drain on state resources.
This paradoxical attitude is echoed by state policy. Until 2016, it was generally illegal for Syrians to work in Jordan: refugees were forbidden from most professions and in the few areas where they were able to work, permits were expensive and difficult to get. Despite this, the government expects refugees who live outside camps—81 percent of the total, who receive little in the way of humanitarian assistance—to support themselves any way they can. Until 2015, only about 10 percent of Syrians working in Jordan had permits. The rest worked illegally, in precarious sectors characterized by low wages, long hours, and dangerous conditions exacerbated by a constant fear of arrest.
This policy of both expecting refugees to work and making it illegal for them to do so is not accidental. Jordan’s large informal economy keeps Syrian refugees—as well as other groups—in state-sanctioned precarity, creating a pool of labor that, to the benefit of capital, is easily exploitable and unlikely to claim labor rights. The stratification of citizenship also creates and reinforces politically important hierarchies. While Syrians and other migrants are confined to illegal and low-waged areas of work, Jordanians can be employed in “closed” sectors that range from teaching to engineering to retail. This serves the interests of employers and politicians, maintains the privileges of certain groups, and solidifies the framing of migrants as a threat to Jordanian jobs and prosperity.
The strategies of the Compact were an extension of this. Garment factories were just the beginning: the agreement decided that barriers to Syrians getting work permits would be eased more broadly and 200 thousand new permits would be issued. Of these, fifty thousand would be in industries generally shunned by Jordanians, and the remainder would be for work in the SEZs in exchange for tariff concessions. It addressed the fears of Syrian employment by framing jobs for Syrians as jobs for Jordanians at a rate of five to one, according to Jordan’s King Abdullah—and turning what had been framed as a problem population into a “development opportunity.” The informality of Syrian employment had been useful for the hierarchies and labor class it created. By selectively formalizing that employment, the Jordanian state has managed to maintain, even deepen, those hierarchies, while attracting further investment to benefit the state.
Creating Work or Counting Jobs?
In the SEZs, women targeted by recruitment efforts that did not suit their needs failed to pursue the jobs they were offered. The same could be said for those Syrians authorities hoped would claim work permits. As the end of 2016 approached, far fewer workers were attempting to formalize their work than had been anticipated, and it seemed unlikely that the government would reach its target of issuing fifty thousand new permits.
There was no mystery around the reluctance. Plenty of Syrians wanted legal employment, but not necessarily in the sectors where work permits were allowed. For many, the added hassles tied to a permit—bureaucracy, having to stick to a single workplace, coming up against paperwork that was difficult to get—were not worth it. The biggest jump in uptake came when the rules were changed to accommodate how Syrians actually worked: linking agricultural permits to a worker rather than an employer, allowing Syrians to legally take flexible, seasonal work. By October 2017, seventy-one thousand permits had been issued, but ILO estimates still suggest that just 13 percent of Syrians have permits.
There was another problem with the system: by basing itself on distributing permits, the Compact did not create jobs but formalized them. The ILO recognizes the “vast majority” of work permits were given to refugees who were already working. If this is the case, it may have come a long way to making work more secure for some Syrians—an achievement that, in difficult circumstance, has been rightly celebrated. However, in the aim of creating jobs—and particularly meaningful jobs that mean Syrians can support themselves and pursue fulfilling lives in the country of their enforced exile—it has failed.
Reasons for this failure are arguably the same and resulted in the needs of women and other vulnerable groups being neglected. The Compact was ostensibly about Syrians, but the main actors were more worried about other things than creating meaningful, fulfilling, well-paid, and secure work, which prioritized refugees’ needs and interests. Syrians’ access to the labor market was restricted to protecting Jordanian workers. Quantifying work, through work permits, to attract investment took precedence over creating jobs. Refugees and groups working with them were excluded in favor of state and donor interests.
Mansour-Ille believes the Compact crucially succeeded in putting a taboo issue on the table—opening what she calls the “black box” of jobs for refugees. However, while the intention may have been creating and formalizing jobs, it was ultimately about attracting investment. “It was a good initiative but it was a government-led initiative,” Mansour-Ille says. “It fails to even mention vulnerable groups, and does not consider how work and access to it might be gendered.”
If NGOs and the migrants themselves had been a part of the conversation, Mansour-Ille “guarantees” gender would have been discussed, but the meetings that created the agreement were “very hush-hush.” The Compact may have failed to listen to Syrians, but it did not have Syrians at its heart in the first place.
When the successes of the Jordan Compact are sold to the rest of the world, women like Sawsan Al-Cheikh are presented as an archetype of the deserving migrant. But while few appear drawn to the opportunity of minimum wage labor in garment factories, there are hundreds of thousands of Syrian women in Jordan who are enthusiastic about building meaningful lives and supporting their families.
In a recent study by ILO and the Institute for Applied International Studies (Fafo), 57 percent of female respondents expressed a desire to find a job, but most were not actively seeking employment. Their reasons—like the women themselves—are diverse, and they are not always the same ones barring work in SEZs. Researchers identify social pressures and domestic duties as crucial reasons for women not seeking work, yet there is also a lack of suitable opportunities, unacceptable pay, and a fear of both gendered and xenophobic street harassment and abuse. In one of the most thorough surveys on Syrian women refugee livelihoods, access to credit was identified by a clear majority of women as the biggest barrier to employment and fear of authorities also loomed large. A majority in a recent survey said seeking work did not fit with childcare responsibilities.
One of the more important but overlooked obstacles, too, is the fact that Syrians are forbidden from unionizing and organizing to address these needs themselves. It is illegal, in Jordan, for refugees to form any type of association, so women are forbidden from setting up, for example, cooperatives to widen the markets of their individual work or unions to begin mobilization around their own labor rights.
These crucial obstacles to women’s employment have not been considered by the Jordan Compact. Opportunities for refugee women have been framed through interests other than refugees themselves: they are a way to attract investment, exploitable human capital under terms attractive to business and under confines unthreatening to—and that often reinforce—hierarchies of nationalities within the state. These interests are antithetical to structures—freedom of association and unionizing, access to legal work under terms that do not discriminate by nationality, solid labor protections—that would underpin meaningful and viable work for refugees.
None of this is surprising given Jordan’s economic reality. At the time of writing, street protests have prompted a change of government and billions in anxious funding from Arab states. The nature of the Compact’s economic reform and deal-making follows decades of neo-liberalizing policies and IMF- imposed structural adjustment, reinforcing free trade and reducing government intervention and spending to suit the interests of capital.
Even if the Compact does begin to formalize labor rights for refugees, it necessarily does so in this context. A different approach would mean focusing on the needs of refugees themselves. Some initiatives have started attempting to do this. Programs by Better Work have consulted women about their skills and interests, working with employers and refugees to think about developing opportunities that can fit with people’s lives. Mansour-Ille and her colleagues have pitched gig economy infrastructure, training and protections as a way to support the many women—around 60 percent in some areas—already working from home.
However, change needs to go further. New policies should tackle the way informality and access to work in Jordan are defined by nationality, how older laws maintain the privilege of citizens and precarity of migrants and as such create a barrier between Syrians and the labor market. Changing the law to allow Syrians freedom of association has been widely recognized to be crucial. For women, it would mean providing childcare and putting money toward reducing child marriage, enacting and enforcing legislation around equal pay and maternity protections, and investing further in girls’ education.
It is a common refrain that in Jordan, a country with scarce natural assets, the greatest natural resource is its people. Jordan is a state built to a large degree by waves of migrants seeking economic opportunity or fleeing hardship. Yet, while rhetoric depicts a Jordan that welcomes new arrivals with open arms, the reality is that refugees are politicized and confined, turned into scapegoats and leveraged for what they can best do to serve the interests of state and capital.
Their own needs, and the possibility for them to build lives for themselves and communities that surround them, are sidelined. To avoid repeating the failings of the past, what comes after the Jordan Compact must put refugees at its heart.
Bethan Staton is a journalist who has written extensively from the Middle East for the New Statesman, Guardian, LA Times, Salon, Esquire, and others. On Twitter: @bthsts.
From Africa to Israel to Nowhere
In February, Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority suddenly relocated its office from south Tel Aviv, a working-class neighborhood heavily inhabited by African asylum seekers, to the city of Bnei Brak. Longtime residents of south Tel Aviv had begun to complain: lines of foreign workers waiting to extend their visas formed a full sixteen hours before the office opened each day, leading to scuffles, people urinating in the streets, and increased police patrols. The move, the authority claimed, would facilitate a more orderly application process.
It has not. Hundreds still queue under the scorching Israeli sun, deluged by the smell of urine and trash. They are economic migrants, many from African countries, in search of work, and asylum seekers fearing persecution back home, who are required to get their temporary visas renewed every three to six months, or face jail time and possible deportation. The legal status they are granted temporarily saves them from deportation, until the government can find a way to legally force them out of Israel.
About sixty thousand Africans, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, entered Israel illegally through the Sinai desert between 2006 and 2012, according to estimates made by human rights organizations, when security on the border with Egypt was absent. Today, only thirty-six thousand remain (half of whom are women, children, or men with families), the majority having been expelled by the government. Israelis who want them to leave say that the migrants have made the journey merely for economic opportunity, but migrants claim that they are fleeing persecution.
The right wing ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls these migrants “infiltrators,” and has taken measures to expel them—even frequently promising the public mass deportations. In 2013, Israel built Holot, a men’s-only open-air detention center deep in the southern Negev desert to hold illegal migrants and asylum seekers, where many sought imprisonment to evade deportation. But since the facility was shut down in March, the government has stepped up a deportation plan for the remaining migrants.
Trying a different approach in 2017, Israel sent away four thousand migrants, giving them a choice between a plane ticket to an unknown third country (thought to be Rwanda, though denied by its government) and a small cash sum, or prison. Migrant activists say those who took the ticket faced perilous conditions upon arrival in their new country, and that the official entry forms the Israeli government gave them turned out to be invalid. The government called the claims a “smear campaign.”
In a state of eight million people, why do thirty-six thousand migrants pose such an immense threat? What accounts for the backlash against African migrants? At the core of the migration crisis is the question of Jewish identity: with Israel, as a whole, drifting toward embracing a right wing, nationalist identity, it has developed a narrow perception of who belongs. Although a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and its protocol—obliging Israel to consider all asylum requests from foreign nationals, whether they entered the country legally or not—Israel has refused to expand its definition of a refugee beyond that required by international law and accept African refugees. Between 2013 and 2017, only ten Eritreans and one Sudanese national have been granted refugee status. Approximately 1,100 Sudanese have obtained the A5 humanitarian visa, which enables holders to obtain driver’s licenses, travel documents, and work permits. The reasoning behind all that is quite blunt: according to Population Immigration and Borders Authority Director Shlomo Mor-Yosef, Israel has refused to revise its laws because “we don’t encourage immigration of non-Jews.”
In terms of policy, Israeli leadership has made no concerted effort to facilitate the processing of asylum applications (only a handful are reviewed each day) or to protect the socioeconomic rights of migrants, for which it was excoriated in a recent scathing report by Israel’s state comptroller. The May 2018 report flagged the government for lagging in the processing of asylum applications, having arbitrary and unfair application procedures, and for not formulating a developed position on the status of Darfuris who have fled armed conflict in western Sudan and ended up in Israel. It also criticized Israel for preventing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from participating in meetings of the advisory committee on refugees, and for generally providing only one asylum processing office, despite there being thirty-two Population Bureau registry centers throughout Israel.
Security is another major reason why anti-immigration policies targeting Africans are so prominent. The Israeli electorate consistently lists security as its number one concern and priority at the voting booth. Israel survived several intifadas, and nations like Iran call for its destruction on a regular basis. Terrorism is a daily threat, and Israelis see global anti-Semitism rising at an alarming rate. The prospect of tens of thousands of people, who do not have much in common with Israelis and do not share their Jewish values and religion, crossing from unknown parts of the world into their backyard is not a welcome one. Should this small nation, perennially under threat and troubled by terrorism, welcome these migrants, even if they arrived illegally?
Should Israel, founded in part as a refuge for persecuted Jews after WWII, open its doors to others facing similar tragic circumstances? This has been the cause alternatively taken up by advocates of liberal Jewish values, along with an unlikely coalition of select rabbis, business leaders, and human rights activists. Motivated by different factors, they are intent on making their case that an anti-migrant position might gain Israel security, but cause it to lose its soul in the process.
Seeing the Writing on the Wall
Israel, which compares itself to other Western democracies, has witnessed the political costs of migrant crises. In less than two years, Europe’s social democratic parties have suffered historic losses in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, enabling the rise of right wing, populist, anti-immigration governments. Voters made it clear that they don’t trust the left to limit migration, and the myriad troubles it has brought to European shores.
According to a recent Eurobarometer poll, 38 percent of European Union (EU) residents cited “immigration” as one of their top two concerns. Although that is down from 58 percent at the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, it still ranks as a top issue in twenty-one out of twenty-eight member states—up from fourteen states just six months prior.
As a result of their loss of power, center-left parties across Europe have begun to change course, with social democrats in several key countries deviating from long-held positions on migration. Even the government of long-standing German Chancellor Angela Merkel could be brought down by her coalition partner and interior minister, Horst Seehofer, who has threatened to bypass her on implementing a policy of turning away all migrants who have already registered elsewhere in the European Union.
However, Israel is dealing with far fewer asylum seekers than European countries. As such, the Israeli left says that makes any fears of the country being overrun by migrants baseless. The left, though, holds little sway politically: it has been out of power for the better part of forty years in Israel, and polling consistently shows it has no chance to win the next election, even if Netanyahu is forced out of office by his numerous legal scandals. Moreover, the pro-migrant community is also swimming against the tide of public opinion. According to polls, as many as two-thirds of Israeli Jews support the government’s deportation efforts.
Israeli officials note that the state is far from indifferent to the suffering of Africans, having maintained a policy of group protection to citizens of Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and South Sudan when violence wracked those countries. This designation provided blanket but short-term refuge to citizens of those countries without the Israeli government needing to review individual asylum claims. (However, in all of these cases, when the civil war or state of emergency in those countries ended, group protection went with it, and the citizens of these nations were asked to leave Israel. Those who didn’t willingly were detained and deported.)
Neither is rejection of African migrants about racism, according to the government. It has cited the fact that a large majority of Eritrean migrants are single men. The argument made is that if these men’s families’ lives were truly in danger, they all would have fled together. This plays into Israeli fears motivated by the perceived links between masculinity/virility and terrorism: it is easier to accept a man as harmless if he has his wife and children, but the face of danger—and terror—meanwhile, is most often one of a radicalized, male youth.
Then, what is at the root of Israeli rejection of African migrants? The anti-migrant camp points to the concern that giving benefits such as citizenship or residency status to people who illegally crossed into Israel would be seen as a reward for such activities and encourage more of it. Those with anti-migrant sentiment also point out that just a small portion—around 25 percent—of African migrants apply for asylum, which is evidence that they are in Israel for economic reasons. Indeed, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked wrote on her Facebook page, “The state of Israel is too small and has its own problems. It cannot be used as the employment office of the African continent.”
The Opposition: The Protesters and the Rabbis
The main opposition to the anti-migrant drive in Israel consists of street protests and a rising rabbi movement. Street protests have lately been successful in slightly moving the political needle. Protesters were able to thwart draft legislation that would have protected Netanyahu to some degree from public accusations by the police. However, there is little evidence to show that public protests in Israel have made any meaningful impact on the migrant situation. In fact, the best hope for the migrant community thus far was shattered by an uproar from the right.
Netanyahu surprisingly announced a deal with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in early April. The agreement, coming on the heels of multiple failures to forcibly deport migrants in large numbers and with the impending court-ordered closure of migrant prisons in the Negev desert, would have seen half of the migrants relocated and the other half given temporary residency status and dispersed throughout the country. But the deal collapsed within a day. Netanyahu took immediate flak from the political right for rewarding migrants’ illegal entry into the country and from residents of the working-class south Tel Aviv neighborhood, which had become ground zero for the migrant community.
In January, before the UN deal broke down, thousands descended on the Rwandan embassy when reports swirled that the Rwandan government would be accepting forced deportees. Some pilots for Israel’s national airline, El Al, announced they’d refuse to fly migrants out of the country against their will. But the protests have not been successful in pressuring Netanyahu to soften his stand.
If street mobilization is futile, what about the synagogues? Many, especially on the left and particularly in the diaspora, took up the migrant issue under the mantle of “Jewish values.” Their reasoning is that Judaism, and by default the state of Israel, are based on a set of guiding principles and values, the basis for which are found in the Book of Genesis. One frequently cited story from scripture is that of Abraham, who was sitting at the opening of his tent one day when he saw three strangers drawing near him. He rushed to greet them, offering them a feast of food. Abraham bowed before them, addressing them as, “My lords.” The lesson of welcoming the stranger and providing hospitality (hachnasat orchim) is also evoked extensively in the Talmud.
The outspoken rabbis have largely come from the non-Orthodox Reform and Conservative strains. Jerusalem rabbi Susan Silverman, the sister of comedienne Sarah Silverman, initiated an Anne Frank-inspired program for rabbis to hide migrants in imminent danger of deportation. It is no surprise that those rabbis of the Western left—the same ones leading protests in the United States against President Donald Trump’s migrant family separation policy—have taken charge in Israel.
Other religious communities are also springing to action. After Israel’s immigration office was relocated to Bnei Brak and problems persisted, rather than attempt to force a change of location again, a small group of around twenty Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) residents of the neighborhood organized chairs for the waiting refugees, shaded areas for them, and makeshift restrooms. Haredim have even painted over racist graffiti left on the aluminum fencing that makes up the migrant compound outside the office, where some applicants spend days waiting in line. Phillipa Friedland, the deputy director of the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, for example, helped raise more than $3,000 to procure portable toilets. She has also cleaned the toilets herself.
On the political front, the Religious Zionist rabbinic community that holds sway within the governing coalition has mostly stayed away from the controversy. But some, such as the chief rabbi of the Ofra settlement in the West Bank, said that the migrants’ presence constitutes an ethical, constitutional, and humanitarian challenge for the Jewish and democratic state.
Rabbi Avidan Freedman, a Religious Zionist educator and activist, said he believed large parts of his community were duped into believing the migrants constituted a demographic threat to the Jewish nature of Israel. Freedman and others are of the notion that the government blew the migrant problem out of proportion for political benefit. It has been a charge levied against Prime Minister Netanyahu on more than one occasion: that he stokes fear of the “other” in order to play on voters’ often-reasonable anxieties.
The public outcry from those few Religious Zionist rabbis has, in part, inspired the revival of the Meimad party, a long-dormant religious Zionist organization known for its more dovish, left wing leanings. Party leaders are preparing to test the waters to see if they can siphon votes from disenfranchised supporters of the National Religious camp, who may feel their representatives have drifted too far to the right. This could be a victory for the migrant movement after all.
A Calculable Cost
The crisis also has an economic component to it, one that may appeal to those who don’t have moral qualms about the migrant issue. For example, Israel’s Restaurants and Bars Association said its 800-member businesses employ around ten thousand African migrant workers. They wash dishes, clean, and cook, filling jobs that Israeli citizens are unwilling to do. Restaurant owners have lobbied the government against recent deportation, claiming they cannot run their businesses without the migrants.
In May, over sixty leading Israeli businesspeople submitted a proposal to the government that would relieve the heavy concentration of migrants in south Tel Aviv, and provide funding to rehabilitate the neighborhood. The plan encouraged Netanyahu to accept the UN deal again, but with a tweak. Remaining migrants would be scattered throughout Israel so that they wouldn’t account for more than one percent of the population of any community in which they are resettled. It would also urge the migrants to pursue employment in industries facing staffing shortages. The group estimates the latter measure would generate over $920 million per year, drawing increased income tax revenues of $45 million.
Some members of the pro-migrant community say this is a good step, but business shouldn’t be what drives a political decision.
Running Out of Options
Indeed, the Israeli government is running out of options and time. Under pressure, Netanyahu’s two biggest coalition parties, the Jewish Home and Kulanu parties, announced in mid-June that they would advance legislation that would allow the parliament to override the Supreme Court on the issue of forced deportation with a simple majority vote. The attorney general previously declared he would not support such legislation.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri told the press in May that Netanyahu’s office had re-engaged with the UN in an effort to sweeten the terms of the original deal. Ever the pragmatist, Netanyahu realizes that while challenging the Supreme Court may appeal to his base, ultimately, forcible deportation of tens of thousands of migrants isn’t feasible from a logistical standpoint, or good for the state’s international standing. A more favorable deal with the UN might allow him to save face, but he’ll have to convince his coalition partners that there are no other viable options remaining.
Ironically, when Netanyahu announced the original UN deal, he said that migrants would be sent to developed countries, such as “Canada, Germany, and Italy.” Those countries afterward denied they were part of any resettlement scheme. Netanyahu’s office later said he mentioned those nations simply as examples of Western countries. Based on recent events, it’s highly unlikely that Germany and Italy will have any part of such a deal, and few Western nations are likely to step up to the plate in such a volatile political environment.
In fact, the most likely scenario is a centerpiece of Israeli politics: talk tough, develop a piece of legislation that won’t pass, watch it get rejected with an accompanying time limit to submit a better law, and repeat all that over again. Nonetheless, perhaps in a bid to buy more time, the Israeli government notified the High Court of Justice in late May that it will grant humanitarian status to three hundred Sudanese refugees from the war-torn Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile, and Darfur regions of Sudan. However, the only Sudan native to receive refugee status to date is a law student named Mutasim Ali. After hearing word of the latest news, he posted on his Facebook page, “One more step forward— we shall overcome!”
Overcoming, however, seems unlikely. The polls say the right wing government is staying in power, even if the prime minister himself falls. Political expediency conquers all in Israel, and there is no indication that any tangible pressure will be brought by the political base to keep the migrants in the country. This issue cannot be won by the migrants or their supporters by playing the morality card. Rather than complain, the pro-migrant community will have to provide a viable solution that is convincing and aligned with the interests of a nationalist government.
Netanyahu has struggled mightily in maintaining good relations with the more liberal Jewish diaspora. He was humiliated in late June when the Jewish world’s cornerstone non-profit organization, the Jewish Agency, selected Netanyahu’s political rival, Isaac Herzog, as its new chairman. It was a signal that the diaspora had enough of Netanyahu and his political games. The agency’s board of governors called on the government in February to grant legal status to more than five hundred minor asylum seekers who received education from Jewish Agency and state-run programs, and to ensure that all migrants are afforded a transparent asylum application process.
Perhaps the migrant issue is one that could restart a dialogue between Netanyahu and world Jewry—one that could lead to a better understanding about what it means to be Jewish and why diaspora Jews should still fight for what they view as proper Israeli values. Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on desert prisons and endless bureaucracy, the government can partner with the Jewish Agency and other Jewish nonprofits throughout the world to develop a resettlement fund for these migrants. As a hub of the high-tech world, Israel could invest in these migrants through training programs.
The migrant crisis gives Israel an opportunity to be a “light unto the nations”— to take those who say they were forced to flee from their homes, to give them the skills that only a place like Israel can, and to pass along skilled professionals to do good things around the world. It is a politically acceptable plan, which involves a joint collaboration between all strains of Judaism and with Jews in the world; it is financially sensible; and it fulfills a cornerstone of Jewish identity. Before the migrants can truly “overcome,” the Israeli right wing government and the Jewish left will need to work out and overcome their own conflicts. This seems a good place to start resolving differences.
Mike Wagenheim is a diplomatic correspondent at i24NEWS in Tel Aviv, Israel, focusing on Israeli politics and diaspora relations. On Twitter: @Mike_Wagenheim.
Empowering Yemen’s Displaced Women
Yemeni citizens first began to be displaced from their homes in 2004 when a six-year civil war broke out between government forces and the Houthis. The war brought a humanitarian crisis to the city of Saadah, the stronghold of the Houthis, as people fled their homes seeking safety in the biggest camp of internally displaced people in the country, Al-Marzaq, located in Yemen’s northwestern Hajjah governorate. Even after the civil war ended in 2010, the camp remained open because of the need for humanitarian assistance provided to these displaced persons.
The peace that was declared in 2010 was short lived. The years since have seen Yemen plagued by political tension and outright war between the Arab military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. This internal conflict has resulted in one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world, with 75 percent of Yemen’s population in dire need of assistance and protection. Despite this conflict, there has not been a large number of Yemeni refugees across the Middle East and Europe as is the case with Syrian refugees. However, internal displacement was and still is the primary way that many in Yemen have avoided ground fighting and aerial bombardment across their country.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen affects Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) more than anyone else, and among them women IDPs remain the hardest hit in terms of protection and needs. It is worth noting that already existing unfair social norms exacerbate these women’s vulnerability, and reduce their resiliency and ability to cope with the crisis. Analysts and policymakers must focus on displaced women in Yemen and draw the attention of humanitarian agencies to design effective policies that engage with women IDPs as partners in identifying what they need. Rather than focus on immediate needs, the agencies should put their attention in strategic needs for resources that enable women to develop their future livelihoods, avoid dependency on humanitarian assistance, and design their own protection mechanisms.
Humanitarian agencies have an obligation to respond to these needs and protect women IDPs. Unfortunately, the primary concern of these organizations is in providing life-saving assistance which—while important—means that aid organizations pay little attention to, and provide few funds for, the strategic needs of women. It is necessary to respond to the strategic needs of Yemeni women and apply a gender lens to the problem that will discern the differences between the needs of men and women.
Profiling the IDPs of Yemen
The people of Yemen do not have the luxury of choosing asylum or immigration over internal displacement. There are two reasons for the low number of Yemeni refugees compared to Syrians. First, Yemen ranks among the poorest countries in the world, so the majority cannot afford the cost of fleeing the country.
The other reason is geographical; Yemen is located in the farthest southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, trapped by rich Gulf countries and two sea lanes. The Gulf countries do not have a system for asylum-seekers or recognize refugees of any nationality, including Yemenis. Saudi Arabia, for example, does not exempt Yemeni laborers from the Saudization of jobs; due to this many Yemenis have returned home to a Yemen at war.
There are multiple layers of complexity in the armed conflict in Yemen, and addressing displacement is even more complicated due to the high number of IDPs and the various forms of displacement.
According to the most recent data, there are almost two million IDPs across the country. These IDPs are not a homogeneous group and they are divided by class, caste, ethnicity, and gender. The west coast of Yemen, where the cities of Al-Hudaydah and Taiz are located, has the highest rate of displacement due to the fighting there between Houthis and forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. During the first phase of internal displacement in Saadah, back in 2004, people living in extreme poverty and without social support to ease their vulnerability often resided in makeshift shelters or finished/unfinished public buildings, such as schools, health centers, and so on. Lucky IDPs were spotted by humanitarian organizations, such as UNHCR, and were accommodated in camps. Some IDPs resided with extended family members or rented homes, or had a second home in the hosted area already. The majority of the displaced in Yemen survived and now continue to survive on assistance from communities, host families, and humanitarian agencies. Presently less than a quarter of the displaced have been living in camp-like settings.
Each form of displacement is an indicator of different levels of poverty, which are associated with various needs and protection issues, especially among women. Poverty increases the tendency of IDPs to choose less protective forms of displacement, and women pay the highest price under these conditions.
Displaced Women’s Concerns
The situation of displaced women in the current conflict is a reflection of pre-existing social norms and unjust traditions against women in Yemen.
The period from 2011–14 witnessed the emergence of hope among Yemeni women that the newly drafted constitution would tackle one of the most urgent and controversial women’s and children’s issues such as eighteen becoming the new minimum age of marriage. However, this hope of improved women’s marriage rights faded with the failure of the political transition and the arrival of a new era of armed conflict in 2014. Some of the women who participated in the political transition phase had fled the country. From this point, Yemeni women were starting from zero in their fight to achieve human rights.
Those who stayed in the midst of the conflict took the heaviest brunt of being IDPs. According to the World Health Organization, women and children currently represent three-quarters of IDPs. Many of the displaced women are left alone with their children and have no societal protection and income, while their husbands abandon them to join the fighting or seek income elsewhere.
Thus, protection and meeting strategic needs such as food, water, and shelter are the most significant concerns of displaced women.
According to a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) report in 2018, an estimated three million women and girls in Yemen are at risk of gender-based violence including sexual violence. The number could be higher because it is challenging to quantify the extent and frequency of this kind of violence in a conservative society like Yemen where victims tend not to report attacks out of the fear of stigma and honor killing.Unfortunately, addressing sexual violence is an intensely private matter in Yemen.
Another pressing issue related to protection is the existence of child marriage in the displacement sites. Child marriage is not a new phenomenon, but the current conflict increases the likelihood of girls being married off by families worried about their safety or the scarcity of resources. All of this increases dropping out of school and becoming wives and mothers prematurely. A common story circulating in Yemen which illustrates this issue is when a family that is displaced marries off their female children in order to procure a home—that is in order to stay at the home of the groom’s family.
In terms of needs, the primary concern of displaced women is to survive and thrive in their new lives. In order to develop and grow, displaced women need food, water, and non-food items such as clothing and housing. The other category is the strategic needs in which livelihood opportunities and resilience measures are addressed to support families in the longer term and contribute to community development.
Women labor to provide for basic needs such as water and food, which is usually obtained from humanitarian organizations. However, in order to get the nutrients they need, displaced women are often forced to queue for hours. These women also work to manage the scarcity of their resources, such as collecting wood for cooking and engaging in humanitarian assistance models called Cash for Work (CFW). Yet, even in CFW programs, there is a limit to the work that internally displaced women can do that is socially acceptable, so some of the time they are excluded from these programs, or their participation is curtailed. As such, CFW programs do not build the capacities of the beneficiaries, including women, and are not sustainable.
The Humanitarian Response
The high rate of poverty and the intense vulnerability related to the displacement of IDPs, especially among women, has led international and national humanitarian agencies to support life-saving assistance programs, yet ignore other needed programs that could enhance the lives of displaced Yemeni women. Programs which enhance recovery and livelihoods of female IDPs are ignored or are the least funded in the humanitarian response in Yemen.
Humanitarian agencies support the IDPs with life-saving assistance arguing that the country is still under ongoing armed conflict and there is chronic poverty. This approach will undoubtedly create a lazy and dependent community and add layers of vulnerability, especially to female IDPs who are already at risk due to displacement and a long history of subordination. Unfortunately, even in meeting the immediate needs of displaced women, gender blindness is dominant in most humanitarian organization reports on Yemen.
A gender-equal perspective is broadly supported in humanitarian agencies’ officially stated agendas and guidelines for Yemen. However, the implementation on the ground is something different indeed. First, all the reports address only the immediate needs of IDPs at the level of households, without consideration of the differing needs of men, women, boys, and girls within the same households. Second, the household is the basic unit of Yemeni society, and it is mostly male dominated due to the prevailing patriarchal norms. Subsequently, there is a high risk that women’s input within these households might not be reflected during the process of needs assessments. Third, in the reports, there is no indication that the feedback from female-headed IDP households—households which may in fact have much different feedback than male-headed households—is accounted for.
For example, according to published statistics by CARE International in 2015, before the conflict, Hajjah had the second-highest number of female-headed households, at 19.4 percent. Certainly, the number of female-headed households has gone up all across Yemen and is now higher than the 19.4 percent reported from Hajjah, since this is a time of great conflict. An increase in female-headed households suggests that humanitarian agencies should improve their response to women IDPs and recognize the that women have different needs.
The insufficiency of addressing the differing humanitarian needs of men, women, boys, and girls, or in other words, ignoring the gender perspective in the humanitarian response, will subsequently lead to gender-insensitive activities. For example, we see this in setting a time for humanitarian assistance distribution that does not suit women due to their double roles and their restricted movement. This weakness of gender perspective in the humanitarian response increases the risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and jeopardizes the protection of women.
To relate a personal story regarding a lack of gender-based perspective in humanitarian aid in Yemen, I witnessed a humanitarian assistance distribution point in Hajjah in 2016. The place was overcrowded with IDPs, women, men, and children. There was no order and no separate queues for men and women, which forced some of the women to drop behind unserved. Meanwhile some other women were trying to find a space in the male-dominated crowd, which exposed them to sexual exploitation and harassment.
The poor or inadequate assistance, especially for female-headed households, may result in female-headed families being forced to engage in transactional sex—though no data about that is available—to raise the money to buy needed survival items such as food and water.
Meeting the strategic needs of displaced women will subsequently lead to empowering them to protect themselves and their families from being exposed to various forms of violence and resorting to negative solutions, such as child marriage. Adding to that a response to the strategic needs of the community and women, in particular, will avert the beneficiaries’ dependency on humanitarian assistance and ensure long-term development for the country when the conflict reaches its end.
Although some humanitarian workers argue that CFW programs are helping IDPs earn money to support their families, I profoundly disagree with this notion. The present humanitarian aid application in Yemen is blind to the gendered dynamics at play among Yemeni IDPs and amounts only to supporting basic activities that have no capacity for the development of beneficiaries and does not provide long-term means to livelihood. Secondly, those programs are in favor of male beneficiaries, at least in Yemen, because men have no restrictions on the kind of work they do or when and how they can receive aid, unlike Yemeni women.
How to Help
The protection of Yemeni displaced women’s strategic needs is essential for building these women’s resilience and the impact of doing so will resonate widely in Yemen as women are treated as individuals.
Humanitarian organizations respond to IDPs and women in particular as passive recipients of aid without recognizing that these women have capacities that can be enhanced to restore their livelihoods. Humanitarian organizations should identify these women’s strategic needs in order to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian action.
Moreover, humanitarian agencies have to identify and consult with displaced women about the different types of income-generating activities they can do to restore their livelihoods. It is essential for humanitarian agencies to facilitate the process from vocational training, to small loans, to start-up income-generating activities. Improving the livelihoods of Yemen’s displaced women will encourage them to stop marrying off their young daughters. Also, establishing humanitarian programs that connect with the needs of internally displaced women will empower women to challenge the factors that contribute to gender-based violence.
The responsibility to employ a gender-sensitive approach in their work in Yemen lies with humanitarian agencies. In doing this, it will be critical to avoid generalization when addressing the needs of internally displaced Yemeni households. A good way to create a gender-sensitive approach to humanitarian activities would be to include the input and voices of female-headed households when developing aid programs. Either of these approaches will help women improve their livelihoods and avoid dependency on humanitarian aid.
Ghaidaa Motahar is a postdoctoral candidate at Malaya University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Most recently, Mohatar held the position of social cohesion specialist for the UNDP, and prior to that worked with Oxfam as the Gender Programme manager and the Gender Justice Project manager. She also worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yemen between 2009 and 2011. In 2011, Mohatar founded the Safe Streets Foundation for Development, a Yemen-based NGO focused on gender and development. Her writing has appeared in openDemocracy, the LSE Blogs, the Atlantic Council blog, among others. On Twitter: @GhaidaaMotahar.
Erdoğan’s Achilles Heel
One of the greatest challenges the Syrian conflict has posed to Turkey has been the influx of over three million refugees. A country that has never considered itself a nation for non-Turkish migration has become a destination for Arab refugees from Syria in a matter of years. After having done a remarkable job at welcoming so many refugees, the Turkish government now has to tackle the challenges of integrating them in a country that has become increasingly nationalist and skeptical of foreigners.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been riding a nationalist wave since the ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or the PKK broke down in 2015 and the conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government reignited. The support many Turkish nationalists have lent to Erdoğan—originally an Islamist politician—changed Erdoğan’s political fortunes in 2015 during snap elections that were held a few months after Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority.
Erdoğan’s alliance with the Turkish nationalists once again proved critical in June 2018’s presidential and parliamentary elections, granting Erdoğan the presidency and a parliamentary majority. Yet, the alliance is not without challenges and may be fraught with danger for the Erdoğan government in the future.
A potential flashpoint is the Erdoğan government’s policy vis-à-vis the Syrian refugees. The ruling AKP has pursued an open-border policy after the conflict in Syria started, allowing a large number of refugees to cross into Turkey. It immediately extended generous assistance, providing protection and “five-star” services in the refugee camps. The camps have primary and secondary schools, community centers, playgrounds and supermarkets. The refugees have been given refrigerators and stoves, in some cases TVs and air-conditioners. Refugees have been provided cash cards and a monthly allowance. Most Syrian refugees living outside the camps continue to survive on Turkish government largesse.
The government’s generous efforts to help the refugees have won it praise internationally, but they are creating a nationalist backlash at home. The resentment against refugees among the Turkish populace is growing. A majority of Turks, especially the nationalists, see refugees as competitors for government assistance, an economic burden, a security threat, and a danger to the ethnic makeup of the country.
Turkish nationalists are likely to turn against Erdoğan in future elections if an economic downturn exacerbates this anti-refugee sentiment. Erdoğan has long managed to contain the negative electoral effects of the large influx of refugees by employing a “Muslim solidarity” rhetoric. He has pushed the idea that Turkish citizens—the majority of whom are Sunni Muslim—should help their Sunni Muslim brothers and sisters in need.
However, real-life challenges and anxiety over the ethnic makeup of the country seem to have trumped Sunni Muslim solidarity. While Erdoğan and his party won the most recent elections, the AKP lost votes to the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in the June 2018 elections. The unexpected rise in the nationalist party’s support is likely due to the growing frustration within the AKP’s base over the Syrian refugees. These low-income, nationalist segments of the AKP apparently voted for the MHP partly because the MHP has been critical of the AKP’s refugee policy. All of this poses a major dilemma for Erdoğan. He has to walk a fine line between integrating the millions of Syrian refugees who are in Turkey to stay and doing so without alienating his own base.
Syrian Migration to Turkey
Turkey’s initial response to the flow of Syrian refugees in 2011 focused on providing humanitarian aid and establishing refugee camps in the border provinces—measures which assumed the Syrian refugees’ stay would be short and temporary. The Turkish government did this via the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, a government agency which provided refugees with health centers, food, education facilities, and social areas. However, as the conflict in Syria became a long and bloody affair, Turkish officials came to recognize that reforming the existing system to better address the condition of the Syrian refugees had become a necessity.
The Law on Settlement, established in 1934 and updated in 2006, enabled Turkey to become a temporary home for refugees and asylum seekers but restricted the right of permanent settlement—which leads to citizenship—only to persons of Turkish descent and culture. In April 2013, the Turkish parliament passed the Law on Foreigners and International Protection (LFIP) which established a legal framework for protecting and aiding asylum seekers. The LFIP established the Directorate General for Migration Management (DGMM), an executive-branch agency tasked with migration management and overseeing the implementation of the new legal provisions.
In 2014, Turkey issued new regulations that granted Syrian refugees secure legal status in the country for the first time. This new regulation provided ID cards and granted them access to services such as healthcare and education.
However, the Temporary Protection Identity Card (TPID) has not allowed refugees to work or move without prior authorization. Cardholders can apply for humanitarian aid provided by some organizations to the poor, and refugee cardholders have access to hospitals and free medical treatment. Yet, aside from these steps, the government has taken to meet the newcomers’ basic needs, the refugees still do not have official refugee status, which would entitle them to a broader array of benefits like housing, public relief, and various social services. The Turkish government has allowed them to apply for work permits but only about 1 percent of the working-age refugee population has received the permits and the rest have entered Turkey’s informal economy. Education is equally problematic with almost half the school-age Syrian children who live outside the camps unenrolled.
Taking steps to offer long-term solutions to these problems requires recognizing that refugees are in Turkey to stay, but the Erdoğan government fears a domestic backlash if it were to openly admit that Syrians will not be returning home.
The Sunni Muslim Narrative and EU Negotiations
Beginning in May 2013, Erdoğan and the AKP promoted a narrative of Sunni Muslim solidarity to contain negative public reactions to the Syrian refugees in Turkey. The AKP pushed the idea that Turkish citizens should help fellow Muslim brothers and sisters in need. President Erdoğan called the refugees escaping the “tyranny of the Syrian regime” muhacir, or religiously oppressed, a term used originally to refer to the first Muslims who had to migrate with the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina in order to escape religious persecution.
Erdoğan and his publicists called escaped Syrian Sunni Muslims “religiously oppressed” because Al-Assad and leading members of his regime are Alawite Shia and the sectarian divide between the Shia and Sunnis of Syria was an important division in the Syrian civil war. Consequently, Erdoğan referred to the Turkish citizens who welcomed Syrian refugees as ensar, a word connected to the local people of Medina who welcomed the Prophet Mohammed and his followers and helped them.
Erdoğan first used the narrative of a fraternal Sunni–Muslim union between Turks and Syrians after a double car bombing that killed fifty-one people on May 11, 2013 in Reyhanlı, Turkey, a town on the Syrian border. Reyhanlı was an entry-point for Syrian refugees fleeing the conflict into Turkey, and local Turks quickly blamed the refugees for the bombing while the government blamed the Al-Assad regime. In a speech President Erdoğan delivered shortly after the incident, he said, “Brothers, you have opened your arms to our 25 thousand siblings from Syria. Now, do not pay heed to those who strive to expel them from here. They are part of our [religious] fraternity. They came here because they trust and believe us [….] We will be ensar, we will open our arms, we will never give credence to this discord and unrest.”
The Erdoğan government continues to employ this narrative when it wants to galvanize Turkish support against the EU, stressing that Western leaders have shown no care for Syrian refugees. To a point, this tactic resonates well among the Turkish religious–nationalist right. Erdoğan has also leveraged the refugees as a negotiating tool in his government’s relations with the European Union.
In 2015 and 2016, the EU experienced the unprecedented influx of refugees—many of whom were Syrian—posing institutional and political challenges to European governments. European leaders started working on a deal with Turkey to stop the migration flow into Europe, giving Ankara significant leverage over the EU. The EU countries signed the refugee deal with Turkey in March 2016. Under the agreement, Turkey agreed to take back Syrian migrants who had reached Greece illegally. In return, legal Syrian refugees were accepted into the EU. Since return procedures in Greece are slow, only 1,564 Syrians were sent back to Turkey between 2016 and 2018.
In exchange, around 12,000 Syrians from Turkey have been resettled in EU countries. European countries hoped that sending the refugees back to Turkey would dissuade them from crossing the sea. In return, the EU would grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens, provide financial aid to Turkey, and accelerate Turkey’s membership process into the EU.
The deal has limited the number of “irregular migrants” and Turkey has received financial support from the EU for taking in a large share of Syrians. Yet, the deal has been widely criticized for giving Erdoğan significant leverage over the EU when it came to muffling European leadership’s criticism of human rights abuses under Erdoğan and the AKP. Indeed, even before the signing of the deal, the European Union was reluctant to upset Ankara. In 2015, for example, the European Union decided to delay publication of a critical report on Turkish democracy until after the Turkish election in November 2015 as a way to keep the Erdoğan government in Ankara placated and friendly.
Since signing the EU refugee deal, the Turkish government has used the deal to extract concessions from Europe. After the failed coup in Turkey in the summer of 2016, the European Union increased its criticism of Turkey citing concerns over the government’s increasing crackdown on media and Kurdish politicians. The European Parliament urged governments to freeze EU accession talks with Turkey. In response, Erdoğan threatened to tear up the refugee deal. Turkey threatened again to end the EU refugee pact when Greece’s Supreme Court in January 2017 ruled against extraditing Turkish soldiers who had fled to Greece after the failed coup attempt against Erdoğan. In April 2017, Turkey once again used the deal to pressure Western governments when Germany and the Netherlands refused to allow Turkish politicians to campaign with the Turkish diaspora population in those countries for a referendum to give Erdoğan more power.
Despite government efforts, the anti-refugee sentiment has been growing in Turkey, even among AKP supporters, forcing the Erdoğan government to change its narrative. For example, in 2016, President Erdoğan announced that Syrian refugees living in Turkey could eventually be granted citizenship. Erdoğan’s pledge sparked a reaction across social media. A Turkish hashtag against Syrian migrants became one of the trending topics worldwide on Twitter. Afterwards, the government clarified that only educated Syrians who can contribute to the Turkish economy would be granted Turkish citizenship.
Seemingly bowing to the growing popular opposition to Syrian refugees in February 2018, Erdoğan said he wanted the Syrian refugees to return to their country. He proposed that they be sent to northern Syria where the Turkish military and allied Syrian fighters were conducting a military maneuver called Operation Olive Branch to capture territory from the Syrian Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that as many as 350,000 refugees could be relocated to Syria’s Afrin enclave alone. Yet, to date, no major movement of Syrians returning from Turkey to Syria has occurred.
According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by Istanbul’s Bilgi University in 2018, 86.2 percent of respondents said Syrians should go back to Syria after the war is over, a big change from when only 38.9 percent of Turks polled agreed with that statement.
With around 3.5 million unemployed Turkish citizens and double-digit inflation, many people see the refugees as an economic burden. Reportedly agricultural and unskilled construction workers have been particularly hard hit by Syrian refugees working in the Turkish informal sector. In cities such as Mersin and Adana—where Kurds used to make up the bulk of seasonal workers—many Kurds are now losing their jobs to Syrians. Working-class Turkish citizens complain that the Syrians are receiving aid from the government while the Turkish citizens are receiving second-class treatment from Turkish bureaucracy.
The difference in culture and lifestyle between Syrians and Turks has also increased the tension between the refugees and the locals, especially in border towns with conservative local cultures. These towns have seen an increase in polygamy and divorce rates. Turkish men, be they young or old, single or married, have been reportedly marrying young Syrian refugee women in large numbers. Local Turkish women feel threatened by these marriages and blame the Syrian women “for deceiving their husbands.” The rapidly changing demographics in those border towns exacerbate the feeling of insecurity and erosion of local culture among the host community.
The “cultural clash” between the two communities is also prevalent in the metropoles in the West. As Syrian refugees cluster with compatriots, they form parallel societies segregated from the local Turkish population. This segregation not only prevents integration but also increases the hostility between the two communities. Turks complain that the Syrians have no intention of adapting to their new lives in Turkey and some Turks claim that Syrian refugees are dangerous or prone to violence.
Turks who are opposed to Erdoğan see his decision to grant citizenship to some Syrian refugees as a political move to consolidate his power. More than 1.5 million refugees will be eligible to vote if granted citizenship. Many Syrian refugees appreciate President Erdoğan’s efforts to provide food, shelter, and services to their community. Many of these Syrians are expected to vote for him, if they become citizens. Erdoğan’s opponents argue that by pledging citizenship to the Syrian refugees, he wants to grow his support base ahead of elections.
There are also concerns about the “Sunnification of society” centered around Erdoğan’s rhetoric of Sunni Muslim brotherhood between Turkish citizens and Syrian refugees. The secularist segment of the Turkish population fears that Erdoğan is advancing his religious/sectarian agenda with his embrace of Syrian refugees. By settling them in opposition neighborhoods, they think Erdoğan is trying to marginalize secularist Turks both politically and culturally.
Until recently, public concerns over the refugees have not become part of a national debate largely due to the government’s control over media and the opposition’s unwillingness to pick up the issue to shore up votes. That has changed. The opposition parties and Turkish citizens are now criticizing the government’s domestic Syrian refugee policies.
The Opposition’s Stance
Opposition parties blame what they see as the government’s misguided Syria policy for the presence of over three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. The issue became a hot campaign topic ahead of the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections. Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), criticized Erdoğan for allowing thousands of Syrian refugees to visit Syria for the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr and then return to Turkey. He argued that if the Syrian refugees could go home to visit, they could go home to stay. Ince’s rhetoric resonates particularly well within his secularist and Alevi base, which fears the Sunnification of Turkey.
The ultranationalist MHP performed much better than expected in the June elections, capturing 11 percent of the vote at a time when the party faced mass resignations and the challenge of a splinter party, the Iyi Parti. It is likely that some of the disgruntled AKP voters who disapprove of the government’s generous refugee policy switched to the MHP.
The Iyi Party, which broke with the MHP and entered the parliament after becoming part of an opposition electoral coalition, also appealed to nationalists’ concerns over Syrian refugees. The party leader, Meral Akşener, vowed to repatriate the Syrian refugees if elected president.
The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) reflects the worry within its own constituency. Kurds argue that by settling Sunni Arab Syrians in the Kurdish and Alevi majority areas of Turkey’s Southeast, the Erdoğan government is trying to change their home provinces’ demographics. There is also worry that the jihadi elements within the Syrian refugee community pose a security threat to the Kurds.
The Islamic State has not only targeted the Kurds in Syria but also killed many in Turkey. In 2015, IS targeted several Kurdish rallies, killing scores of people.
Possible Achilles Heel: Refugees and a Weakening Economy
The politicization of the refugee issue has forced Erdoğan’s hand in recent elections. Given that the overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens, including the AKP base, are opposed to the Syrian refugees, the issue will cause further trouble for Erdoğan. It is important to stress that the AKP lost some votes to MHP in the June 2018 elections due to his government’s Syrian refugee policies. The fact that the AKP lost votes to its political ally MHP does not bode well for Erdoğan’s party, or the political alliance that has kept the AKP in power since 2015. Changes can indeed come quickly in politics, and flawed domestic policies are often the reason for sudden reversals in political fortunes.
The debate on the Syrian refugees may become exacerbated by a weakening Turkish economy. Turkey has high unemployment and recently faced a currency crisis with the Turkish lira plunging sharply against the U.S. dollar in the spring of 2018. At the time, inflation was already running high. The drop in currency pushed prices up even higher. Experts say the country might be on the verge of a financial crisis.
An economic downturn will further strengthen anti-refugee sentiment in the country, particularly in the low-income areas that form the backbone of the AKP’s base. As such, Erdoğan and his party are now increasingly vulnerable to a push by Turkish nationalists to address the growing concerns of the electorate.
Yet changing course on the Syrian refugee crisis is no easy task. Simply put, Syrians are in Turkey to stay. Erdoğan has to take steps to integrate the Syrians politically, economically, and socially to prevent further clashes in the country. Doing this without alienating his nationalist allies—whose support he heavily relies on to maintain his parliamentary majority—might prove to be Erdoğan’s toughest task ever. His Syrian refugee policy might undo his alliance with Turkey’s nationalists and become his Achilles heel.
Gönül Tol is the founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies, and professor at George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies. She previously taught at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University. She has been published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Wilson Center, and the Washington Institute, among others. On Twitter: @gonultol.
Loose Ends of a Deal
The Syrian civil war, which began seven years ago, has had an ongoing deep and tragic impact on Syrians. Half a million lost their lives and 11.5 million were displaced. Of those displaced, more than six million became internal refugees and over 5.6 million fled to neighboring countries. Sharing a 911-km border with Syria, Turkey became the country most affected by the migratory movement of Syrian refugees. For the first four years of the war, Turkey handled the crisis on its own without much international support and assistance. Today, it is much harder to do that. Turkey has become the world’s largest refugee-hosting nation and a permanent home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees living there, in comparison to 986,000 in Lebanon and 66,000 refugees in Jordan.
In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis reached a grim milestone. The suffering of Syrian refugees taking the world’s deadliest migration route through the Mediterranean Sea drew global attention to their plight. The harrowing image of the corpse of Aylan Kurdi washing up on Turkey’s Aegean shores became the symbol of the suffering and despair of Syrian refugees. But more importantly, 2015 marked the beginning of the refugee crisis in Europe. More than a million Syrian refugees reached European shores primarily via the Turkey–Greece sea route and dispersed all over the continent. This development brought Turkey and the European Union (EU) closer on cooperating to stem the influx of refugees from the south.
It was against this backdrop that on November 29, 2015, the EU and Turkey negotiated a deal to stop the migration flow into Europe. Through the “refugee deal,” Turkey sought to share the burden of hosting millions of refugees but also leveraged the deal to extract concessions from the EU, as well as revive its waning relations with Europe. According to the EU–Turkey statement of March 18, 2016, both parties welcomed the ongoing work to upgrade of the Customs Union, which governs trade with Turkey, and per Ankara’s request, the EU agreed to accelerate fulfilment of the visa liberalization roadmap, that is visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen area, an area of the EU without passport controls between citizens of different EU member countries. The statement also sought a resolution to the issue of its accession to the EU.
Yet, many of these provisions were never fulfilled. It became clear that while Turkey was able to uphold its end of the deal—sharply reducing illegal migration to Greece through Turkey—the EU was far from meeting its promises, apart from meeting the financial deadlines, resulting in Turkey’s loss of confidence in the EU.
Before the Migrant Deal
Turkey’s response to the influx of refugees from Syria began in April 2011 with the arrival of 252 Syrians at Turkey’s southern Hatay province. As of June 13, 2018, the precise number of registered Syrians in Turkey stood at 3,586,679, of whom 216,024 live in temporary protection centers and 3,370,655 live in cities across Turkey. This is the largest number of Syrian refugees in any country, and it is expected to grow as an average of two thousand refugees are registered daily.
From 2011 to 2014, Turkey’s response to the crisis was focused on providing humanitarian assistance and allowing an open-door policy with Syria. Refugees were welcomed in temporary protection centers—refugee camps—built in cities along the Syrian–Turkish border. Turkey’s protection centers, which were only meant to be temporary, received wide praise for the quality of assistance and services provided to refugees. However, as the conflict in Syria intensified in 2013, with the emergence of and the involvement of other actors, it became apparent that peace in Syria would remain distant. The trajectory of the war as well as the increasing number of refugees in Turkey—1.6 million in December 2014—was decisive in forcing Ankara to create a new legal system for Syrian refugees.
The Law on Foreigners and International Protection, passed in April 2013, created the legal ground for the “temporary protection” status granted to all Syrian refugees through a special regulation accepted in October 2014. This is a legal status provided to Syrians, stateless persons, and Palestinians from Syria, allowing them to resettle in another country rather than be registered as refugees in Turkey. (Turkey is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, but as the country maintains that refugee status is only granted to people from European descent, Syrians in Turkey cannot be granted regular “refugee” status, that is international protection.) Under the temporary protection, refugees have access to the same health and education services as Turkish citizens and additional monetary assistance provided by local and international NGOs.
In January 2016, refugees under temporary protection also gained access to the labor market. However, there are only a small number of refugees who work legally. Part of the reason for this falls on refugees themselves, who do not want to be deprived of the monthly cash transfer provided to the most vulnerable refugees under the EU’s humanitarian cash-transfer program, the Emergency Social Safety Net, and on the other hand on employers, who prefer cheap labor. Another challenge for integrating Syrians into the formal labor market is their low education and skill levels as well as the language barrier.
In addition to the temporary protection, 52,000 Syrians have been granted Turkish citizenship. These were all exceptional cases as most Syrians do not really fit the criteria qualifying for citizenship. In these cases, level of education and professional skills (such as professionals in the health and education sectors) were the decisive factors in granting citizenship. Moreover, there has been important progress on the child school enrollment rates: from 2014 to 2018 the percentage of enrolled children increased from 30 percent to 62 percent. The schooling rate at the primary school level is 98 percent. One of the main reasons for the low school enrollment rate is the difference in length of mandatory education in Turkey and Syria. Another main reason remains the children’s willingness to work to contribute to the family’s budget.
However, hosting a large number of refugees comes at a price. The main challenge ahead for improving Syrians’ living conditions and migration management in Turkey has been easing the economic and financial burden on municipalities. Municipalities’ main budget, funded by the central government, is mainly calculated by the number of Turkish citizens living within the boundaries of the municipality. Yet, refugees are not included in these numbers as they are not Turkish citizens. As the population of some municipalities has significantly gone up, the costs of providing services has exponentially increased. International aid cannot be directly contributed to municipalities either because of the centralized nature of statehood in Turkey.
Despite these difficulties, many municipalities have shown incredible resilience in serving their refugee populations. Even so, absorbing that many refugees sometimes creates social tensions in host communities. The anti-refugee sentiment and incidents are more pronounced in metropoles such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir where refugees are seen as culturally different and as competing for low-wage jobs, especially within the informal economy. A common false belief among host communities that Syrians receive preferential access to public services and assistance creates further social tensions. However, without a harmonization or integration policy, what has been achieved in Turkey is a success story.
The next step for Turkey is implementing a harmonization policy. This seems necessary as the possibility of Syrians returning home is dim. The good news is that under the chairmanship of the minister of interior, a Migration Policies Board was set up in 2017. Under the authority of Turkey’s Directorate General of Migration Management, a Migration Harmonization Policy and Action Plan has been prepared with the participation of different stakeholders. The document has been approved by the Migration Policies Board and now just requires the political will to be put into action. It is expected to be operational before the end of the year. Starting from 2015, part of these efforts was financed through the EU–Turkey deal on irregular migration, a deal that has brought together two resentful old friends.
EU–Turkey Join Hands
In 2015, more than a million migrants and refugees began crossing into Europe, ushering in the “refugee crisis” for Europe. Some European governments harshly treated refugees at their borders, restricting protection and preventing migrants from entering or staying on their territories. Germany was a big exception as it welcomed over a million refugees and received the highest number of new asylum applications in Europe in 2015—more than 476,000.
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in 2015, over 800,000 refugees and migrants came via the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Greece, accounting for 80 percent of the people arriving irregularly in Europe by sea that year. It was in response to this massive influx that the EU—in crisis—approached Turkey to limit and control refugee flows from Turkey into the EU via Greece.
The 2015 EU–Turkey Joint Action Plan and the 2016 EU–Turkey Statement established the framework of cooperation between the EU and Turkey on migration. The main purpose of the deal was to prevent the loss of lives and to dismantle human trafficking networks (according to the International Organization for Migration, in 2015 alone, more than eight hundred died in the Aegean crossing from Turkey to Greece), but the more glaring reason for the deal was to prevent refugees from reaching Europe. According to the joint action plan and the deal, it was agreed that in exchange for Turkey’s cooperation with the EU on curbing illegal migration to Europe by returning migrants reaching Greece illegally and taking back all irregular migrants intercepted in Turkish waters, the EU agreed to support Turkey with two tranches of 3 billion euros through projects aiming to address the urgent needs of refugees and host communities in Turkey.
Based on a 1:1 formula, for each Syrian returned to Turkey, another Syrian living in Turkey would be resettled into Europe and the number of resettlement in the EU was limited to 72,000. Moreover, under the Voluntary Humanitarian Admission Scheme, the EU member states agreed to accept a number of qualified refugees that entered Turkey prior to November 29, 2015. EU officials also expressed their willingness to restart negotiations on Turkey’s membership to the EU by opening new negotiation chapters and upgrading the Customs Union agreement as well as lifting visa requirements for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone by June 2016 provided that the requirements of an earlier 2013 agreement called the Visa Roadmap were met by Turkey. It was per Ankara’s request that the visa liberalization clause—allowing visa-free travel of Turkish citizens in the EU—was included in the deal.
It is important to note that the migrant crisis started for Turkey in 2011, and by the time the deal was sealed, Turkey was already hosting 2.5 million refugees and had spent $10 billion toward settling them and providing humanitarian assistance. Only in 2015, when faced with millions of migrants from Syria reaching Europe along the Aegean shore between Turkey and Greece, did EU officials decide to ask for Turkey’s assistance in preventing irregular migration flows.
The deal ignited controversy because it contradicted EU laws and the UN 1951 Refugee Convention. Signatories of the convention cannot expel asylum seekers without examining their claims individually. Under this rule, only migrants who have not applied for asylum or whose applications have not been accepted could be returned to Turkey. Because of some incidents of migrants returned to Turkey in groups, there was criticism that asylum applications in Europe were not evaluated thoroughly.
There were also concerns over mass returns as the deal presumes that Turkey is a “safe third country” from which asylum claimants and refugees may apply for international protection under the Refugee Convention. Some international organizations and NGOs criticized the EU for the deal and have expressed concerns regarding the lack of international protection and procedural safeguards for asylum claimants and refugees in Turkey. Turkey—not being a member of the EU—is not bound by EU legislation or directives, which offer procedural protections for third-country nationals including asylum claimants and refugees.
The EU’s acceptance of adding clauses related to visa liberalization and Turkey’s EU accession into the migrant deal was also criticized within the EU for giving Turkey leverage over it, but also for being “unethical” and in contravention of the EU’s values and principles. Some argued that the accession process should be kept separate from the deal because it would further undermine the legitimacy of enlargement, or the process by which countries join the EU. The enlargement process has three stages: prospect of membership, candidate for membership, and formal membership negotiations. A country can only join the EU if it meets and/or adopts necessary reforms to meet all the political, economic, and legal membership criteria. In the viewpoint of the EU the deal was concluded with a pragmatic objective of limiting as much as possible the refugees’ arrival into the EU from Turkey for many reasons, including appeasing the electorate of European member states.
Regarding Turkey’s objectives, it is clear that Ankara’s first motivation was to secure some assistance from the EU. Not only was the EU’s financial contribution necessary but EU countries would also take more refugees from Turkey. The deal also created an opportunity for Ankara to reenergize EU–Turkey relations by enabling extensive negotiations between Turkey and EU leaders, as well as heads of member countries independent from accession talks.
An Unequally Implemented Deal
The deal was successful vis-à-vis its primary objectives of limiting refugee flows from Turkey to Greece and preventing the loss of lives. Turkey succeeded in closing the Aegean Sea route—the number of migrants illegally crossing the Aegean dropped from an average of ten thousand per day in 2015 to below one hundred in 2018. In 2015 alone, the Turkish Coast Guard Command saved the lives of 90,198 illegal migrants—the majority of whom were Syrians trying to cross the Aegean from Turkey to Greece, while around eight hundred migrants lost their lives. In 2017, thirty-two people drowned in the Aegean Sea. Besides the decrease in fatalities, the smuggling networks were largely dismantled.
Regarding providing aid to Turkey, the EU initially delivered 2.1 billion euros out of the initial 3 billion euros and the remaining part will be paid in 2021 once the last project is completed. At the end of June 2018, the second tranche of three billion euros was approved and its implementation will last until 2025. Turkish authorities asked that these funds be directly transferred to them to ensure more effective use. A small portion of this funding is going directly into the coffers of the Ministries of National Education and Health while the biggest part is allocated through international organizations under contracted projects. While the EU’s financial assistance is important, it is worth underlining that even if the total 6 billion euros had already been made available to Turkey, this would only cover 20 percent of what Turkey has spent so far on Syrians living in Turkey.
EU countries were required to admit Syrians on a voluntary basis provided that irregular migration had been reduced significantly and continuously. Although migration has declined, this part of the deal has not been achieved. To date, only around 15,000 Syrians from Turkey have been resettled into EU member countries since March 2016. It is not clear how many more will be resettled given the voluntary nature of the deal. Besides Syrians, as of June 4, 2018, 1,629 illegal migrants have been readmitted by Turkey.
Therefore, the main objectives of the deal—saving lives and limiting illegal migration from Turkey to Europe—have been successfully attained. Turkey is also getting the promised financial assistance. And even though EU–Turkey relations went through a significant period of tensions especially following the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey and during electoral campaigns in Turkey and Europe, these difficulties never affected the deal. However, the EU’s commitments to accelerate the visa liberalization process, restart accession negotiations, and upgrade the Customs Union agreement have not been fulfilled and have unfortunately become entangled with the larger politics of EU–Turkey relations.
Some of the EU’s unfulfilled promises lie in areas such as the Customs Union agreement, energy, foreign policy and counterterrorism, and visa liberalization, some of which are also part of the migrant deal.
The lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens going to EU countries depends on Turkey delivering on its part of the agreement that says it will readmit all migrants who illegally cross to Europe from Turkey as well as implement the 2013 “Visa Roadmap.” The roadmap dictates that Turkey make legislative and administrative reforms to establish a secure environment for visa-free travel such as document security, migration and border management, public order and security, and rights for refugees.
It is worth mentioning that among EU candidate countries for membership, Turkey is the only country to not have received visa liberalization. Ukraine and Georgia, as part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership, were both given visa-free travel in 2017, even though they are not candidate countries. However, as a candidate to the EU, Turkey was provided some visa liberalization privileges in October 2015.
Turkey has already fulfilled sixty-five out of seventy-two Visa Roadmap benchmarks. One of the main areas in which progress is expected on the Visa Roadmap includes the revision of “the legal framework as regards to organized crime and terrorism, as well as its interpretation by the courts and by security forces and law enforcement agencies, so as to ensure the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial and freedom of expression, of assembly and association in practice.” Turkey presented a position paper to the EU including measures that the country is ready to take in order to fulfill the remaining criteria: revising anti-terror legislation with a view toward leaving freedom of speech and expression out of its scope, revising data protection laws, and renewing its anticorruption strategy. The terrorism law has been criticized by the EU for being vague and used to suppress opposition. Yet, the EU opposition to the terrorism law is also related to the number of asylum seekers from Turkey in Europe for political reasons. It is obvious that asylum requests have increased after the coup attempt but these numbers are now stabilizing. The EU always has the right to suspend visa liberalization if the number of asylum seekers from Turkey increases after liberalization.
Other requirements include signing an operational agreement with Europol, engaging in cooperation with EU member states in the field of judicial affairs, making a transition to biometric passports for Turkish citizens, and effectively implementing the Turkey–EU readmission agreement. Moreover, the roadmap requires that Turkey issue biometric passports in compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and EU standards. According to the roadmap, in a first phase, biometric passports with fingerprints and photos were issued in line with ICAO standards and in a second phase, as of October 2016, Turkish authorities started issuing permanent biometric passports with chips, fully in line with EU standards. However, if visa liberalization is granted tomorrow, only 199,000 Turks, who have the necessary passports, will have access to visa-free travel. There are obviously other benchmarks to be fulfilled by Turkey as well and there is still some progress to be made. It should be noted that from the viewpoint of Turkey, visa liberalization constitutes another major element of the March 18 deal and Turkish authorities are hopeful about its fulfillment.
Customs Union Agreement Update
The Customs Union Agreement, originally concluded in 1995 between Turkey and the European Union, greatly helped the development of Turkey’s economy over the past two decades. Trade between the EU and Turkey dramatically increased from $28 billion in 1995 to approximately $159 billion in 2017, making Turkey the EU’s fifth-largest trading partner and the EU, Turkey’s largest. However, the agreement needs to be updated. The absence of any provision in the Customs Union encouraging third parties to also negotiate with Turkey each time the EU negotiates a free trade agreement with a third party creates significant inequality in terms of market access and a great risk for trade diversions. Including areas such as agriculture, public procurements, and services in the Customs Union agreement would help Turkey align itself with EU regulatory standards and stimulate further growth on both sides.
The expansion and modernization of the Customs Union has been frequently proposed as a way to overcome the impasse facing membership talks. However, this would face much opposition by some member states and the European Parliament unless conditions related to human rights and the rule of law are included in negotiations. On June 24, presidential and parliamentary elections were held in Turkey. There is a strong hope in the country for termination of the emergency rule and release of detained journalists. Any advance in these areas would help to revive negotiations on the Customs Union.
Negotiating EU–Turkey Relations Through the Deal
To give a bit of background on the contentious EU–Turkey accession relationship: in 1963 Turkey and the European Economic Community (ECC, the precursor to the EU) signed the Ankara Agreement, an association agreement which would become the initial framework for possible Turkish acceptance into the ECC-EU.
In 2005, Turkey and the EU began official accession negotiations. From the thirty-five chapters which formed the 2005 acquis communautaire, sixteen chapters, to date, have been addressed and only one completed or closed. However, negotiations between Turkey and the EU never determined a deadline for accession. Also, a mechanism for the possible suspension of negotiations in case of a “serious and persistent breach” of basic democratic principles was included in the negotiation framework. As such, Turkey’s and the EU’s accession negotiations were from the onset deeply problematic. First the EU blocked some chapters until Turkey opened its ports and airports to vehicles originating from the Republic of Cyprus. Then during Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency—because of France’s opposition to Turkey’s membership—France and Cyprus blocked the opening of five more chapters in the accession process. In comparison, Croatia, which also started accession negotiations in 2005, became an official EU Member State in 2013.
Recently, the EU published its Western Balkan Strategy, with a tentative accession year of 2025 for Western Balkan countries to the EU. However, Turkey was yet again rebuffed in this Western Balkan Strategy as EU leaders did not include Turkey in the strategy for long-term accession to the EU.
The EU has been critical of Turkish internal political developments. After the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016, the EU–Turkey relationship seriously deteriorated. The ongoing state of emergency in Turkey as well as the purge of hundreds of thousands of people accused of links to the Fetullah Gulen Terror Organization (FETO), thought to be behind the coup attempt, were severely criticized by various EU organs and leaders. Also, constitutional amendments passed in a referendum in April 2017 in Turkey were criticized by the EU. Turkey was disappointed by the reluctance of the EU to condemn the coup and support Turkey as well as by the unwillingness of some EU countries to extradite FETO-linked runways seeking asylum in their countries.
Additionally, during the April 2017 referendum campaigns, Germany and the Netherlands did not allow Turkish MPs to hold pro-government rallies in their countries. All these issues created a war of words and great tension between Turkey and many EU countries, and severely damaged popular support in Europe for Turkey’s EU accession. These disagreements led the EU Parliament to recommend a suspension of accession negotiations with Turkey if the Turkish constitutional amendments were implemented unchanged. Eventually, accession negotiations came to a virtual freeze at the end of 2016 with the EU Council’s decision not to open any new negotiation chapters with Turkey until until Ankara lifted its emergency rule, which it eventually did on July 18, 2018.
In the past two years, differing diplomatic goals on the part of Turkey and the EU have de-prioritized the issue of Turkish accession for both parties. Despite these negative developments, the 2018 Varna Summit was important in reminding both Turkish and EU leaders that the accession process was only frozen and could be restarted if both Turkey and the EU agreed to do so in the future.
If we were to write the history of these past seven years, we would place Turkey at the top of a short list of countries that have contributed the most to the resolution of the Syrian refugee crisis. The EU–Turkey migrant deal that came into existence to mitigate the crisis is a pragmatic deal for which each side had different expectations and objectives.
But the deal will remain active so long as it brings gains to both parties. The deal itself will not remain part of the long-term bilateral relationship but the issues of accessions, visa liberalization, and the Customs Union, included in the deal, are important long-term issues. Therefore, we need to analyze the deal in the context of its long-term implications. On the one hand, from the viewpoint of the EU, the deal gives too much leverage to Turkey: Turkish government officials occasionally refer to the deal to complain about unfulfilled EU promises and to intimidate EU countries with the threat that Turkey will not respect the agreement.
On the other hand, as an end to the Syrian civil war is in sight, there may be a termination of the EU–Turkey migrant deal. If so, the EU would no longer have any incentive to move forward on visa liberalization and Customs Union agreements with Turkey unless the Turkish government were to take steps to improve its human rights record and ensure the rule of law. As such, the deal is fragile and may be considered more harmful than useful to EU–Turkey accession negotiations.
However, despite all tensions and turbulences in EU–Turkey relations over the past few years, Turkey and the EU need each other and will have to find ways to work together. The post-June 24 election period in Turkey could create opportunities to reset and heal bilateral relations as well as improve the state of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. Apart from some financial contribution to Turkey’s efforts to host 3.5 million refugees on its soil, the migrant deal has not brought much to Turkey. Its greatest contribution has been in helping to save the lives of refugees trying to reach Europe via the dangerous sea route across the Aegean Sea.
Pınar Dost is currently the deputy director of Atlantic Council’s Turkey office and Istanbul Summit. Between 2013 and 2017, she was first assistant then associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Economic Summit. A historian of international relations, she lectured at Galatasaray University and Marmara University, both in Istanbul. She is currently teaching at Istanbul Bilgi University. She is the author of Le Bon Dictateur: L’image de MustafaKemal Atatürk en France (1919–1938).
Raqqa Youth and the Devastation of War
Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War. By Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple. One World, New York, 2018. 320 pp.
In his newly released memoir Brothers of the Gun, Marwan Hisham, with co-author Molly Crabapple, takes us to Raqqa, Syria during Ramadan 2011—the early months of the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the Syrian Ba’ath Party dictatorship. Hisham and his two closest friends are young men who launch themselves into the long-awaited revolution, unaware of the vicious war for power that will take hold of their country and redirect each of their lives.
Marked by Crabapple’s provocative ink sketches, Brothers of the Gun tells the vivid human tale of Syria’s northern city of Raqqa from a local perspective, presenting a much-needed perspective on the contemporary narrative of Syria. It is the story of Raqqan youths and the day-to-day lives of the people, who suffer and survive under waves of dictatorship, extremism, and the chaos in between.
Brothers of the Gun presents a detailed account of young Hisham’s life in Raqqa and the memories of two brothers Nael and Tareq, his friends. The three men find themselves in the midst of a complex and ever-evolving war as their city passes through the hands of the Syrian regime, the opposition forces, and in later years, the infamous jihadist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Despite their shared history and enthusiasm for the revolution, the young men end up at different endpoints: a journalist in exile, an opposition fighter killed on the frontlines, and an Islamist militant.
Hisham grew up in a poor neighborhood of Raqqa and was sent to a religious boarding school in the countryside of neighboring Aleppo at the age of twelve. A curious teenager, Hisham struggled to reconcile the simultaneous Muslim religious teachings with the Syrian government’s Arab Ba’athist indoctrination—both taught at his school. He found solace, however, in English literature, which he went on to study at university. Hisham’s best childhood friend, Nael, was a talker, a charmer, and an artist, who like Hisham left their hometown to pursue a degree in fine arts that led him to the Damascus art scene. Tareq, Nael’s younger brother, left Syria to study Arabic literature in Beirut, but as the revolution evolved, all three men returned to Raqqa.
Like most Syrians, Hisham, Nael, and Tareq found their lives upturned by the war. During one protest in Raqqa, Nael was arrested by regime forces. He was released soon after, forever changed by what he witnessed in detention. As rebel forces formed and captured Raqqa in 2013, Nael, the aspiring artist, decided to join the armed rebellion and became Abu Omar, a revolutionary nom de guerre. During an offensive the rebels initiated against Al-Assad regime outpost Division 17, Nael was killed by a mortar shell on the frontline.
Tareq was devastated by his older brother’s death, and in his grief, was persuaded to join a military camp organized by the Salafist militia Ahrar Al-Sham—a group that had dominance over Raqqa in 2013. With a Kalashnikov on his shoulder, Tareq fought against the Al-Assad regime, ISIS, and Kurdish militias. His views were sharply different from those of Hisham; but the two men were bound by their love for Nael, and remained close friends.
ISIS took control of Raqqa in 2014 after fierce fighting with rebel forces, establishing a key stronghold in Syria’s north that would later become its de facto capital. Tareq retreated from Raqqa with his group of Ahrar Al-Sham soldiers, while Hisham remained a resident in the city now filled with ISIS followers from across the globe who migrated to live and defend their promised utopian Islamic state.
While living in a dingy basement under ISIS control, Hisham observed the debates on Twitter about his country and decided to engage with them. He tweeted about Raqqa in English and attracted the attention of Western media, launching his career in “secret journalism.”
It was at this time the two Brothers of the Gun authors, Crabapple and Hisham, began to collaborate, producing their unique format of what they called “art crime” stories that illustrated the horrors endured by the people of Raqqa for Vanity Fair. Hisham went on to travel to Iraq’s Mosul, also under the control of ISIS, and secretly capture photographs and report on the situation there. Putting his life on the line, Hisham went on a couple of other media assignments for various Western publications.
Some of the most notable parts of Hisham’s memoir are his interactions with ISIS fighters and their families, which portray the lifestyle and function of the jihadist group in a way that has been largely underreported.
This memoir is not a chronicle of Raqqa’s war history, but rather a story of hope, fear, devastation, uncertainty, and bravery told through a concise and personal narrative. It is an essential read for anyone who seeks to understand what Raqqa has endured, each chapter a flashback into Hisham’s life in the city of his birth.
While this book succeeds in guiding readers through the personal journey of its narrator, it lacks in having enough clear connections to the broader context of the Syrian conflict. A reader who is unfamiliar with the chronology and details of the Syrian civil war may be confused by the timeline of events presented in Brothers of the Gun and would have benefited from a greater sequential record of events occurring in Raqqa and across Syria.
Nonetheless, Hisham and Crabapple have produced an indispensable read that features how ordinary youths change, adapt, and resist, in different forms, in the face of unceasing injustices. It leaves the reader informed, yet puzzled, wondering how the Raqqa catastrophe could have been avoided.
Abdulrahman al-Masri is a journalist and analyst who covers Middle East politics and security and foreign policy. He is also a fellow with the SecDev Foundation. He has written for the Arab Weekly, NewsDeeply, the Atlantic Council, USA Today, and OpenCanada, among others. On Twitter@AbdulrhmanMasri.
The crisis brought on by refugee and migration movements has today assumed unprecedented proportions, a reality poignantly captured by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which states that “we are witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record”—68.5 million people globally. At the epicenter of the global refugee and migration crisis lies the Middle East, with the vortex of conflict engulfing Syria, Iraq, Libya, Lebanon, and Yemen. Syria alone accounts for over six million refugees in addition to a roughly equivalent number of internally displaced people.
What distinguishes the refugee situation in the Middle East are the political, geopolitical, and strategic reverberations it has triggered, with the ripple effects often reaching far beyond the focal point of the region’s interlocking conflicts. Internally displaced people have now become pawns in the regional and global proxy conflicts raging in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon. The destabilizing effects of the crisis on regional security are clearly manifested in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and Turkey. The recurring waves of refugee flows from the region to Western Europe have already affected the domestic politics, foreign policy, and economies of key European countries in ways that will play out long after the crisis itself subsides. In this sense, the Middle East refugee crisis has become truly global.
To examine the multiple dimensions of the Middle East refugee crisis, the Cairo Review has dedicated its summer 2018 issue to the theme of “Refugees: Humanity Uprooted.” First, Parastou Hassouri and Omer Karasapan examine how the influx of refugees into Europe has triggered a surge of populist politics and xenophobia across the continent, while reinforcing the European Union’s “border externalization” policies that seek to stem refugee flows before they reach European shores. Somewhat similarly, in “From Africa to Israel to Nowhere,” Mike Wagenheim explores how the arrival of African migrants has generated an intense debate around the Jewish character of the state of Israel. No less significant has been the domestic political implications for Turkey, the largest-hosting country of Syrian refugees: Gönül Tol addresses the potential political costs the crisis could have for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And Pınar Dost lays down the implications of the many unfulfilled provisions of the EU–Turkey “Refugee Deal.”
Ghaith Al-Omari examines the implications of the Donald Trump administration’s decision to cut aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In their thought-provoking essay “Migration Myths and the Global South,” Ibrahim Awad and Usha Natarajan show how the discourse underpinning the international migration regime privileges a Northern agenda to the disadvantage of the Global South, which often bears the brunt of policies adopted by Western countries.
Finally, the oft-neglected social and gender aspects of international relief efforts toward refugees and migrants are examined by Ghaidaa Motahar in her essay on Yemen’s displaced women, and by Bethan Staton, whose essay critiques the “Jordan Compact” designed in part to alleviate the plight of Syrian women refugees in Jordan. The Cairo Review interview is with leading Middle East historian James Gelvin.
Children and Family Terrorism
At least thirteen people were killed and forty injured after a family of six—including a nine-year-old and twelve-year-old—mounted suicide attacks on three churches in Indonesia in the country’s second-largest city Surabaya, on May 13. With many Indonesians still reeling from the coordinated attacks, a few hours later a mother and her seventeen-year-old-daughter were killed in a nearby suburb after a bomb being handled by the father blew up prematurely. The next day, another family of five, riding on motorcycles, detonated a bomb at the entrance of Surabaya’s police headquarters. Only a seven-year-old girl somehow survived, staggering away from the burnt-out wreckage—an image caught on social media and replayed repeatedly to widespread shock and revulsion.
It emerged that the central planner of the coordinated attacks on both days was one Dita Oepriarto, the leader of the Surabaya branch of the Indonesian Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militant network, which has pledged support for the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Notably, the Amaq news agency of ISIS quickly claimed responsibility for what it called a successful “martyrdom operation.” This was the first time entire families, including young children and teenagers, were involved in a violent Islamist attack in Southeast Asia.
Violent Islamism in Indonesia
Islamist terror attacks are hardly new to Indonesia. They date back to the end of the Second World War, when a struggle broke out between Darul Islam separatists seeking to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state and secular republican forces committed to a more nationalist vision for the country. The Darul Islam revolt was crushed by 1962, but the movement remained active, going through several permutations over the next three decades.
In October 2002, 202 civilians, including eighty-eight Australians, were killed in suicide bombings aimed at two nightclubs on the tourist island of Bali. The strikes were perpetrated by a Darul Islam offshoot, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network, led by several returned Indonesian veterans of the multinational jihad against the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan during the late 1980s—where they had been indoctrinated and trained by Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network. Over the following decade or so, JI and associated splinter groups were blamed for smaller-scale terror strikes in the country aimed at both Westerners and the Indonesian police.
In recent times, however, the focus has shifted to yet another new mutation of the Islamist threat: ISIS, which emerged as a challenger to Al-Qaeda for leadership of the global Islamist, terror movement in mid-2014. Following relatively low-key attacks by pro-ISIS cells in Jakarta and the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur in 2016, between May and October 2017, pro-ISIS armed groups fought a five-month-long battle with the Philippine military for control of the Islamic city of Marawi in the troubled, insurgency-wracked southern Philippines. The aim of the militants was to establish a foothold for an eastern wilayat or province of the putative ISIS caliphate. While the Marawi uprising was eventually defeated, what seemed clear was that as long as the extremist ideology of violent ISIS Islamism remained in circulation, not just in the Philippines and Indonesia, but throughout Southeast Asia, the threat would remain. And then came the Surabaya attacks.
Youth and the Surabaya Incident
Regional security officials have been quick to express alarm at the emergence in the Surabaya case of what has been called “family terrorism,” which according to Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine defense secretary, is a “new development in Southeast Asia, something local terrorists have never done before.” Indeed, as mentioned, the role of youth stands out: in the case of Dita Oepriarto, orchestrator of the May 13 attacks on the three churches, the suicide attackers included his two young daughters, aged 9 and 12, and his two teenage boys, aged 16 and 18. The following day, Tri Murtiono—who was known to Dita as they were both part of the same network—involved his wife and his two teenage sons aged 14 and 18, as well as their seven-year-old daughter in the attack on the Surabaya police headquarters. Meanwhile, as mentioned, on May 13, a seventeen-year-old girl died in an accidental detonation by her father, who was yet another accomplice of Dita.
It is still too early to confirm the degree of willing participation by the youth involved the Surabaya attacks. It is almost certain, however, that active involvement was seen in at least some of the cases. The available information about some of the youth in Dita’s family, for instance, offers potentially significant insights into the factors driving youth radicalization into violent Islamist extremism. Adapting a typology devised by terrorism scholar Alex Schmid, we can systematically analyze these factors in Indonesia at the micro, meso, and macro levels.
The Micro Level
While the United Nations Secretariat and the World Bank both use “youth” to refer to individuals between fifteen and twenty-four years old, the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child refers to “youth’ as a “child until eighteen.” By the latter measure, youth were certainly involved in the Surabaya attacks. At the micro and individual level, experts have long argued that neurological factors render youth particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Specifically, during the teenage years the brain centers that guide reasoning and self-control develop more gradually than those that govern human emotions. This helps explain why teenagers often appear impulsive and rash. Second, the rather intense emotional turbulence that many teens regularly experience expresses itself in psychological and emotional vulnerability and a lack of critical thinking. This frequently results in a quest for absolute cognitive certainty—which charismatic older role models and violent Islamist groups like JAD and ISIS claim to offer.
The Meso Level
The “meso level” deals with social influences which in this case are connected with the indoctrination of children into Islamist networks. Unlike most Western countries, Indonesia is a patriarchal, collectivist society, where respect for elders is expected and individual opinions must be subordinated to that of the group. Indonesian terrorism analyst Noor Huda Ismail thus argued that in such a cultural milieu, “it is very difficult for a child to escape a father’s influence,” and that the children involved in the attacks were abject pawns of their fathers. Hence, it is telling that some observers recalled that on the day of the May 13 church bombing, one of Dita’s teenage sons, sixteen-year-old Firman Halim, was crying inconsolably during dawn prayers in a Surabaya mosque not too long before the attacks. His father apparently encouraged him to “be patient, be sincere” and eventually, Firman left for home with his older brother Yusof Fadhil, aged 18. Both later mounted a motorcycle attack on a Catholic Church.
Another important element at the meso level is the role of the insulated small group. Dita’s family, together with the other two families involved, was part of the JAD social milieu. Not only were some of the youth home-schooled to limit outside exposure, at Sunday religious gatherings following noon prayers, the families were reportedly exposed to films on violent jihad in Iraq and Syria, including suicide bombings, and were even instructed in bomb-making. This had the gradual effect of inculcating a stark us-versus-them mentality that encouraged social distancing—something which Dita’s non-Muslim neighbors in the ethnically integrated Surabaya suburb where they lived eventually noticed as well.
The Macro Level
Dita Oepriarto was a relatively well-off businessman selling almonds, sesame, and caraway oil. Oepriarto’s family resided in a comfortable middle-class Surabayan district. At the macro or structural level, rather than material factors, therefore, what stands out as an important radicalizing factor is extremist ideology. The youth in Dita’s family did not wear overtly Islamic garb, but were nonetheless deeply influenced by pro-ISIS, hardcore Indonesian extremist ideologues such as Abu Bakar Baasyir and Aman Abdurrahman, all of whom propagated the view that the Indonesian state, the police, and non-Muslims, were intractable enemies of Islam and that violence in pursuit of a caliphate was religiously legitimate. Fauzi, a former JI terrorist, put it this way: “The motive,” he insisted, was not “worldly but ideological, that they were all in it together for the sake of paradise.”
Changing the Future
At the macro level, while President Joko Widodo’s government must continue efforts to boost the economy, this is not enough. Counter-narrative programs that strengthen Indonesia’s well-known progressive and moderate Islamic traditions need intensifying. More effective coordination is needed between the Indonesian National Counter-Terror Agency (BNPT) and large moderate Muslim mass organizations—the traditionalist Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and the modernist Muhammadiyah—as well as smaller NGOs able to put out counter- messaging via social media in creative and appealing ways. At the same time, it is encouraging that the Indonesian parliament on May 25 criminalized support for and membership of violent foreign extremist organizations like ISIS. This sends a strong deterrent signal. Nevertheless, the BNPT and relevant government agencies in Indonesia need to develop a more granular understanding of the approximately six hundred Indonesians—including entire families—who have returned from the conflict in Iraq and Syria. While the three families implicated in the attacks of May 13–14 were not returnees themselves, they were reportedly influenced by returning Islamist extremists. That the explosive material used in the May 13 attacks—triacetone triperoxide (TA TP)—has been used by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, hints strongly at such linkages.
At the meso level, better community intelligence involving local police, grassroots, and religious leaders in districts and villages are needed to detect if what American legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls “insulated enclaves”—cult-like social spaces cut off from mainstream society—are forming. As noted, some of the youth involved in the attacks were home-schooled to reduce exposure to mainstream ideas. The Islamist families in question also gradually grew more distant from their non-Muslim neighbors. As such, while community bodies need to foster greater opportunities for inclusive school projects between Muslim and non-Muslim youth, inter-faith and even intra-faith dialogues should be employed to debate ISIS theological and ideological distortions, while promoting the tolerant, unifying, national ideology of Indonesia.
Finally, at the micro, individual level, apart from educational programs that train youth in critical thinking and digital literacy, pro-family policies that encourage strong, stable families that promote healthy ego development in youth are needed. We must support families to nurture youth to navigate the adolescent journey from emotional dependence on parents to mature, adult independence in the context of a democratic society that prizes inter-religious tolerance.
In short, effective action must be taken in a sustained, purposeful manner, systematically integrating efforts at the macro, meso, and micro levels to combat the Islamist radicalization of Muslim youth in Indonesia and, for that matter, across Southeast Asia. If policymakers and leaders do not combat radicalization of Muslim youth on all three of these levels, ISIS-based extremism will remain in the cards for the foreseeable future.
Kumar Ramakrishna is the Head Policy Studies, as well as Coordinator of the National Security Studies Program at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore.
Delusions of a Deal
Donald Trump claims he is the master of deal-making, and describes his policies and achievements as either the best, biggest, or greatest. Trump, however, has not been in office long enough to truly see if his penchant for striking grand bargains bears fruit. His approach to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is no exception. His decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in December 2017 shocked the Palestinians and the Arab World. Unilaterally and incomprehensibly, he has taken Jerusalem off the negotiating table, leaving his administration officials to comically explain that this decision does not in fact preempt the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
No less important has been his repeated assertion that the United States does not insist on a two-state solution for resolving the conflict, and would support any agreement both parties reach. Coming from the main broker of the peace process, this ambivalence on the core principle for settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calls into question the credibility of any future negotiating process.
Taken together, these two decisions are greatly detrimental to the prospects of a peacefully negotiated resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which even today seems distant because of the ceaseless expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In that case, Trump was merely enunciating policies that reflect this painful reality.
However, public statements by Arab officials indicate that while they prefer not to directly reject the administration’s approach, they emphasize the paramount importance of a two-state solution, as well as Jerusalem, to any resolution to the conflict. Such statements could be interpreted as pro-forma statements meant to absolve responsibility on the Arab side. Alternatively, they could be intended to deter the administration from irresponsibly shaking the basic tenants of every Arab-Israeli agreement, which has always been a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders and recognition and security for all states in the region Arab—including Palestine—and Israel.
Trump’s Middle East proposals have been in incubation stage for months now. The deal was meant to forgo getting bogged down in details, focusing instead on creating a healthier environment for future negotiations by providing Israelis with a broader Arab political engagement and Palestinians with greater economic incentives. It was soon recognized that Trump’s “new” deal was too Israeli-centric and provided little real incentive for Palestinians to realize their national aspirations.
The administration’s pressure on the Palestinians through withholding a portion of U.S. economic aid, and calling into question the continuity of the Palestine Liberation Organization or its representation in Washington, did not succeed in swaying the Palestinian leadership. While Arab countries attempted to contain bursts of public discontent in response to the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Saudis, publicly and privately, suggested that such a decision had made it significantly more difficult to support the American proposals. Jordan’s King Abdullah attributed the recent domestic disturbances to instigation by unnamed foreign elements as retribution for his refusal to soften his stand on Jerusalem.
Although still unannounced, it seems that the administration’s proposals are undergoing revision in response to the misgivings voiced in the region. Among the changes being considered is the establishment of a “Palestinian capital” in Jerusalem centered on the Abu Dis suburb, and ensuring freedom of religious expression for everyone in the Old City. Additional Palestinian access to territories in Area C of the West Bank in the Jordan Valley, but without territorial contiguity, appears to be another idea. Other ideas include international compensation for Palestinian refugees in exchange for dropping the demand for their “right of return,” direct economic incentives for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and potentially, joint economic zones with neighboring states. All outstanding details regarding final borders and the actual nature of the governing Palestinian authority would be left for future negotiations including the possibility of a two-state solution if agreed upon.
In exchange, Israel would maintain its control over the West Bank; its land and maritime security arrangements concerning Gaza would be recognized; and its position in Jerusalem would remain unchallenged. The absence of any reference to the 1967 borders in the U.S. proposals would pave the way for significant territorial adjustments—for example, the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and around Jerusalem that would be annexed by Israel. Implicitly this strategy would absolve Israel of any responsibility for return or compensation to Palestinian refugees. Moreover, the deal would resolutely confirm Israel’s right to absolute security through cooperation with its neighbors. Most importantly it would open the door for a wide-ranging normalization between Israel and the Arab World, before and not after, the conclusion of detailed negotiated agreements with the Palestinians and other Arabs as was originally stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative adopted at the Beirut Summit in 2002.
The Trump administration expects the Arab countries to politically support these proposals by influencing the Palestinian authority, engaging more publicly with Israelis, and bankrolling the package of economic incentives. It would be presumptuous to draw conclusions on the consequences of the proposed “Deal of the Century” before such proposals are made public. They do, however, still seem to only offer Palestinians little hope for a better future in exchange for immediate concessions and incentives to Israel in the form of regional recognition. This is ironic given that Israel is the occupying power and the Palestinians are an occupied people seeking to realize their inherent right to achieve a state of their own. Changing these parameters would probably not be accepted by the Palestinians. It would also render the prospect of a broader Arab-Israeli peace through the settlement of Israel’s conflict with Syria and Lebanon almost delusional.
Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is the founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.
What’s Next for Gaza
As difficult as it is to fathom today—when Gaza is walled off from Israel and Egypt by a border that would do the Warsaw Pact proud—there was a time when Israelis and Palestinians travelled freely and without incident between Israel and the Palestinian territories captured by Israel in June 1967.
Soon after Ariel Sharon was appointed defense minister by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981, Sharon ordered the removal of the two lawn chairs manned by sleepy recruits marking the border which was all that was left of the visible boundary separating the Gaza Strip from Israel.
At the same time, on Israel’s northern frontier, Sharon put into motion a military plan to destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then based across the border in Lebanon. These initiatives, in Gaza and Lebanon, were integrated elements of a unified strategic concept—Israel’s disastrous campaign to destroy the Palestinian national movement. By making war against the PLO in Lebanon, Sharon planned to destroy the political foundation for Palestinian nationalism. In Gaza, an energized campaign of Israeli civilian settlement across an invisible border separating Israel proper from “liberated” Gaza would strike at the heart of Palestinian control over territory—the other key ingredient necessary for the creation of a Palestinian state. Sharon’ s policy of “creating facts on the ground,” in Gaza and elsewhere, was the flip side of the planned destruction of the PLO—a one-two punch that would forever undermine the Palestinian claim to sovereignty anywhere in Palestine.
Sharon failed spectacularly on both counts. Throughout the 1980s, the PLO survived the Israeli assault on Lebanon to fight . . . and negotiate another day. In September 2005 Israeli settlers and the Israeli army retreated across the newly fortified Gaza border.
Sharon too was the author of Israel’s retreat from Gaza in 2005. This surprise move was by no means the end of the story. It was rather the beginning of a new, more destructive and brutal Israeli policy that aimed to reduce its considerable responsibilities as an occupying power still in effective control of Gaza. Israel, under international law, continues to be responsible for the welfare of Gaza’s Palestinians. This is cold comfort to two million Gazans who notwithstanding the Israeli retreat, as a consequence of Israeli decisions, are now more than ever dependent upon Israel for their well being.
By any index, the misery manufactured by Israel’s enhanced enforcement of the “siege” preventing Gaza from the free import and export of goods and transit in the wake of Fatah’s ouster from Gaza by Hamas in June 2007, and the accommodation to this policy by Gaza’s neighbor Egypt and the international community, threaten to make the Gaza Strip “uninhabitable” by 2020. Palestinians have endured a policy of punishing sanctions for a generation, but they have failed to compel either Israel or Egypt to abandon their strategies, or to win enough international support on their behalf. Politically dysfunctional and without imagination, neither Hamas nor Fatah has had an idea of any consequence for at least a decade. The ability of other Palestinian actors to challenge their leadership, however ineffective, is limited because of the absence of sufficient cadres and organization on the ground and in the camps where most Palestinian refugees live.
Fatah under Mahmoud Abbas has all but abandoned Gaza as a political or economic project. As it looks to the future it cannot see beyond its decade-old demand to remove Hamas as the principal Palestinian political and security voice in Gaza if not elsewhere.
Hamas has defied the odds. It has convinced Israel of its staying power and retained broad popular support in an environment conditioned by an international effort to subvert it. Yet, while it has succeeded in the security sphere to establish a rough and unstable deterrence vis-a-vis Israel, it has been unable to impose either its economic objective—an end to the siege—or broader political goal of Palestinian sovereignty.
These Palestinian shortcomings will not soon be remedied. Indeed, the international and Arab environments have never been less hospitable to Palestinian efforts, should they materialize, to establish a diplomatic foundation for political or economic progress according to Palestinian preferences.
Washington and the broader international community have set the bar for Gaza quite low. In the best case, they are dissatisfied with the disastrous effects of the “diet” Gazans are forced to endure. However, wedded to the political prerequisite of regime change in Gaza, the international community lacks the interest to summon the political will to effectively challenge the status quo. The recent stillborn U.S. conference to mobilize limited humanitarian support for Gaza is a typical case in point.
Israel, which remains the principal agent of this policy, also holds the keys to policies that would reduce the manufactured misery and the inherent instability of the military standoff between Israel and Hamas that for too long has been Gaza’s fate.
Ironically, the main hope for an amelioration of conditions in Gaza is Israel, which is slowly coming to the realization that the instability and disastrous living conditions produced by its policies undermine the Israeli interest in securing the border and reducing international pressure, however inadequate, for a new Palestinian diplomatic and economic agenda in Gaza and beyond.
The battle for a change in Israeli policy in this direction has yet to be won. Indeed, there are many Israeli voices that, secure in the knowledge that the option is untenable, continue to demand the ouster of Hamas and the return of the IDF to Jabaliya.
These are vocal but minority voices. Israel has no aspiration or interest in ruling Gaza or in being responsible for its welfare. But after more than a decade, the realization is growing, particularly in Israel’s security and intelligences systems, that Gaza’s “diet” is no longer working for Israel.
To the extent that it is interested in an amelioration of the conditions caused principally by its policies, Israel is also concerned about protecting its interest in reducing its Gaza footprint by continuing Sharon’s 2005 effort to turn Gaza into another Albania—that is, a foreign state about which Israel has little interest and no responsibility.
Neither Palestinians nor the international community see reason to exploit this Israeli desire to reduce its Gaza exposure. Instead, it is Israel’s security system—which is bearing the brunt of the instability caused by the siege—that is today the prime mover of the internal Israeli debate on “what next in Gaza.”
The spectrum of ideas under consideration in Israel on how to improve conditions in the Gaza Strip begins with support for improved water, sanitation, and electricity networks. It also includes suggestions to enable Palestinian day laborers to work in Israel and a loosening of import–export restrictions to enable a resumption of manufacturing. More ambitious and far–reaching ideas include progress on offshore gas reserves, and the establishment of a seaport and/or airport in Gaza in order to enable Israel and Egypt to reduce their interaction across the land borders on Gaza’s north (Israel) and southern (Egypt) perimeters. This latter option has been a key demand of Hamas.
The prospects for any Israeli initiative, however, are circumscribed by Israel’s continuing failure to confront the shortcomings of the status quo. Cabinet discussion is haphazard and episodic, without a sense of strategic direction, let alone innovation.
“We can give small carrots,” explained an Israeli military officer familiar with the top-level debate. “We can be led and roll down the slope, and we can respond and enter a small or big arrangement. We can keep managing tactical incidents on the border, but in Gaza the intervals between tactical incidents and strategic events are small. We must bring stabilizers into the Strip.”
Gaza, however, is in need of much more than just “stabilizers.” Israel understandably is primarily concerned with addressing its own interests. Who then will stand up for the interests of Palestine?
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.