How should we view and respond to the growing flow of refugees and migrants from, within, and beyond the Middle East? Is this mainly a temporary humanitarian challenge? An occasional security threat? A cultural and political concern for mostly white and Christian Europe? All of these are significant issues that need to be addressed, but perhaps the most important dimension of the growing refugees/migrants situation is what it tells us about the modern condition of the Arab World, and more specifically its critical vulnerabilities in the quality of statehood and the fragility of citizenship.
The current large-scale flow of Arab refugees, migrants, and displaced people fleeing for their lives, and seeking new, more normal, lives elsewhere, is not a new phenomenon, but rather has been going on for much of the past century. The Armenians comprised first wave of modern refugees into the Arab region a century or more ago. Successively since then, the Arab World has seen large-scale refugee flows out of our countries, mostly due to regional and civil wars, from Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Kuwait, Kurdistan, Libya, and Syria.
So Arab refugeehood is a chronic, structural problem, not an occasional, unusual one. The mostly unorganized, often desperate, movement of millions of refugees and migrants from Syria and other lands across the Middle East and further afield today reflects immense human suffering by innocent civilians; but it also threatens to destabilize neighboring countries and challenge European cultural and political traditions. Mainly, though, refugeehood in times of conflict is the frightening mirror of our own modern legacy of erratic, superficial, statehood and citizenship across much of the Arab World.
This is exacerbated by the reality that millions of Arabs have fled in times of peace, to build better lives abroad because they could not live normal lives at home. Millions of young, educated Arab men and women have emigrated abroad since the 1940s and now live prosperous, decent lives across the world. Melbourne, New York, Buenos Aires, and Marseilles offered them and their families something valuable that they could not find in their own Arab countries: respect, rights, and opportunities as a citizen, in a society covered by the equal application of the rule of law to all.
Wars like those in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen and others accelerate the scourge of pan-Arab refugeehood and exile, but this problem of our most able young people fleeing for greener pastures in times of calm should wake us up to the real threat of dysfunctional statehood that does not allow all citizens to live an orderly life defined by predictability, equity, protections, basic services, and opportunity.
Like most other aspects of contemporary issues in the Arab World, accurate and complete data on refugees is not available, due to several reasons: the inability or unwillingness of many governments in the region to track refugee movements, the often chaotic nature of how people flee in times of danger, and many refugees’ desire to transcend the controls of local governments to find a better life further away in Europe or other countries.
The numbers are frightening, as are the causes and consequences of millions of people fleeing for their lives for decades on end. Probably over five million Syrians have left their country since 2011 alone—and at least another six million Syrians have been displaced internally, alongside over 250,000 killed and many more injured. The flows of refugees are also measured in the millions in most other similar Arab episodes.
Long-term refugeehood and disenfranchisement also bring with them dangerous consequences, like political radicalism, some social destabilization, economic stresses on host communities, and occasional security threats. Refugee camps and smaller informal communities across the region have long been venues where radical militants and assorted criminals set anchor, and engaged in terror and other crimes. Prolonged statelessness and refugeehood also trigger new conflicts, such as how Palestine refugees’ status exasperated conditions in Lebanon and Jordan, and also worsened Israeli-Lebanese and Israeli-Iranian relations.
The immediate challenge to meet the humanitarian needs of refugees, their legal status and rights, and host country concerns is only part of the actual challenges that refugees and migrants represent. The last seventy-five years or so in our region suggest that we must one day decide if we will ever address the sustained, structural and worsening weaknesses in statehood, political governance, and citizenship vulnerabilities across most of the Arab world.
Refugees and migrants remind us of the deeper stresses, distortions, and inequities within our own societies that are the actual causes of the wars and desperation that are the immediate makers of today’s refugees and migrants. No wonder nobody seems to know what to do about the refugees from Syria, or how to slow down the continuing flow from there. For nobody seems prepared to acknowledge the deeper structural flaws in statehood and citizenship that have plagued so many countries in the region for so many decades. Normal people do not leave their countries—unless their countries are abnormal.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global