Roundtable On Refugee Crisis: Historical Legacies, Political Context, and Legal Mechanisms

Took part in a Jadaliyya round table on refugees click here for original link.


Seemingly overnight Europe is confronted with a phenomenon already being experienced in Amman, Damascus, Beirut, Gaziantep and other cities in the Middle East: large numbers of desperate refugees fleeing war, destruction and economic destitution.

The policy response of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to this influx has come under deserved scrutiny. Still, whatever their faults these countries have hosted millions of refugees despite, in the cases of Lebanon and Jordan, strained resources and weak infrastructure. Fifty-five percent of the world’s refugee population today resides in the Middle East, making it home to the largest concentration of refugee populations globally. These include Palestinians, Sahrawis, Syrians and Iraqis, as well as Yemeni, Sudanese, and Somali refugees.

The response in much of Europe has been radically different than that in the Middle East. Several European states have shut their borders, forcing refugees to re-route elsewhere, and in some cases even halted domestic public transport networks to prevent refugees from traversing their territory. Together with the dramatic and horrifying images emanating from the shores of the Mediterranean, these policies have put the policies of governments and international organizations alike under increased scrutiny, and led to greater public pressure to provide a meaningful response.

To obtain further clarity on these issues, Jadaliyya asked four specialists on refugee issues to put recent developments in context and offer their views on how this crisis should be addressed. 

Lebanon winter 2014, Beqa'a Syrian refugees camp
Lebanon winter 2014, Beqa’a Syrian refugees camp


Susan M. Akram is a Clinical Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law. Her academic interests include immigration law, refugee law, and domestic and international refugee advocacy. She worked as an immigration lawyer before joining Boston University’s faculty in 1993, serving as the founding executive director of Boston’s Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project and the immigration project at Public Counsel, a public interest law firm in Los Angeles. She has taught as a Fulbright Scholar at Al-Quds University’s School of Law, and as a visiting professor at the American University of Cairo’s Forced Migration program. She has guest-lectured at Birzeit University’s law center, at the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre, and at the Graduate Institute at the University of Geneva. Her publications includeInternational Law and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Rights-Based Approach to Middle East Peace, (S. Akram, M. Lynk, I. Scobbie, & M. Dumper, eds. Routledge Press, 2010).

Yazan al-Saadi is a native of the West Asian (Middle East) region. Based primarily in Kuwait, Yazan has lived, studied and worked in three continents. He is a freelance writer and researcher with interests in a number of subjects from pop-culture to politics, sociological issues to economic theories. He is currently an editor and writer for the online blog Kabobfest and a correspondent for the Lebanese newspaper, Al Akhbar English. Yazan holds a Bachelor’s (Honors) degree in Economics and Development Studies from Queen’s University, Canada and a Masters of Arts in Law, Development, and Globalization from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.

Angela Joya is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of International Studies at Oregon University. Dr. Joya’s research focuses on the impact of economic globalization on the Middle East and North Africa with a particular focus on Egypt and Syria. Her articles have appeared in academic journals such as: Review of African Political Economy, Research in Political Economy, and Middle Eastern Studies. She has contributed book chapters to Confronting Global Neoliberalism: Third World Resistance and Development Strategies (edited by Richard Westra, Clarity Press, 2011) and Empire’s Ally: Canada and the War in Afghanistan (edited by Jerome Klassen and Greg Albo, University of Toronto Press, 2013).  She is currently preparing a manuscript tentatively titled The Political Economy of Egypt under Mubarak: Accumulation by Dispossession, Land Relations and Class Reconfigurations. In other research, Dr. Joya is examining the role of Islamist opposition parties and their struggle for power in Egypt and Syria. She has conducted fieldwork in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey.

Jadaliyya (J): Has there been a real surge in refugee outflow to Europe or is the media only now paying attention to an ongoing issue?

Susan Akram (SA): The flow of forced migrants has been ongoing into Greece and Italy for several years, but there has recently been a spike both in numbers and in the westward flow of forced migrants and refugees. Almost 500,000 people have crossed from the Mediterranean into Europe so far this year, and have defied efforts by peripheral European Union (EU) states, primarily Greece and Italy, to detain and prevent them from going farther into Europe.

Angela Joya (AJ): The world witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of refugees and displaced people since the nineties, however there has been a recent increase in the number of refugees linked to an escalation of the conflicts in Iraq and in Syria.

The Syrian conflict has added four million refugees to the 2014 global total of 11.6 million, bringing the number of refugees to over fifteen million . As a result, the number of asylum cases to Europe in 2014 increased bytwenty-five percent compared to 2013. At the same time, over the past year and a half, there has been a sharp rise in the number of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean during attempts to reach Europe. The recent shocking images of lifeless bodies of children on the shores of Turkey and Greece have forced the media to pay serious attention to the refugee crisis, and generated pressure on governments and policy makers to produce a response to the crisis.

Moe Ali Nayel (MAN): The recent focus on refugees fleeing to Europe is the result of a combination of factors. First, the media only truly woke up to this phenomenon during the summer tourist season in Greece, with some British media outlets conveying condescending inconveniences voiced by British tourists.

Then the crisis became a ratings race so that even Lebanese media, whose coverage has generally overlooked the plight of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, sent correspondents to Hungary to cover the flow of refugees to the European Union (EU). One Lebanese correspondent sent to cover the chaos had just made a bigoted comment the day before saying, “I want to see Lebanese people in Lebanon.” So while part of the current media focus has to do with television ratings and viewer traffic, it is also a historical event of massive human migration that cannot be ignored.

Yazan Al-Saadi (YAS): The recent upsurge in refugees to Europe is both real and a matter of the media finally spotlighting the story. Let me explain.

There is a very real increase in refugee populations heading to Europe. The available data shows that by mid-2015 the number of refugees heading to Europe, estimated at 350,000, had already surpassed the estimated total of 280,000 for all of 2014. So while the increase is real, the numbers also indicate this has been an ongoing phenomenon. The recent iconic picture of the drowned toddler captured media attention, and we’ve seen an abundance of stories about refugees/migrants going to Europe. But the problem is that this is being presented mainly as a new or unprecedented crisis. This does not match historical and recent records. There have been refugees and migrants going to Europe for a variety of reasons for many years. At least for now the Syrian crisis brought this marginalized story into the foreground.

J: Are Syrian refugees fleeing directly from Syria or from neighboring countries where they previously sought shelter? Is it primarily Syrians that are migrating or are there significant numbers of refugees from other countries?

SA: There are several factors that explain the two phenomena (greater numbers and westward flow from the EU perimeter states): the first is that the capacity of frontline host states to provide assistance to refugees from Syria has been exceeded. The second is that Italy and Greece can no longer accommodate the Dublin regulations, which require processing claims for asylum in the territory of the first EU member state entered by a refugee.

On the first point, it is important to remember that Turkey has registered 1.9 million refugees from Syria; Lebanon, 1.13 million; and Jordan 700,000–these figures reflect registered refugees, while the actual number in each of those countries is estimated to be much higher. The absorption capacity of each of these countries to provide assistance and protection to refugees has been far exceeded–even in Turkey, which is the largest and most economically stable of these host states. Jordan is among the most water-stressed countries in the world, and does not have the basic infrastructure to house more refugees. In Lebanon at this point, almost one in four residents is a refugee. The Syrian refugees are moving from these host states– where their needs can no longer be met, they are unable to work to support themselves, and their children and youth face a bleak future–to the states that offer the best prospect for safety and a stable life. Unfortunately, that means taking perilous journeys to move beyond a region that is unable or unwilling to provide what they need in the medium to long-term, and heading to a few states in Europe that are promising a future, primarily Germany and the Nordic states.

On the second point, the framework created by the 1985 and 1990 Schengen agreements, and the Dublin Conventions, particularly Dublin II (2003), have created a situation where the EU state in which refugees first arrive is obliged to process their asylum claims on its territory. In the Schengen states, the asylum process is placed on one member state based on certain factors. This framework has created what is often called “Fortress Europe,” in which the peripheral states bear the bulk of the refugee burden, preventing refugees from moving elsewhere even for reasons such as family reunification. The Dublin/Schengen obligations have created enormous tensions between the peripheral and central EU states because the peripheral states cannot absorb the numbers that are entering EU territory by themselves. This explains the responses of countries like Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovenia, which are trying to stop the flow from Serbia (which is not an EU member) and Croatia (an EU member that is not part of the Schengen agreement), in order to avoid the obligations to process asylum claims in their states.

Finally, the forced migrants are not just from Syria, but also other states with unresolved conflicts that are continuing to create refugees: Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the top refugee-producing countries after Syria. These non-Syrians have been hosted in the Middle East region, as well, but have also been unable to secure adequate assistance and protection, and are leaving the region for much the same reasons as Syrians.

AJ: According to the Economist, there were at least sixty million persons displaced due to conflict in 2014. In the period between 2013 and 2014, the number of refugees globally grew from 11.6 million to 14.4 million (a figure excluding 5.1 million Palestinian refugees). Forcible displacement of populations and refugee crises are the outcome of civil wars in Africa and Central America, and direct or indirect military interventions in the Middle East, namely in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Refugee crises in the Middle East spiked as a result of the military interventions carried out as part of the so-called global war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of 2013, three million Iraqi refugees have left the country due the escalation of violence and lack of security. The number of Syrian refugees has now surpassed that of Afghanistan’s 2.59 million, reaching four million. In addition to refugees who have left Syria, there are an additional eleven million who are internally displaced.  Of the four million Syrian refugees, the majority are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.   To reflect the scope of the global refugee crisis, many now describe it as an unprecedented “mass exodus” of people across the globe.

Most refugees look to Europe as their final destination with prospects for work, a better education, a health care system and, above all, safety. However, due to the very large numbers, many cannot apply for asylum at the embassies of EU member states in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, forcing those who want to move to Europe to take their chances by various sea or land routes: the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey and Libya to Greece or Italy, and into eastern Europe on foot. Refugees trying to reach Europe are faced with physical hardships, crossing countries on foot, dealing with human smugglers, facing unfriendly borders and hostile border guards, and a real chance of being deported. With social media, images and videos of refugees’ struggles to get to Europe have become a daily reality that cannot be simply ignored. Concerned with refugees plight, many citizen-led campaigns (i.e. #WelcomeRefugees) in support of refugees have been launched globally, welcoming refugees, in spite of their governments’ efforts to block refugees’ entry. The public campaigns seem to have pressured governments and forced policy makers to address the crisis.

MAN: The most recent refugee flight to Europe started in 2012. Before that, it flowed  gradually and then suddenly spiked. The largest number of those seeking refuge are Syrians but there are many other nationalities as well. I think we have a continuous rise of push factors and a sharp rise of pull factors. One pull factor is the realization that the chances of staying in countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden are actually rather good. Less than perfect communication from European, including German,  immigration agencies has contributed to this perception. Thus people have gradually found out which countries are good to go to; someone knows a friend who made it to Sweden or Germany and got a free house and stipend and people start thinking of going there because it’s natural for people to seek better life conditions.

Other reasons also played into the growth of the critical mass movement to the EU. New routes were discovered; people share travel tips and advice; smugglers set up Facebook pages advertising their services; refugees who successfully obtain asylum display the stable living conditions they have achieved on social media. Others of course follow in their footsteps and the flow increases exponentially.

The wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe was exacerbated by the strict measures Lebanon introduced to stem the entry of more Syrian refugees into its territory. The kafala (sponsorship) system introduced at the beginning of 2015, for example, made residency and mobility for Syrian refugees in Lebanon extremely difficult. Syrian refugees in Lebanon who have been depending on paltry assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are experiencing extremely harsh living conditions. As their residencies expire they need a Lebanese sponsor to avoid getting arrested or deported. They have to tiptoe around curfews and endure being overworked and underpaid in order to survive from one day to the next. In addition, most of the poorest Syrian refugees took shelter among the most wretched and marginalized communities in Lebanon.

Inside Palestinian refugee camps with their already cramped living conditions, the influx of refugees from Syria exacerbated conditions for Syrian refugees, Palestinians from Syria, and Palestinians from Lebanese camps. Because of this, Palestinians from Lebanon have been increasingly taking the so-called “death boats” to Europe in the hope of finding a decent life. For Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon these days the quest for the bare minimum, which has gradually vanished or became unattainable in Lebanon, is all they contemplate.

This past summer, the situation in Syria made the situation hopeless for Syrians who had believed the war would be over soon. The economy continues to fail, and as a result a substantial number of people from government-controlled areas are fleeing Syria. Of course it goes without saying that the mass exodus of refugees walking to Europe on foot is not exclusively composed of Syrians but also includes Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans and many countries across Africa.

YAS: There are multiple reasons for this “upsurge.” First, Syrians within Syria are fleeing the increase of violence. In many areas, the last couple of months have experienced the worst types of violence and destruction since the uprising began in 2011. Repression remains a fact of life for Syrians throughout Syria, and that forms an additional major motivating factor to leave. Moreover, Syrians are seeking better work and life opportunities since the country is going through massive economic instability due to sanctions, the war itself, and the continual forms of restrictions and corruption in both regime and opposition-held territories. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria make up the largest chunk of the Syrian refugee population, and I think they are starting to believe that they cannot continue as IDPs in this environment and are leaving in droves; first to neighboring countrie and, then elsewhere. After nearly five years, Syrians –those who are economically destitute as well as the  better off – are reaching the conclusion that the war in their country will not end anytime soon. They previously had hope that they would go back, but as the war has dragged on they are coming to terms that their circumstances in host states is not sustainable.

Secondly, Syrians outside of Syria, and especially those in neighboring states, are deciding to leave because they have been residing in exceedingly hostile spaces. I think it is in this context important to point out that such hostility is mainly promoted by host country governments and elites. There are increasing restrictions on refugee mobility and access to the labor market, along with growing difficulties in receiving aid.

Thirdly, and in my opinion most importantly, Syrians have no one to turn to for protection and representation of their interests and needs. No one is communicating with, coordinating with, or organizing the Syrian refugees, neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition. Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition have challenged or condemned the abuses facing Syrians in host countries. Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition have provided any type of support infrastructure. This lack of true representation for Syrian communities has left them to fend for themselves. Even worse, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition have only added to the problems, such as Syrian regime media recent fear-mongering about terrorists going to Europe, and the blatant silence of the Syrian opposition regarding Arab Gulf countries’ restrictions on asylum for Syrian refugees.

To date, Syrians form the largest proportion of those heading to Europe. Last year they constituted over seventy percent and this year they comprise over fifty percent of the migrating population. They are followed by Eritreans, whose dismal plight is completely ignored by the media and “international community.” This serves as a reminder that it is not simply about Syrian refugees; even though they are significant in terms of numbers this sea of humanity includes Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghanis, Sudanese, Somalis, Libyans and others. I expect that Yemenis will contribute a significant number of migrants to Europe over the next few years as well, considering the horrific levels of violence unleashed against Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition over the course of the past six months.

J: How do you assess the policy response of the European Union, United States, and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the refugee crisis?

SA: EU leaders have proposed accepting no more than 160,000 refugees between them as part of “mandatory quotas”, which if accepted would be a very small step in the right direction. Taking into account the huge numbers that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have been hosting since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011 this number, to be allocated amongst the far larger and wealthier EU states, represents a tiny percentage of the Syrian refugee flow of about four million. The EU states are overwhelmingly parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention and a series of refugee, subsidiary and temporary protection directives that require responsibility sharing amongst them for refugees and persons in “refugee-like” situations which prohibit their deportation to their home countries. It is unclear to me why the EU bodies have not triggered, for example, the EU 2001 Temporary Protection (TP) Directive, which would require all member states to accept persons meeting the criteria for at least one year under the TP framework, and provide them the right to work and assistance pending resolution of the conflict.

AJ: Responses to the global refugee crisis and the recent surge in Middle Eastern refugees has been at best half -hearted. While Middle Eastern countries (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon) have accepted most recent refugees, Europe, North America and Australia have avoided opening their borders or considering accepting large numbers of refugees.

Within Europe responses are varied. Southern European countries Italy and especially Greece, being the point of entry to the EU, have had to deal with thousands of refugees on a daily basis despite their own harsh financial circumstances.

Northern European countries have reacted positively to the refugee crisis by opening their borders and welcoming refugees. For instance, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced the acceptance of up to 800,000 refugees. However, in addition to slashing benefits and adopting tough measures to facilitate deportations, as of 12 September 2015 Germany closed its borders. Sweden started taking in Syrian refugees in 2013. In 2014 it accepted 100,000, and continues to remain a welcoming place for refugees. It is a different story in the case of Central European countries such as Hungary and Romania. The journey through these countries to get to Germany or Sweden remains perilous.  Central European countries are acting as gatekeepers for Europe’s Schengen area (within which EU citizens can move freely without passport checks). The treatment of refugees in run-down World War II era camps and cages in these countries is raising serious concern about the human rights of refugees and the responsibility of EU member states, the United Nations (UN) and North American governments to protect refugees. What is even more alarming is the xenophobia and anti-Muslim discourse of officials who openly state they will not accept Muslims or allow them to pass through their territory. Hungary sees its role as the protector of a Christian Europe.

With Sweden, Germany and Greece remaining the exceptions, most other countries in the EU and North America view refugees, especially those from Arab and/or Muslim countries, through the lens of the war on terror and thus treat them as unworthy victims. The Anglophone countries (the United Kingdom, US, Canada, Australia) have a bad track record when it comes to refugees’ treatment and acceptance rate. The UK government for instance initially refused entry to refugees despite public pressure. The government has publicly defended this policy by shifting attention to their aid policy for refugees in camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Under pressure from the EU and the United Nations, the UK has agreed to absorb 20,000 refugeesover the next five-year period. A reflection of its anti-refugee policy, the UK’s most recent response has been to deploy a Royal Navy frigate to “board, seize and divert” refugee boats in the Mediterranean. This will make refugees’ life more difficult, forcing them to pursue land routes.

The hysteria of European leaders against refugees is completely misplaced given the low numbers that have applied for asylum in EU member states.  Only 0.25 percent of Syrian refugees, or 250,000, have applied for asylum in the EU. Denmark has engaged in an aggressive anti-refugee propaganda campaign and policy reforms to discourage refugees from arriving. France too has embraced a policy of limiting refugee access to services and amenities in France.

Shifting the focus back to the Anglophone countries of Australia, US and Canada, their collective response towards refugees has been dismal and pathetic. The US, which has been directly involved in military interventions that have produced the uprooting of populations in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, has not been welcoming to refugees from these countries.  Given the size of its economy, the US could easily absorb a significant number of refugees. Faith-based groups have started campaigning to bring 100,000 refugees to the US. Global pressure and coverage of the plight of refugees has forced even the US to reconsider their refugee policy. However, the most recent decision of Barack Obama, to admit 10,000 Syrians over the next year, falls short. Since the beginning of the Syria conflict in 2011, the United States has  accepted only 1,700 Syrians.

The Canadian government’s response was brought to the fore with the death of Aylan Kurdi, whose family had expressed a desire to resettle in Canada. The Canadian government changed its laws, which made it very difficult for refugees and asylum seekers to be accepted in the country, ranking Canada fifteenth in terms of treatment of asylum seekers. The Canadian government had agreed to admit 11,300 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, but public pressure after the death of Aylan forced the government to increase that number by another 10,000.

Australia’s response to the global refugee crisis has been to erect camps on its own territory as well as in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. Refugees whose asylum cases are rejected are then deported from these camps. Refugees from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iran, Sri Lanka and Iraq arrive by sea, many losing their lives and falling into heavy debts. Australia refers to refugees as “illegal maritime arrivals,” a phrase that not only criminalizes them but also takes away from the urgency of their circumstances and their need for asylum. Concerns have also been raised by critics about Australia’s treatment of refugees in detention camps.

In the Middle East, GCC states, especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have been heavily involved in the Syrian conflict through their support for the Syrian opposition, have decided to keep their borders closed to refugees even though financially these countries can easily accommodate large numbers of Syrians and Iraqis. Instead, Saudi Arabia has stated that it will do its part by providing humanitarian for other Arab host countries.

Until recently, most media have represented refugees as poor, helpless individuals and families who want to settle in Europe and live on welfare, fanning xenophobia, racism and intolerance against refugees. The truth, as many of the refugees themselves have indicated, is that what draws them to Europe is the opportunity for work, a better education system and a future for their children. Restricting the free movement of people, whether they are fleeing war or economic hardship, will not make the problem go away. Desperate people will continue to risk their lives to get to Europe and secure a better life.

MAN: The EU and US responses have reflected their general approach to Syria since 2011: confused and contradictory. Germany has welcomed large numbers of refugees and pledged to accept more, only to recently shut its borders to manage the flow. Sweden by contrast was and continues to be considered a welcoming destination. Each European country has different policies. They don’t know what to do and the crisis is overwhelming them.  It bears recalling that the EU was considering preventing refugees from crossing the Mediterranean by bombing smuggling boats docked on the Libyan coast. Since 2012, Italy has stopped registering refugees and allowed them to continue to other EU states.

Given the way the refuges crisis is developing, we shouldn’t expect a common EU response to materialize anytime soon. Every country has different needs and absorptive capacities, and differing socio-political trends that may be more or less welcoming to refugees. Greece is financially bankrupt and Greeks might even soon join the stream of people flowing from Asia and Africa towards northern Europe.

As for the GCC countries they also bear responsibility in creating this massive refugee crisis; the millions of petrodollars they poured into the Syrian conflict displaced millions of Syrians. GCC funding of the war in Syria is disproportional in comparison with their contribution to aid and relief programs. Their reluctance to take in refugees reflects the fact that GCC countries have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and, thus, place severe restrictions on any foreign resident, refugee or otherwise.

YAS: In assessing the policy (non-)responses of the European Union, United States, and GCC, the first thing that strikes me is the incredible similarity of the anti-refugee discourse in all of these regions.  They all speak of the various “threats” the refugee/migrant population pose to their societies, from security to economic to cultural.

The misery and destruction that fuels “refugeeness” cannot be disconnected from the political, economic, and military policies pursued by the EU, US, and GCC. This does not mean the Syrian regime and its allies do not share responsibility. They do, big time. But let us concentrate on the EU, US ,and GCC. What should be clear by now is that their policies towards Syria have prolonged the war in that country, while they have sought to ensure the fallout (in whatever form) does not reach their neighborhood. This is why, for example, they are obsessed with emphasizing the “large” amounts of aid they have been supplying to Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey.

This question actually touches on what should be very important issues for the twenty-first century: identity; the sustainability of borders and freedom of mobility for people; the need to scrutinize foreign policies consumed by militarization and the war on terror; and the destructive nature of the international capitalist system among other pressing questions. These questions have either been avoided on account of vested political/economic interests, or have been shelved due to incompetence or lack of political will.

What should also be noted is that the policies of the EU, US, and GCC are not really that new. They have always been hostile towards hosting refugee populations, thereby placing most of the burden on the “Global South”.

J: What should the international agencies such as Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) and others be doing differently to address this crisis moving forward?

SA: Our report, Protecting Syrian Refugees: Laws, Policies and Global Responsibility-Sharing, discusses in great detail the obligations of states signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and other refugee and stateless instruments, towards refugees from Syria and elsewhere the region. The Report examines the laws and policies in place in the host states, in the EU, in Canada and North America, that require a range of admissions–temporary and long-term–to be provided for protection of the Syrian refugees. The report calls for initiating a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA), that would incorporate temporary protection, EU-based subsidiary protection and other forms of humanitarian admission and sponsored admissions, as well as an expansion of refugee resettlement directly from the region. The CPA framework is familiar to governments and migration experts, as it has been used in many similar refugee crises from the 1970s onwards. It helped resolve, for example, the Indochinese refugee flow during the 1970s and 1980s; the Central American conflict-induced refugee crises of the 1980s, and the Balkan refugee flow of the 1990s. The UNHCR Commissioner-General Antonio Guiterres and the UN’s Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, Francois Crepeau, have been among the prominent UN voices also calling for instituting a CPA. In fact, given the scope of this crisis–the Syrian refugees present the largest single refugee population since WWII–a CPA, with various forms of admissions possibilities and global responsibility-sharing is the only way forward.

AJ: A three-pronged response is required to deal with this crisis. Within the EU, an agreement needs to be reached for the safe transportation and relocation of refugees in member states. The period after the discontinuation of the Mare Nostrum Search and Rescue Services in October of 2014, which was replaced by Operation Triton, a program set up to act as border security for Europe and funded through voluntary contributions by European countries, witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean. Reinstating Mare Nostrum or setting up a similar search and rescue effort funded by the EU would be a corrective and necessary first step to avoid more refugee deaths. To facilitate the resettlement of refugees in Europe, there is a need to change the existing laws related to refugees’ movement within Europe.

The recent call by the European Commission’s Jean-Claude Junker for a refugee quota among EU member countries is welcome and should be seriously considered. Given the uneven distribution of responsibility for refugees among EU members, there is a pressing need to discuss resource sharing and to support Greece to help with the refugees, their transportation and resettlement.

Second, the refugee crisis cannot be resolved by more bombing. Any bombing campaign is bound to cause more death, destruction and displacement. Instead, a peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict through dialogue and diplomacy and through involvement of all parties to the conflict should be pursued. There are some signs of movement in the direction of diplomatic negotiations between US, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the absence of a political solution the worst of the Syrian refugee crisis is yet to come.

Third, the current refugee crisis and the opening of space to debate policy on this issue should be viewed as an opportunity to construct a new policy that deals effectively with this crisis. A global policy is needed to address rising levels of global inequality and poverty rooted in decades of neoliberalism, and of military interventions, and their relationship to the increasing number of global refugees. This shift in policy could start in the short term by facilitating the safe transit of refugees, setting up offices with the capacity to process asylum claims within the Middle Eastern or other countries that are refugees’ first point of arrival, and pressuring governments European and North American governments to accept more refugees. To tackle the rising xenophobia and intolerance against refugees in Europe and to create a more welcoming attitude in North America, public awareness campaigns about the causes of displacement and the responsibilities of wealthier countries need to be promoted by the media.

A parallel effort should include an increase in the flow of humanitarian aid inside Syria to meet the urgent needs of those who are too poor to pay human traffickers to escape the country. This effort could also be supported by an increase in funds for groups such as Doctors without Borders who offer health services under very dangerous conditions.

MAN: It’s crucial that humanitarian agencies start drafting programs for long-term solutions and stop functioning as managers of bodies and calories. A transition toward a new model of organizing refugee support is desperately needed: a five-year plan should be drafted on how to transform refugees into productive participants in deciding their own fate and that of their countries. The UNHCR has a maximum eight-month planning horizon, in some cases less. But this needs time, perseverance, commitment and resources that are currently available but poorly managed and unfairly distributed. Refugees should become the champions of their own cause. They know what they want, but self-agency, it seems, doesn’t fit the “humanitarian” framework and political agendas governing the UNHCR and other NGOs.

YAS: There is a clear crisis within the international aid/relief system and how international agencies like UNHCR, UNRWA and others have been operating. We shouldn’t have been surprised about this crisis when taking into account the historical Palestinian experience with UNRWA.

Among the many problems of this system and these agencies is how they perceive and treat refugees. They inherently see them as one-dimensional victims. Yes, they are victims and are vulnerable. But they are not one-dimensional. These people have expertise, sentiments, ideas, needs, and desires that are being completely ignored. They are simply provided the barest and most basic forms of aid, and while this is undoubtedly important, they require much more.

This means that there needs to be a real reconfiguration of our understanding of who refugees are and what displacement means. We need much more sophisticated solutions that rely on input from the refugees themselves and that can be driven by refugees. This also means that the de-politicization of refugees and other vulnerable communities must be stopped, and they should be allowed to play an active role in solving their own problems. In the case of Syria, why not set up an organization for refugees by refugees that has a seat in the negotiations in Geneva or wherever, especially considering that neither the Syrian regime nor Syrian opposition are actually representing them?

Overall, there needs to be a transformation of the ideological underpinnings and practice of the international aid/relief system, and this region – the West Asian and North African territory – should be playing a major role in challenging and defining the contours of alternatives. I write this because our region has become the biggest source for refugees and migrants in the world, and has become heavily affected by the international aid/relief system (on top of the usual foreign military interventions, support for local repressive authorities, etc.). So how can we not play an important role in defining this system?


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