Panel examines Middle East refugee crisis

Syria and the Middle East

Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi, Professor T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Einaudi Center postdoctoral fellow Lisel Hintz discussed the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe in a roundtable discussion moderated by law professor Chantal Thomas on March 22, 2016.

The event was jointly organized by the Einaudi Center, the Berger Center for International Legal Studies, and the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa.

Click here to see the video of the event.

In light of the Brussels bombing on March 22, the discussion began with an unequivocal agreement among the panelists that this act of terrorism, like many in the recent past, has no direct link to the Syrian refugees. Hintz reiterated that the only link between the crises and the acts of terrorism is that they were most likely carried out by the reason we have the Syrian refugees in the first place.

The keynote speech was delivered by Ambassador Brahimi, former UN Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General. He defined a refugee as “… a person who feels she/he has no choice but to leave… it comes suddenly – in very rare cases do they have the time to plan… Nor will the destination be known to them… The objective, the necessity in these situations is to leave and to leave fast.”

Brahimi pointed out that even though the intensions of a refugee, at the time of departure may be to come back, they don’t always come to their country of origin. The movement for them is a ‘provisional situation’, where they move out originally with the hope to come back, and leaving is merely a temporary arrangement, which may last for a few days, weeks or months but not more.

These persons may have filed for the status of refugees, but he would rather refer to them as persons in exile. These displaced persons often jobs which may not be ideal but what is most important to them is the peace that the country of migration offers – and the absence of the persistent fear of resurging violence.

Brahimi also explained that migrants are often times widely welcomed by the host community, but their elongated stay increases the already burdened public sector utilities causing discomfort to the receiving population.

For example, he said, mostly affluent and rich Libyans, almost 1 million of them, arrived in Tunisia about five years ago. At the time of their arrival they had large funds and therefore spent lavishly, generating economic activity. Now, however, their funds have dried up and they are relying on public utilities like schools and hospitals, increasing the burden on the already crowded systems. Therefore, this sense of hospitality will not last forever. 

While refugees may be an asset to economic growth in the host country, people are, and understandably so, unhappy about their presence causing a loss of jobs and burden on public resources, especially in light of the inadequate international aid to host countries.

In these crises hence, the country of origin loses its people, economic activities and even loses out in terms of its culture and tradition. The second place to be affected by this movement is the place of destination, the choice of which depends on friends and families that these refugees may have in other countries, the presence of International Organizations, NGOs, INGOs and other volunteers in places of reception. Even though people may be kind, nature isn’t always so. Water shortage for example seems to persist and be an issue between refugees and locals at a Jordanian refugee camp.

Negative effects, in every country, where there has been such conflicts, has been immediate and lasting. Like Libya – Gaddafi provided very bad governance and Libya should have been much more affluent than it was under Gaddafi. But even 5 years after what looked like a new dawn, Libyans are impoverished, much of the country has been destroyed and the future looks bleak. So people who think and speak of these conflicts, those that think of intervening should take a step back and look at Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. He concluded by saying that, it is high time that Syrians are helped effectively to solve their problems which only multiplied because of the neglect first of all by the government of Syria and secondly by all of us, the International community.

Aleinikoff, former UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva and Visiting Professor of Law at Columbia University disagreed with the popular view that the current refugee crisis is a crisis of numbers. He argued that the numbers are not too large for our world to handle and have been dealt with historically. While numbers help get the attention and raise funds, the present crisis is much more related to the following issues: (a) conflict prevention and solution; (b) policy failures; (c) institutional structure; and (d) lack of political courage.

Aleinikoff elaborated on several policy failures. The first is the failure among EU nations to reach a reasonable responsibility sharing plan. He said “The deal with Turkey is not really a solution to the policy problem faced by Europe.” The second policy failure relates to the large number of forced migrants that do not come within the definition of refugees. The final policy failure is towards the people who spend elongated periods, even their entire lives, in refugee camps without the guarantee of the basic rights conferred under the refugee convention, referring to this as ‘the second exile’. He propagated that instead of a system of care forever for the refugees, they need to be aided, assisted, and allowed to become contributing members of the host societies.

The next broad crises is related to institutional structures. Traditionally, it is left to the humanitarian institutions to work on revival and rehabilitation during and after the crises. But, what is needed are new actors like development agencies and the private sector to provide the necessary resources and focus on aspects of economic development.

The final issue relates to the lack of political courage. The narrative, at least in the U.S., whereby people fear refugees, needs to be changed. This requires courage on part of the both, the people and the leaders. One of the saddest thing about the current crises is that the U.S. has not played its usual role in solving refugee crises like it has in the past. He concluded by saying: “Several hundred thousand needy people are forced from their homes and come with nothing, these are countries and regions and continents who can take care of these people if we have the institutional structure, the policies and the courage to do so.”

Lisel Hintz began her talk with endorsing the idea of long-term solutions to the refugee crises. Citing challenges to immigrant integration more generally, as demonstrated by the terrorist bombings that took place in Brussels on the day of the event, she highlighted several questions that need to be addressed include how to integrate refugees, how to provide them with opportunities, and how to encourage host populations to welcome them and give them support. The remainder of her talk concentrated on giving an empirical window on Turkey and its role in the current crisis.  

Turkey is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees, somewhere between 2.7 and 3 million. She had a different opinion about keeping numbers in perspective than Professor Aleinikoff. She said that while the numbers are such that integration is possible, we still need to draw attention to them. She pointed out that Turkey was initially very welcoming of the refugees, if not necessarily for altruistic reasons. The Turkish government was very confident of being able to deal with the issue on its own and even declined international help – but this soon became clearly unmanageable, a change brought about with the growth in the numbers of refugees. Turkey already has demographic issues and ‘identity cleavages’ that it is dealing with. Therefore, introducing a large new population not only threatens to affect the fabric of its society but also creates the perception of jobs being taken away. This perception creates a real concern within Turkey’s population.

Dr. Hintz also said that Turkey largely miscalculated the present situation. The Turkish Justice and Development Party (AKP) government wanted to be seen as the Muslim brother in the region – thinking that there would be a regime change in Syria and Turkey having been welcoming of these mostly Arab, Sunni Muslim refugees, would be very well placed to be an ally of the new government. However, the same government, while accepting refugees in the hope of trying to unseat Assad, sent aid including economic and military aid to ISIS and Al Nusra. Therefore, while Turkey can be praised for welcoming refugees, its government also needs to take responsibility for being complicit in causing the problem.

She then moved on to discuss the Turkey-EU deal, calling it ‘Opportunistic Transactionalism’, stating that it lacked a sufficiently humanitarian perspective. While the Turkish side wants the 3.3 billion USD that the European Union has promised, an important question is how much of the money will actually go to the refugees. This is especially the case especially since, as Turkish opposition MP Şafak Pavey stated at an earlier talk at Cornell, previous funds have only gone to provinces with an AKP mayor. Further, even if the language does not stipulate it directly, the rounding up of refugees on ships to facilitate the one-to-one exchange that is part of the EU deal constitutes a mass deportation of refugees, which international law prohibits. Given the recent terrorist bombings in Turkey, combined with the government’s military campaign against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, the question of Turkey as a safe third country for the return of refugees as mandated by international law is also in doubt. Another very important question that arises with respect to this exchange is who gets picked for exchange to EU territory, and what are the criteria on which they are get picked. In conclusion, Dr. Hintz emphasized that this program of exchange is essentially transactionalism, and thus needs to be re-thought.