How should we view and respond to the growing flood of refugees and migrants from the Middle East? Is this 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. Rather, it has been going on for much of the past century. The Armenians comprised the first wave of modern refugees into the Arab region a century ago. The Arab world has seen large-scale refugee flows out of our countries from that time, and even before, mostly due to regional and civil wars, from Palestine, Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Kuwait, Kurdistan, Libya and Syria.
So the existence of Arab refugees 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. However, it also threatens to destabilize neighboring countries and challenge European cultural and political traditions. Mainly, though, the expansion in the number of refugees in times of conflict is the frightening mirror of the modern Arab legacy of erratic, superficial statehood and citizenship.
This is exacerbated by the reality that millions of Arabs have fled their countries 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 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 they could not find in their own countries: respect, rights and opportunities as a citizen, in societies covered by the equal application of the rule of law to all.
Wars like those in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere accelerate the scourge of the pan-Arab refugee crises and exile. 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. They include the inability or unwillingness of many governments 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 5 million Syrians have left their country since 2011 alone – and at least another 6 million Syrians have been displaced internally, alongside the over 250,000 people estimated to have been killed and the many more injured. The flows of refugees were also measured in the millions in most similar Arab episodes.
Long-term refugee problems and disenfranchisement also bring with them dangerous consequences, such as political radicalism, 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 have set anchor, and engaged in terrorism and other crimes. Prolonged statelessness and refugee crises also trigger new conflicts, such as how the Palestinian refugees exacerbated conditions in Lebanon and Jordan, affecting Lebanese-Israeli and Iranian-Israeli 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 75 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 the Arab world.
Refugees and migrants remind us of the deeper stresses, distortions and inequities within our own societies that cause the wars and desperation behind today’s refugee and migrant crises. No wonder nobody seems to know what to do about the refugees from Syria, or how to slow down the continuing flow of humans 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 decades. Normal people do not leave their countries unless their countries are abnormal.