Volume 21 Issue 10 October 2017


The ongoing crises in the Middle East, mainly the Syrian civil war, the volatile security situation in Iraq and the swiftly spreading tentacles of the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have displaced millions of people who left their countries for safer areas to take refuge. Their most popular destination has remained Western Europe.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) around 65.6 million people have been displaced worldwide. Among these, 22.5 million are refugees. Nearly half of the refugees worldwide are from three countries - Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Among these three countries, Syrian refugees constitute the largest number i.e. 5.5 million.

The rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria not only brought gory violence and atrocities along but also displaced large populations. ISIS, which was created in April 2013 by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, clashed with Syrian government forces and started capturing territories in Syria in 2013. By January 2014 the northeastern province of Raqqa was under the control of ISIS and the militant group made Raqqa its de facto capital. The territory was used by ISIS as a hub to assemble its militants and send them to other battlegrounds across the country to fight Syrian government forces. In July 2014, ISIS made a surprise and lightening advance to neighbouring Iraq. The militant group swiftly seized the northern towns of Iraq including Mosul and Tikrit. The Iraqi army failed to defend the territory and soon fled the areas, deserting the checkposts and leaving behind a huge stockpile of American-supplied weapons.

Having strengthened its control over the vast territory from Raqqa province in northeastern Syria to Iraq’s western province of Anbar and the towns in north, ISIS declared the formation of a caliphate. The conflict and violence witnessed a mass exodus of population from the troubled areas. Many of them were trapped in fighting or surrounded and killed brutally by the militants. In Syria, the fighting engulfed many areas which started slipping in the hands of different militant groups such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, etc. The militant groups imposed harsh Islamic laws in their controlled areas. Consequently, thousands left their homes and moved to safer areas.

Amid the fighting and mass movement of population for protection of their lives, most of the Middle Eastern countries did not open their borders for refugees. Turkey, bordering Syria and Iraq, but geographically not in the Middle East, became host to most of the refugees. According to the UNHCR, 2.9 million refugees are currently in Turkey. In the Middle East only Lebanon, Iran and Jordan are hosting the refugees.

In August 2015, the refugee crisis in the Middle East became a global issue when thousands of refugees tried to enter Europe to seek asylum. The wave of refugees escaping from their war-struck countries brought unforeseen challenges to Europe. Over one million people – refugees, displaced persons and other migrants – made their way to the EU in 2015. The EU states are signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees which recognizes asylum as a fundamental right and an international obligation. However, the absence of a coherent and uniform EU policy to deal with the arrival of several thousand refugees poses a formidable challenge to European leaders. Moreover, the sudden influx of refugees in Europe exposed the flaws and bottlenecks of the existing immigration laws and their implementation.

Some EU countries – such as Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania – seem to have adopted a somewhat harsh and dismissive strategy to handle the refugee crisis, and opposed the proposed refugee quota system for the EU member states. When thousands of refugees reached the borders of the EU, in August 2015 Germany decided to suspend the Dublin Procedure that prescribed that the asylum seekers had to be sent back to the first EU state that they entered in order to check whether the applicants arrived legally or illegally. As Europe was undoubtedly stuck in the biggest refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the slogan “Wir schaffen das” (we can do this)


and launched an open-door policy to accommodate the refugees, calling it a “national duty” to protect them. In September 2015, thousands of refugees stuck in Hungary started arriving in Austria and Germany.

Germany’s deputy chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, while defending his country’s open-door policy towards refugees, blamed Washington’s policies and the US-led war in the Middle East for the refugee crisis. Gabriel’s reaction came as a result of US President Donald Trump’s criticism of Merkel - the US president accused the German Chancellor of making a “catastrophic mistake, very bad mistake” by allowing refugees into Germany without knowing their background.

Due to the influx of refugees, Europe is not only facing a number of political and economic challenges, but also has to face logistical hardships, such as accommodation and registration of refugees, providing them food, shelter, housing, medical support, etc. The refugee crisis in Europe has also raised terror threats. In popular media the refugees are portrayed as a security challenge for Europe, mainly after the Paris attacks of November 2015 when it was revealed that the Paris football stadium attacker used a ‘stolen’ or ‘fake’ Syrian passport to enter Europe through Greece. The situation further worsened in 2016, when scores of people in Europe were killed in multiple attacks: the bomb explosions at Brussels airport, the lorry attack in Nice during Bastille Day celebrations and the string the of attacks in German cities including shootings in Munich and the attacks in Berlin’s Christmas markets.

Sadly, the sudden increase in the number and scale of violent attacks particularly in Germany, France and Belgium has also worked as a catalyst in strengthening the far-right groups and right-wing parties of Europe. In the wake of Nice attacks, the French right-wing and anti-immigration party, the National Front’s leader Marine Le Pen blamed ‘Islamist Fundamentalists’ for the attack. Similarly after Berlin’s Christmas markets attacks, in January 2016, Alternative for Germany (AfD), an extreme right-wing party in Germany called to provide German police the powers to shoot refugees in order to “prevent illegal border crossings.” The call by AfD was not only rejected by the German interior ministry but drew sharp criticism from different sectors of society.

Other than the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, the main challenge for the EU member states in the future will be the integration of these refugees in European societies. In Iraq and Syria, the back-to-back victories of Syrian and Iraqi forces against terrorist groups and recapturing of territories from their control have improved the overall situation. In Iraq, the liberation of Mosul - and recently the town of Tal Afar - have strengthened the position of the Iraqi government, as opposed to ISIS. The internally displaced persons from Mosul have started settling back in their areas; it seems that life and businesses are gradually coming back to normalcy. Similarly in Syria, the successes of the Syrian government forces against terrorist groups have strengthened the government’s position and brought many areas under the control of the government.

According to International Organization for Migration (IOM) more than 600,000 internally displaced Syrians - including refugees in other countries, mainly in Turkey - have returned to now government controlled areas. UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said that since 2015, about 260,000 refugees had already returned to Syria. The UN describes it a ‘notable trend’: Mahecic emphasised that his agency is seeing a "notable trend of spontaneous returns to and within Syria" in 2017. Most of the refugees have returned to their homes in Hama, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo after Syrian government forces liberated these areas from militants and brought them under the government’s control. Though the percentage of the returnees is small as compared to the estimated five and a half million Syrian refugees, however, the relative stability and increasing victories of respective governments might encourage more refugees and displaced persons to return to their areas.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Area Study Centre for Europe, University of Karachi and a visiting faculty member at IBA, Karachi.

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