Thursday 2 February 2012

Refugee Tides Surge Across Arab World

The Arab Spring - or Arab Awakening, as many in the Arab world prefer to call it - resulted in massive movements of refugees and displaced people across the Middle East and North Africa. More than a million people, most of them foreign workers, fled Libya after the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi’s rule broke out in February 2011.


Syrian refugees in Turkey, 2011 - Photo: The Guardian

There have been mass movements elsewhere in the region too. The unrest in Syria has driven refugees to seek sanctuary in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, itself host to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees for the past eight years.  

And according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 287,000 people fleeing the worsening drought and decades of conflict in Somalia have escaped to neighbouring countries, bringing the total number of Somali refugees in the region to 950,000, while another 1.5 million are internally displaced.

Kassala in eastern Sudan is home to the country's largest concentration of refugees, numbering more than 86,000. As the UNHCR recalls, "many had fled fighting over the past half century between Eritrea and Ethiopia, but the majority were born in Sudan's camps, where they share the ethnicity, language and religion of their host community."

And following the rebellion in the Darfur region in western Sudan in 2003, almost a decade later an estimated 200,000 refugees from Darfur are still languishing in refugee camps in the desert in eastern Chad. According to UN agencies, 83,000 Chadian migrant workers returned from Libya in 2011, and Chad continues to host refugees from the Central African Republic as well as its own internally displaced persons (IDPs) resulting from internal conflict.

In Egypt, where tens of thousands of African refugees live, the UNHCR is assisting more than 41,000 documented refugees and asylum seekers, most of whom arrived from Sudan during two decades of civil war and, since 2003, from Darfur.

Israel, according to the New York-based agency The Media Line, is home to some 27,000 refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire, and Israeli officials estimate that in the first nine months of 2011, about 36,000 Africans crossed the border from Egypt into Israel illegally, some 2,000 of them in August alone.

In January 2012 the Israeli Knesset passed a bill, promoted by the Netanyahu government, that would make refugees and asylum seekers who lack residency status liable to automatic detention without trial for up to three years. Organizations including Amnesty International have condemned the move as a violation of human rights.

"Since 2005, approximately 45,000 people have entered Israel via the Egyptian border to seek asylum, the majority of them Eritreans and Sudanese. For the past few years, Israel has barred Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers outright from having their refugee claims heard, in blatant violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention," according to Amnesty.

There are also much longer established refugee populations across the Middle East and North Africa. Almost 5 million Palestinian refugees are registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. And for more than three decades, refugee camps in Tindouf in southwestern Algeria have been home to an estimated 165,000 Sahrawis, the indigenous people of the Western Sahara, who arrived after the Moroccan occupation of their territory in 1976.

The displacement of people within and across borders as a result of the upheavals of 2011 has hit national economies, undermined regional stability and provoked fears in some European countries that large numbers of migrants and asylum-seekers would flood to their shores.


In Syria, the crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops intensified since pro-democracy protests began in April 2011, leading anti-government protesters to step up the use of force, notably by the Free Syrian Army. One consequence has been a steady flow of Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers into southern Turkey, with smaller numbers crossing into Lebanon and Jordan. Those fleeing include whole families as well as defecting soldiers who refused to shoot protesting civilians. According to the Turkish and Lebanese governments, more than 25,000 people fled Syria in 2011, though many have since returned.

By December 2011, there were about 10,000 registered Syrian refugees in Turkey. The number of registered refugees peaked at nearly 20,000 in late summer 2011, according to Turkish officials, but fell as families left the camps, some of them to stay with local Turkish families with whom they shared kinship ties. Most of those registered were in camps in the southern province of Hatay, to which Syria has a long-standing territorial claim which it had shelved in recent years as relations between the two countries warmed. But in 2011 relations deteriorated over Syria’s violent crackdown on protesters. Turkey became one of the most vocal critics of Assad’s rule, and hosts the Syrian National Council, a broad-based opposition coalition formed in September 2011.

Around 5,500 refugees have fled their homes in Syria to border towns in Jordan. While Jordan has not offered asylum to Syrians, authorities near the northern border were providing emergency medical attention and shelter to displaced Syrians, "with preparations in place for any potential large-scale humanitarian crisis," the Jordan Times reported on 28 November.

Although they have been made welcome because of the long-existing tribal and family ties that predate and transcend the common border, the continued presence of displaced Syrians poses problems for many Jordanians whose livelihood depends on cross-border border trade with Syria.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jordan’s national resources have also been strained by an influx of Iraqi refugees, who now comprise 15 per cent of the population. Meanwhile, some of the estimated one million Iraqi refugees who fled to Syria since 2003 have returned to Iraq. In mid-January 2012, more than 5,200 Syrian refugees were registered in northern Lebanon with the UNHCR and Lebanese relief bodies.

According to Israeli press reports, the Israel Defence Force (IDF) has prepared for extreme scenarios in which Syrians fleeing turmoil at home could even try to storm the border with Israel and seek political asylum, as they have done on Syria's borders with Turkey and Jordan.

Israel's military chief Lt-Gen Benny Gantz said in January 2012 that Israel was making contingency plans in the event that President Bashar al-ASsad was ousted from power, and the possibility that refugees from his minority Alawite sect would flee into the Golan Heights (which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war).


When conflict erupted in Libya, the country was home to between 1.5 million and 2.5 million foreign nationals, many of them refugees, although the authorities treated them as irregular migrants. According to the UNHCR, in February 2011 there were around 8,000 registered refugees and approximately 3,000 asylum seekers in Libya who had come from countries including Cote d’Ivoire, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan.

As the unrest spread during the summer, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced within Libya itself, while over a million men, women and children escaped to neighbouring countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Algeria.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 people had been internally displaced in Libya at the height of the conflict, before some began to return home after Gaddafi was ousted from Tripoli in August. OCHA said it had "serious protection concerns" for about 50,000 internally displaced people from minority groups, owing to direct threats to their physical security as well as social discrimination.

Humanitarian organisations were also concerned about the situation of third-country nationals, including migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, who had become more vulnerable to violence and human rights violations since the outbreak of the conflict, OCHA added.

"Sub-Saharan Africans, especially those from Niger, Chad and Sudan, were targeted by both sides after it became known that some sub-Saharan Africans had worked as mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime," the UNHCR noted.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Geneva, said the crisis in Libya had primarily been one of migration, and not a refugee crisis.

"Overwhelmingly, the hundreds of thousands of people who fled Libya were migrant workers, employed mostly in the informal sector or in some cases contract workers from South Asia," he told The Middle East.

The ripple effects of the Libyan crisis hit countries south of Libya hard as well, Chauzy added: "At the moment there is very little focus on the impact on about 100,000 Chadians who have returned to Chad since the Libyan uprising started, and maybe 80-90,000 citizens of Niger who have returned to their country. Those returning migrants are going home empty-handed, with very little employment opportunities, and families who formerly relied on remittances from these migrants are now going without. Vast areas of Chad and Niger are also currently facing food insecurity. The lifeline that these former workers in Libya provided has been cut."

At the end of November, the IOM noted that "despite the end of hostilities in Libya which have seen more than 764,000 migrants flee the country, including more than 200,000 Africans," many migrants still wanting to leave Libya required assistance. Stranded African migrants still faced arbitrary detention, harassment and persecution, while the lack of diplomatic representation for many African nationalities made it difficult to verify their citizenship and issue travel documents, the organization added.

According to the governments of Egypt and Tunisia, over 200,000 Egyptians and 82,000 Tunisians have returned to their respective home countries as a result of the conflict in Libya, "in most cases, losing their sole source of income," the IOM said in January 2012.

Impact on Arab world and beyond

There has been scaremongering in some European countries, with anti-immigration parties seeking to make political capital by talking about the trickle of illegal migration from North Africa possibly escalating into a tsunami.

Amnesty International in September said European countries had "shamefully" failed to help about 5,000 mainly African refugees living in grim conditions at the Saloum border post and Choucha camp on Libya’s frontiers with Egypt and Tunisia respectively, who would face persecution or conflict if returned to their own countries.

Nicolas Beger, Director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office, said: "This failure is particularly glaring given that some European countries, by participating in NATO operations in Libya, have been party to the very conflict that has been one of the main causes of the involuntary movement of people."

By October 2011, only seven EU countries had pledged to resettle refugees, along with Norway, the US, Canada and Australia.

A spokesman for the British Department for International Development said in response to the Amnesty report that the UK had been one of the first governments to provide humanitarian support to those affected by the conflict in Libya. "However, we are under no international obligation to bring asylum seekers or refugees to the UK from Libya and do not believe it would be desirable to do so. In our view humanitarian and refugee issues are best dealt with in the region of origin, or by asylum seekers claiming protection in the first safe country they reach," he added.

Boats each carrying hundreds of illegal immigrants, who have made long and perilous journeys not just from Africa but as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan, continue to arrive regularly on Italy's southern coasts.

IOM spokesman Chauzy said that there was no denying that substantial numbers of people had arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa - about 53,000 by late September, including about 26,000 from Tunisia, and others from Libya. But he said this could not be compared with the hundreds of thousands of migrants who had crossed from Libya into Egypt and Tunisia.

"The European response when the crisis began was a knee-jerk reaction aimed at controlling the potential flows of illegal migrants from Tunisia and Libya. Little has been done in the way of providing alternatives, especially for young Tunisians who want to emigrate – that would involve entering into new partnerships with governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and Libya when it stabilises, to create wealth and job opportunities in those countries," Chauzy said.

However, there is no accurate record of how many hundreds or thousands of would-be migrants drown when their small, overloaded craft sink off the shores of southern Europe.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Arab world, the prospects of more refugees from Syria being dispersed across the region, and of Yemenis fleeing the conflict in their country to seek refuge in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, have heightened fears of growing humanitarian crises that would lead to prolonged destabilization across the region.

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