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Movements of refugees and migrants have always existed. Due to the protracted conflict in Syria and increasing fragility, they are turning into an enormous challenge for the Mediterranean region. The instability which is most severely affecting the Middle East has started to spillover significantly to Southern Europe. This calls for a more coordinated response in Europe, stronger support to host countries in the Middle East and most importantly- more solidarity among people.
In the midst of the tense EU-Turkey negotiations around an agreement to address the refugee crisis, it is important to place the impact of the refugee crisis in Europe in a wider regional perspective: the Middle East is carrying the biggest burden of this crisis. In contrast, the European Union is currently hosting only 8% of Syrian refugees. The Syrian Refugee Crisis is not primarily impacting the European Union, as 86% of all Syrian Refugees continue to be hosted directly in the Mashreq region and Turkey. This fact is all too often overlooked in European media these days. Syria’s direct neighboring countries are carrying the biggest burden: according to UNHCR, the major host countries are Turkey (2.7 million- with the biggest amount of refugees/country worldwide), Lebanon (1,172,388– the highest per capita concentration) and Jordan (640,000 according to UNHCR). Let us also bear in mind that they have kept their borders open over the past five years, offering the world and Europe with a priceless public good. Over the past five years, they have gathered significant experiences and lessons which are valuable to develop their respective resilience. That is why they can be useful for European partners wishing to benefit from a South-North learning exchange.
The refugee crisis has hit Europe in a state of unpreparedness and economic uncertainty. While this refugee crisis is globally only the 2nd biggest displacement crisis (since the 1990s), it is the most important because of high and continuous influx over a short timeframe. This is profoundly affecting the European Union and has led to political quarrels about quotas in Europe. As Angela Merkel stated prior the EU summit on March 17-18: “Europe has not covered itself with glory...the countries are not fairly sharing the burden.” Schengen was never as fragile as it is today. The current and predicted migratory flows to Europe point to a new magnitude: we have reached a point of no return. Beyond the current state of denial, it will require proactive and intensive preparation in the medium term to adjust integration policies on the local, national and European levels.
Let’s face it: MENA’s fragility has significant spillover effects on Europe and beyond. The Syrian conflict is the most significant, with over 4.6 million Syrian refugees that have fled the protracted Syrian conflict and about 7.6 million Internally Displaced Persons in Syria itself. The MENA region continues to be significantly affected by fragility and conflict. According to the latest World Bank MENA Quarterly Economic Brief, about one third of the region’s population is directly affected by war. This includes the people in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen which are in urgent need for humanitarian aid (about 13.5 million people in Syria; in Yemen, 21.1 million; in Libya, 2.4 million; and in Iraq, 8.2 million).Today, there are more than 18 million displaced people in the region which will need to find a new interim home in more secure neighboring countries and the international community. Moreover, major terrorist events are increasing global security threats and worsening the negative spillover effects of MENA’s fragility.
MENA countries in crisis impose severe humanitarian challenges not only for native citizens but also for non-nationals who are particularly vulnerable: As I was reminded during the MENA consultation on “Migrants in Countries of Crisis” organized by the International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) in Malta, non-national migrants who reside in host countries are particularly vulnerable and often ignored - when their host country is suddenly hit by a crisis. This includes various internationals such as guest workers, irregular migrants as well as tourists, women and children being the most vulnerable. Examples are Lebanon in 2006 with 550,000 non-nationals, in addition to Palestinian refugees; the Libya crisis 2011 with 1.5 million non-nationals; Syria conflict: 100,000 estimated migrant workers, Iraqis as well as 560,000 Palestinian refugees; the Yemen civil war in 2015: 91,000 migrants and 246,000 refugees. When a crisis emerges, non-nationals are in need for protection when they are caught up in conflict, and require immediate repatriation to ensure their safety. As for refugees in crisis countries - as highlighted by UNHCR - the situation is even more severe. Captured in a country of crisis, they cannot be repatriated to their country of origin because of persecution there. They still require protection under international law but have no place to return to.
Altogether, both rims of the Mediterranean are impacted by the fragility in MENA. The scale of the refugee crisis is unprecedented on both sides, which will require targeted support and more solidarity in order to adapt and build regional preparedness and resilience as for the years to come. The current situation calls not only for improved crisis preparedness, but also for increased response capacity amongst European and MENA governments and municipalities, in order to mitigate the impacts now and over the years to come. This crisis also shows that conflicts do not stop at the borders (regardless if they are open or not). It also affects citizens and non-nationals caught up in conflict and neighboring countries and municipalities who carry the burden. The spillover effects of the Syrian crisis in Europe started long before the mass arrivals of refugees. This conflict has developed into a common burden for the Middle East and Europe, and should therefore be carried as a joint responsibility across the Mediterranean as well as within Europe.