The Middle East Channel

The Arab Spring’s looming refugee crisis

The trajectory of peaceful demonstrations in Libya and Syria has been impacted by regime violence. The result: large populations of internally displaced peoples (IDP’s) have been created inside of those countries as well as great numbers of refugees fleeing to bordering countries. Furthermore, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have serious ramifications for already existing ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The trajectory of peaceful demonstrations in Libya and Syria has been impacted by regime violence. The result: large populations of internally displaced peoples (IDP’s) have been created inside of those countries as well as great numbers of refugees fleeing to bordering countries. Furthermore, the revolutions of the Arab Spring have serious ramifications for already existing refugee populations, notably the more than one million Iraqi refugees that have settled in Syria since 2006. The possibility of increased large-scale refugee movement from Libya and Syria will not only spur a devastating humanitarian crisis, but could also further destabilize the region.

Considering that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is already working with insufficient funds, Western policymakers should pay attention to these imminent crises. One need only look at the social and economic repercussions of the still unresolved predicament of Iraqi refugees to see the urgency of keeping the current situations from escalating into another protracted refugee crisis. The consequences of a prolonged refugee situation could be dire, especially as many of the countries to which the people are fleeing allow few — if any — rights, benefits, or protection for refugees.

The most recent numbers provided by the U.N. of the Libyan refugee crisis indicate that an estimated 1,002,982 people have fled to border countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Niger, and Chad. The majority of Libyan refugees, however, have escaped to either Egypt or Tunisia, both countries which are struggling to cope with their own recent uprisings and have few resources for real assistance or protection. While the UNHCR has set up camps to help many of the refugees fleeing Libya, reports are mixed on whether those refugees entering border countries are fleeing to safety or to yet another dangerous situation.

The Libyan refugee situation is complicated by the large number of third-country nationals who are attempting to flee to Europe by boat. As Al Jazeera reported, over 1,400 people have died at sea since the uprising in Libya began in February. This situation has become so alarming that the U.N. has even made appeals to ships in the Mediterranean to look out for crude vessels that might be carrying refugees from Libya. In addition to these issues of concern are the estimated 250,000 internally displaced people still inside of Libya. Oftentimes, the internally displaced are the most vulnerable as it is extremely difficult to provide food and supplies to those trapped inside a conflict zone. Thus, the U.N. has officially warned of an imminent humanitarian crisis inside of the already war-torn Libya.

The UNHCR has responded to the situation by setting up camps for Libyans (and third-country nationals) in Tunisia and Egypt and sending "tonnes and tonnes" of goods and supplies to those locales. The UNHCR has even begun evacuating some of the refugees to resettlement hubs in Romania and Beirut where they will likely undergo further processing for resettlement in other countries.

Resettling refugees from Libya to other countries may be more difficult than originally thought, however.  The UN has been imploring various European countries to accept refugees from Libya, whether from the camps in Tunisia and Egypt or from Lampedusa, Italy, the destination of the vast majority of those fleeing Libya in boats. This is at a time when the prevailing atmosphere in Europe is largely anti-immigration, which is exemplified throughout the continent by the gains of right-wing parties that advocate for stricter immigration policy.

As such, there was bound to be a lot of backroom discussion on the Arab Spring’s effects on migration to Europe at the 2011 G-8 Summit in Deauville, France. As a senior correspondent for the New York Times stated, "there is more than a tacit link between sustaining the process of change in North Africa and avoiding a flow of refugees to the four European Union countries (including Italy) that make up the G-8 alongside the United States, Canada, Japan and Russia." It’s not surprising then that António Guterres, head of the UNHCR, has complained about the "grudging" response from European countries to accept refugees from Libya.

Meanwhile, the refugee situation in Syria — and by extension Turkey — is not yet on the same scale as the crisis in Libya in terms of sheer numbers, but it is equally as worrying for a number of reasons. Refugees from Jisr al-Shughur, Syria report that that town has been razed and it is now being reported that Syrian tanks and troops are moving to other northern Syrian towns to crush dissent which is increasing the flow of Syrian refugees into southern Turkey. Meanwhile, Turkey has erected its fifth camp as there are now over 10,000 Syrian refugees who have entered the country officially and are being assisted by the Turkish government. There is no estimate on the number that have entered unofficially.

The president of the Turkish Red Crescent estimated that there are at least another 17,000 Syrians waiting at the border. It is significant to note that more than 50% of the Syrian refugees in the camps in Turkey are women alone with their children.

Furthermore, the violence and sectarian tension beginning to flare throughout the country is causing a serious threat for the estimated one million (or more) Iraqi refugees that have settled in Syria. Iraqi refugees are stuck between a rock and a hard place as neither country is stable at the moment. Even with efforts by Baghdad to pay Iraqis to return to their home country, many refugees feel that relocation is too unsafe.

This is a scenario that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan would like to avoid. Turkey, outwardly nervous about the situation at its border, is openly criticizing Syria’s actions. According to this report, Istanbul has refused financial aid and resources from the West in an attempt to keep the situation seemingly temporary and under the radar. It is evident that Turkey does not want the burden of a prolonged refugee crisis. As of now, Turkey is maintaining heavy security at its borders and within the camps.   

If the Syrian military has indeed demolished Jisr al-Shughur and other towns, it will make returning to Syria very difficult or impossible for those who have been displaced. It will also be difficult to compel refugees to return when there is so much fear of the Syrian military and police as well as distrust among the neighboring populations. Additionally, one U.N. spokesperson who visited Jisr al-Shughur reported that many of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, "had lost virtually all their belongings and property. In many cases their livestock were shot, fields were torched, and homes and businesses destroyed or confiscated."  Even if Syrian refugees do return home, it doesn’t look like there will be much to return home to.

So how should the U.S. respond to these situations? In President Barack Obama’s March 28 speech on America’s role in the Libyan military intervention, he stated that he "refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action," making clear that the U.S. had a moral obligation of stopping a potential humanitarian crisis in that country.

What we are seeing now is the onset of a different sort of travesty in the resulting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced as well as those refugees who have crossed out of Libya. The situation should be considered just as dire a reason for which the U.S. intervened in Libya, namely the fear of the Qaddafi regime’s slaughter of Benghazi. In his speech, Obama warned that that potential massacre, "would have driven thousands of additional refugees across Libya’s borders, putting enormous strains on the peaceful — yet fragile — transitions in Egypt and Tunisia." Yet in spite of NATO’s intervention, over a million have already been displaced.

Thus far, the U.S. has contributed at least $26.5 million in aid for Libyan refugees, eased visa restrictions for Libyan students studying in the U.S., and authorized military and civilian airlifts for refugee populations to other countries. The UNHCR however is still in need of about $39.5 million to have what they deem to be sufficient funding to deal with the Libyan refugee situation. This funding would likely go to the provision of more food and resources for shelter, cooking, education, etc., at the already existing camps in Egypt and Tunisia.  Some may also be allocated for establishing an additional camp and for staffing purposes. While Human Rights First has called for the U.S. to lift "unnecessary delays in the security clearance process" and immediately start resettling vulnerable refugee populations from the Libyan crisis, this is not a realistic policy suggestion. As nice as that would be, after the arrest of two Iraqi insurgents in Kentucky who recently arrived through the U.S. refugee program, the resettlement of refugees in the US has become a divisive and political issue as of late. What this means is that the U.S. and European countries need to pledge more money to the ongoing Libyan refugee situation through the UNHCR.

While many politicians in Europe and the U.S. may be anxious about allowing large numbers of refugees into their countries, they must recognize the imminent humanitarian crises which are occurring in Libya and Syria. IDP’s are also in acute need of resources, although it’s more challenging to reach them. A significant portion of the $33 billion in frozen Libyan assets should be transferred to the brave humanitarian organizations working inside of Libya, such as the Libyan Red Crescent.

The U.S. role towards the displacement within Syria is less clear. If Erdogan continues to refuse outside aid, there is little that can be done. The U.S. needs to be working closely with the UNHCR and the Turkish government to accommodate the growing number of refugees there, making sure they are protected and have the necessary supplies and resources. It is too early to tell how the situation will shake out in terms of if and when Syrians will be able to return to their land.  In the meantime, the Turkish government should accept aid for making sure this refugee group is safe and well cared for.

At the very least, Western countries need to be contributing enough money to cover the necessary costs of the camps in Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey.  However, pledging money is not sufficient to avert further escalation which could likely result in more protracted refugee crises. Until the resettlement of a serious number of refugees to Western countries becomes a viable option, the U.S. and other countries in coordination with the UNHCR must develop a way to ensure the protection of vulnerable refugee populations in border countries.

The significant displacement of people within and across the borders of Syria and Libya as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings is shaking the stability of those countries. The U.S. and other Western nations need to be working closely with governmental ministries in the Middle East and international humanitarian organizations to ensure that the initial excitement of the Arab Spring does not lead to dashed hopes and further humanitarian crises.

Chris Ulack is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography and the Environment at the University of Texas at Austin. He focuses on refugee issues in the U.S. and the Middle East.