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How the refugee crisis is transforming the Middle East

A displaced Syrian child carries broomsticks as he walks through a refugee camp in al-Hawl, about nine miles from the Iraqi border in Syria’s northeastern Hassakeh province, on Feb. 1. (Delil Souleiman/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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The nongovernmental organization Save the Children recently released a report documenting almost unbelievable trauma among Syrian children. Hundreds of thousands of these children have known nothing but war, death, dispossession and loss. Syrian enrollment in primary education has dropped from 98 percent before the war to 61.5 percent this year. An entire generation risks being lost, not only in Syria but across the fractured states of the Middle East.

Episodes of forced migration are not new to the Middle East. The 1948 war that created the state of Israel generated one of the longest-lasting and most politically fateful refugee waves, while the 1967 war drove a second wave of Palestinian refugees. The Lebanese civil war (1975-1991) led to the departure of some one-quarter of the Lebanese population. The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and then Desert Storm saw a mass exodus of expatriate workers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s led many Iraqis to leave their homeland. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent civil war produced an estimated 6 million refugees and a similar number of internally displaced.

Even by those historical standards, the sheer magnitude and simultaneity of today’s refugee flows represent something new. More than 6 million Syrians have fled the country, while another 10 million have been internally displaced. Many others have fled wars and failed states in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Neighboring states have faced severe challenges in absorbing millions of refugees, while North African states and Turkey have emerged as key transit hubs for refugee flows into Europe. The new media environment, the spread of jihadist movements and the fragility of regional order exacerbate the perceived threat.

Beyond the human, economic and security costs, there are some less obvious ways in which these refugee flows are transforming the nature of states and sovereignty in the Middle East. These are analyzed in a new collection of papers that we edited, based on a workshop convened last month by the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University and the Middle East Studies Program at the University of Southern California with support from its Center for International Studies.

Here are four key takeaways from their research:

Borders should be seen not as walls but as filters

Middle Eastern borders cannot be understood as solid barriers between distinct national communities. War economies and the provision of refugee support involve large-scale cross-border networks of people, goods, services and weapons. Instead of thinking of borders as walls, it may be more useful to now think of them as filters, which shape these flows in varying ways.

Sometimes, these borders allow nearly uninterrupted movement into war zones (as with Turkey during much of the Syrian war) and sometimes tightening them to choke off flows (as with Jordan during the Syrian war’s later years). This variation in border filtering has significant implications for security, political identity, economies and humanitarian well-being.

The humanitarian sector is changing practices of sovereignty inside of states

Refugee populations in states such as Jordan and Lebanon constitute well more than a quarter of the total population, and most are not housed within geographically distinct refugee camps. The enormous strain on their infrastructure has facilitated the introduction of a semi-permanent presence of international organizations and aid workers into the everyday governance of these noncitizen populations. This is challenging core elements of state sovereignty.

States such as Jordan and Lebanon, already poorly equipped to provide security and services — from education and health care to basic foodstuffs and affordable housing — to their citizens now face new demands of millions of non-nationals. Many services required by refugees have been taken on by NGOs and international organizations, creating structures resembling those of state but without any domestic political accountability.

What political forms may emerge in these refugee diasporas?

Contrary to the common image of refugees as passive recipients of aid, there is a surprising amount of activism and organization among refugee communities. Sometimes these activities focus on the provision of services and the representation of refugee interests within camps, while other activism focuses on supporting the broader war.

Many refugees will probably wish for nothing more than to forget politics and build new lives far from the destroyed homeland, raising the question of the life span of the desire for return and blurring the lines between refugee and exile. Others will look to pursue a new form of transnational politics. Will there someday be a Syrian equivalent of the Palestine Liberation Organization? How will diaspora political institutions relate to the homelands and the delicate political arrangements emerging from these wars?

There are real costs of securitizing refugee issues

Many fear, based on past historical experience, that refugee camps and communities would become prime recruiting grounds for jihadist organizations and other extremists. Radicalization may not be the most important question for the lives of the millions of displaced citizens, but it is the one that most interests governments around the world. However, the securitization of the refugee issue, understanding the problem primarily through the lens of security threats and radicalization, carries many hidden costs. Radicalization captures very little of the experience of the vast majority of Syrian refugees.

Most are ordinary people struggling to rebuild their lives from the ruins of overwhelming trauma. Treating these refugees primarily as potential security threats, whether through the destabilization of host countries or through recruitment into terrorism, does a profound injustice to their real problems. Researchers must find ways to take seriously the challenges posed by large refugee and displaced communities without giving in to the unwarranted securitization of these populations.

These new refugee flows have already changed practices of state sovereignty, the role of international organizations, patterns of societal activism and ideas of political identity. Their effects and the ethical obligations associated with research with vulnerable populations should be placed at the center of political science analysis of the Middle East today.

Marc Lynch is a professor of political science at the George Washington University and is the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science. 

Laurie Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies at the University of Southern California. She is also the Chair of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom.