The calculus of regional responses to the Syrian refugee crisis



Commentators often cast Middle Eastern responses to the Syrian refugee crisis into moral binaries. Lebanon, Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Turkey are routinely heralded as standard bearers for collectively hosting approximately 4.2 million refugees. On the other hand, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have been roundly criticised for refusing to host any refugees despite their vast economic resources.

The basis of this moralising distinction—whether a state ‘hosts’ refugees or not—masks the complex considerations that shape nation-state policy responses to forced migration. Leaving aside self-evident structural factors such as geographic proximity, available land, and historical community affinities, two key considerations stand out in the Syrian context.

Balancing generosity with stability

States have to balance generosity towards refugee populations with the impacts on domestic security and stability. Indeed, the EU has been wrestling with this balance for the last two years.

The large scale of refugee flows in the context of heightened security risks following the Arab Spring and the rise of ISIS mean that this challenge is far greater in the Middle East. Turkey, which hosts 2.5 million refugees, has worn at least three terrorist attacks by Salafi-jihadist militants in the last year—prompting much more careful monitoring of its Syrian border despite the continuation of its ‘open door policy’, as well as the rooting out of jihadist cells within the refugee population. Similarly, following a recent ISIS suicide attack on Jordanian forces in the Rukban area, Jordan closed its border to new arrivals, exacerbating a growing humanitarian crisis in the area and leaving more than 50,000 Syrians stranded in no-man’s land without adequate food, water and material aid.

The Gulf countries perceive the Salafi-jihadist threat to be existential, prioritising counter-terrorism and border protection over refugee protection. For example, ISIS has orchestrated numerous attacks targeting the Saudi security services and symbols of the royals’ power in the last two years. There is a large enough domestic support base for ISIS’ brand of Islam in Saudi Arabia, and the possibility of foreign cells linking up with disaffected young Wahhabi men could lead to more sophisticated and damaging attacks. Similarly, following a devastating attack on a Shi’a mosque in Kuwait City last year, the government introduced landmark DNA collection procedures for all entrants at the country’s international airport.

These calculi are influenced by a long history of politicisation of Arab refugee and migrant populations in the Gulf and Levant. For example, Lebanon has thus far refused to set up refugee camps for Syrians largely because the Palestinian refugee camps of the 1970s became a hotbed of Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) militarism, which ultimately contributed to the onset of the Lebanese civil war. Without these designated safe humanitarian zones, many Syrians live in abject poverty and are vulnerable to exploitation in Lebanon’s cities. Gulf policy is similarly influenced by a history of Leftist and Islamist political groups permeating Arab migrant worker populations dating back to the 1960s.

Economic and foreign policy gains versus public opinion and social cohesion

A second consideration for states is whether the benefits of foreign policy triumph, and whether international aid handouts outweigh the inevitability of negative public opinion towards the refugee population.

Turkey signed a deal to stem the flow of arrivals into the European Union (EU) in return for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens, increased EU aid for Turkey to support its Syrian refugee population and renewed negotiations on EU membership. But hosting 2.5 million Syrian refugees is an increasingly fraught policy in the eyes of the Turkish public. An October 2015 poll found that 84% of Turks are worried about Syrian refugees in Turkey, while plans to offer Syrians work permits in 2015 were scaled back after significant public backlash.

Similarly, at the London Conference on Syria earlier this year the EU promised Jordan significant trade concessions, significant private investment in Jordanian special economic zones (SEZs) and US$2 billion in foreign aid in return for 150,000 work permits for Syrian refugees. However, fewer than 13,000 Syrians have obtained permits as of July owing to the presence of a significant migrant worker population, political sensitivities in the context of a high youth unemployment rate and overwhelmingly negative public opinions of Syrian refugees.

By way of comparison, the Gulf States have little incentive to court financial support from the international community. Moreover, the GCC states are currently introducing economic reforms designed to transition their societies away from rent-driven subsidies, tax breaks and foreign labour. In this context, it would be politically impossible to sell a refugee policy that invites an influx of Syrians into these countries. Moreover, when questioned, Gulf leaders point to the significant levels of financial aid for humanitarian initiatives in Syrian refugee camps elsewhere. They also point to the fact that more than 500,000 Syrians live and work in the Gulf (albeit with varying socio-economic rights). The significant majority of this population have chosen and been allowed to stay through the Syrian conflict.

The examples above illustrate that hosting a refugee population does not mean that population is necessarily safe, or that its rights are protected. As Jordan’s Rukban crisis demonstrates, at various intervals states distinguish between subsets of the refugee population, treating them differently despite their common claims to protection. Finally, the ongoing presence of 500,000 Syrian ‘guest workers’ in the Gulf reminds us that who is and who should be a legitimate refugee is an unanswered question.

It is problematic to class Middle Eastern states as ‘humanitarian’ or otherwise on the basis of whether or not they host refugees. All of these states—and indeed states around the world—continue to engage in a rational calculus to determine the impact of large influxes of foreigners, which shapes their ongoing, dynamic responses to the current Syrian refugee crisis

Nishadh Rego is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

Image credit: World Bank Photo Collection (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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