Conflicts trigger mass scale displacement of populations in the Arab world
International human rights watchdogs are sounding the alarm: Global wars have triggered the biggest forced civilian displacement since World War II.
The impact of such a tragedy is especially enormous for Arab countries, which have been engulfed in a wave of wars and uprisings. Aside from the human suffering, the displacement of millions of Arabs fleeing atrocities in their respective countries is poised to change the face of the Arab world.
A mass involuntary movement of populations “is a catalyst for political, economic and social transformation“, said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi.
Politically, it “can lead to security threats, primarily conflict spill-over or terrorism” while socially it has a “dramatic effect on values, norms, traditions and cultures of societies through marriage and other forms of interaction”, Kamhawi told The Arab Weekly.
In its annual report on the state of human rights in 160 countries, the global human rights organisation Amnesty International warned there was an unprecedented uptick in human displacement from the world’s battle zones from Syria to the Ukraine, topping 50 million in 2014.
“It is the greatest human displacement since World War II,” Amnesty cautioned in its 242-page chronicle released in late February.
The Middle East’s human tragedy is worst in Syria. Out of Syria’s estimated pre-war population of 23 million, nearly 12 million have either fled to neighbouring countries, or were forced to move once or multiple times from violent to less volatile areas in Syria,
The agency said the number of internally displaced Syrians at 6.5 million, while regional governments said they are sheltering an additional 5 million Syrians, including 4 million registered with UNHCR.
Between 2008 and 2013, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons in the Arab world roughly doubled. This is partly due to the “Arab spring” that toppled four Arab leaders after 2011 and subsequently unleashed sectarian violence by Sunni Muslim militants who proclaimed a quasi-state in territory they seized in Syria and Iraq.
The Middle East and North Africa is now the main region of the origin of refugees worldwide and accounts for almost 30% of the global population of internally displaced persons, according to Amnesty’s report.
Official Arab statistics show the vast majority of the displaced, including an estimated 70% of Syrian refugees and 95% of internally displaced people in Yemen, do not live
in camps or formal settlements but in urban areas and local communities. For five decades, displacement patterns have become increasingly complex across the region; Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans and Yemenis have been uprooted multiple times and across multiple borders.
The per capita refugee populations of Lebanon and Jordan - the largest hosts of Syrians – are now three to six times greater than any other country in the world, placing significant strains on their economies, social services and local communities.
More significantly, refugees have instilled demographic and socio-economic changes in their host communities.
Lebanon shelters 1.5 million Syrian refugees, including 1.2 million registered with UNHCR, making up almost one quarter of Lebanon’s population of 4.5 million. They live in appalling conditions, scattered across the country in informal tent settlements and old construction sites. Four out of five refugee children do not attend any form of schooling.
Jordan hosts another 1.5 million Syrians, nearly 50% of them are under UN care. They make up 20% of Jordan’s 7.5 million population. Only 10% of the total lives in desert camps straddling the northern Syrian border, the rest stay among local communities.
Turkey has more than 1.7 million registered Syrian refugees, while Iraq and Egypt are home to 247,000 and 136,000 Syrians, respectively.
Aside from the Syrian crisis, about one-third of Libya’s population lives in Tunisia, having fled violence that followed the toppling of late longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi. Their status is different from the Syrian refugees. Tunisians admit the Libyans – many of them wealthy – have boosted their country’s economy.
It was not immediately clear how many Libyans have decided to relocate permanently to Tunisia. Tunisian officials put their number at 2 million but some Libyan community leaders estimate the number at about 500,000.
But refugees can also contribute to the economic problems of their host countries, raising unemployment rates in both Lebanon and cash-strapped Jordan.
“It’s cheap labour,” said journalist Linda Maayah, who assisted in a preliminary private research on the Syrians’ socio-economic effects, in an interview with The Arab Weekly. “The Syrians accept half, or less, the wages paid to Jordanians, inspiring many employers to opt for the lower priced.”
Jordan’s unemployment rate is set at 14.6%, although unofficial estimates put it at 22%.
Other effects of the Syrian exodus is higher rents, Maayah maintained. A majority of Syrians took up residence paying modest rents in low-income areas across Jordan, with the result that rental prices have gone up by 15% in the past three years, according to estimates by real estate brokers.
Others have boarded often unseaworthy vessels in an attempt to reach Europe. In 2014 alone, at least 3,400 people died in Mediterranean Sea crossings, according to Amnesty International.
Commenting on Amnesty’s report, its Secretary-General Salil Shetty called 2014 a “shameful nadir” in the global response to the humanitarian relief of refugees.
“We must hope that, looking backward to 2014 in the years to come, what we lived through will be seen as an ultimate low point from which we rose up and created a better future,” Shetty stated.