The end of a terrible year, the beginning of another one
The end of the Western calendar year is for many people a time of reflection on the past 12 months and an anticipation of the year to come. New Year’s resolutions and singing Auld Lang Syne are part of the process of shedding the old year and wishing for a better future.
In the Middle East, however, this better future is a fantasy. If you are among the millions of displaced or refugee families in the region, 2016 was a horrible year and the coming one might be worse — and that is saying something.
The figures are staggering. International aid agencies estimate there are 4 million displaced families in Iraq. Who knows how many more will join them as the battle for Mosul rages on. While the Islamic State (ISIS) has shown signs it has been hurt by the assault from a combination of regular Iraq forces, Kurdish and Shia militias, there is no sign it is going away soon.
What is worse is that displaced families face potential violence from both sides, which often see them as not as people seeking refuge but as individuals not loyal enough to their religious faction or cause.
In Yemen, fighting between Houthi rebel militias and the Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces has displaced 3 million families, with more than 14 million other people needing aid, primarily food. Hundreds of thousands of children under the age of 5 are in danger of starvation. UN Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed has said the country is teetering on the “brink of the abyss”.
Sadly, there does not look like much of a chance of peace soon there, either, despite repeated international efforts. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the fighting to seize control of parts of southern Yemen.
Nowhere, however, is the “abyss” more daunting than in Syria. It seems more like the realisation of a painting of hell by Hieronymus Bosch than a country. The long war has displaced 4.8 million families in Syria itself and another 6.8 million have become refugees fleeing the never-ending violence to seek safety abroad.
Their efforts to seek safety abroad have brought a cascade of unintended consequences. The backlash in Europe and the United States against the refugees has helped elect a series of leaders who are anti-Islamic and who have painted people desperate to flee violence as a wave of potential terrorists, determined to destroy the West. This sentiment has meant that many Western countries have closed, or are in the process of closing, their borders to other refugees.
The question in 2017 then becomes where do these refugees go? Neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are already straining under the weight of millions of displaced and refugee families. International aid is not coming fast. Turkey, smarting from the Western response to a failed coup in July, has threatened to move away from what was a largely ineffectual agreement with the European Union to take in refugees who tried to reach Europe by sea. This probably also puts the $60 billion in aid promised by the European Union in jeopardy.
It seems there is no relief in sight for this mountain of problems. The flow of people across the region will remain fluid for the coming year and perhaps years to come. People desperate to save their families will continue to flee the fighting and many of them will continue to risk everything to make dangerous sea or land crossing in search of a new life.
Who can blame them? Which of us facing the same situation would not make the choices they have made?
If the situation in the region is going to get any better, it is going to take an effort of the entire international community to solve. Unfortunately, such an effort may also be years in the future, leaving millions of people in a hellish limbo.