Refugee crisis poses long-term threats to the Middle East

A generation of youth without education and hope will impair Syria’s development and create “a breeding ground for radicalisation and war.”
Sunday 25/11/2018
Syrian children wait to leave their refugee camp in the Lebanese city of Arsal, last July. (AFP)
Lost generation. Syrian children wait to leave their refugee camp in the Lebanese city of Arsal, last July. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - The refugee crisis in the Middle East threatens long-term damage to the region’s development and to breed a new generation of radicalised youth, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Bureau of the United Nations’ refugee agency said.

An estimated 40% of the world’s 68 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are either in or from the Middle East, even though the region totals 5% of the world’s population, Amin Awad, UNHCR director for the Middle East and North Africa Bureau, said in an impassioned speech at the Middle East Institute.

“This is a huge number — the biggest displacement of our time,” Awad said at the institute’s annual conference in November.

Wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen that have forced millions of people to leave their homes “wreak havoc on the development of these countries,” Awad said.

The wars caused “displacement of generations [of people] that are at a very productive age,” he said.

Displacement is particularly grave in Syria, where more than seven years of civil war have led to 6 million people fleeing the country and another 6 million becoming internally displaced in Syria.

“We have millions of refugees and IDPs who lost seven years,” Awad said. “A child who was 6 or 7 at the beginning of that war today is 13 and did not have an education. There are children who were 12 or 13 at the beginning of the war and are 18 and lost that very important six years of their lives. They are graduating into the world with no junior high or high school degrees.”

A generation of young people without education and hope will impair Syria’s development and create “a breeding ground for radicalisation and war,” Awad said.

When workers with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees surveyed Syrian refugees who fled the Middle East for Europe, the reason they cited most frequently for leaving was the lack of education for their children. “They were coming from countries that had a 93% literacy rate. It was killing the parents to see their children sitting — sitting — in the same tent and not going to school. They picked up their children and started walking,” Awad said.

Awad’s brutal assessment came as the United Nations and the international community struggled to negotiate an end to the Syrian war and as fighting continues in Yemen, Libya and the Palestinian territories and the Islamic State (ISIS) begins a resurgence in Iraq and Syria. Middle East refugees flooded Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and many went to Europe, causing political tensions across the continent.

Awad appeared to chastise the international community by noting that the refugee crises of the 1990s were handled much better following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. “But in the 2000s, we are not near there,” Awad said. “The average displacement now continues for 17 years.”

Syria, Yemen and Iraq face major challenges in resettling the millions of refugees and displaced people. Yemen, with 2.1 million displaced, faces “one of the most horrible famines of our time, maybe of the last few centuries,” Awad said.

Syria needs to guarantee returning residents physical security, education and health services and faces major obstacles because “the destruction is huge.”

In Iraq, some of the 3.3 million displaced people have begun to return but the country must figure out how to welcome back religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, who were removed from their long-time homelands.

“Evacuating Christian minorities to Western Europe and far beyond is not a solution. These people have been there for thousands of years. They have a history. They have a heritage. They have properties and they have treasures,” Awad said. “We cannot empty the Middle East of its minorities. That’s an easy way out and we should fight that in every way.”