The Syrian refugee crisis is ultimately a problem about categories, not numbers.
Yes, the numbers are overwhelming. But, unfortunately, after years of tragic stories about the 11 million displaced by the Syrian war, international sympathy is waning even as the situation worsens. There are just too many faces, too much heartbreak and no apparent end to the chaos in the Syrian homeland. The refugees are human hostages on the front lines, bargaining chips at diplomatic conferences and easy targets for populist politicians, but they are seldom recognized as what might be their most important role, heralds of the future.
A Global Shift In Human Displacement
Rather than be distracted by the numbers, we should be looking at the Syrians as symptoms of a global shift in human displacement. Thinking about the migration challenge from this perspective doesn’t need to lessen our compassion for any individual fleeing war, but it might help us see why this issue is so seemingly intractable.
Numbers offer us a starting point, if not the entire story. Eleven million Syrians, or one half the pre-war population, is displaced. About six million of these are internally displaced, some in makeshift shelters 100 yards from their old homes, some in distant communities still exposed to the horrors of war including, according to the UN Security Council, “systematic starvation” of civilians. Some refugees have crossed borders, straining neighboring economies. There are over a million in Lebanon, (a nation of only 4 million) and almost 3 million in Turkey. A few who can afford it (about .5 million) have been able to travel farther into Europe, while the poor and vulnerable (women and children) are the most likely to remain in vulnerable situations in the conflict zones.
These numbers should be seen in global context. In June the UN sadly noted that the number of refugees had reached 65 million worldwide. Another 244 million are classified as “migrants,” or individuals who live outside their native country. Both these groups are historically undercounted, but even the conservative figures suggest that about 1 in every 113 humans is living a life of displacement.
Historical context matters as well here. Humans have always moved, but during the past 100 years states have erected barriers that police the edges of the nation-state. The beliefs that resources belong only to residents (a principle inconsistently observed regarding other people’s resources) and that money and goods can travel, but that people should not, have become the norm. Regimes of immigration control emerged alongside the concept of the modern state.
Nation-State Fences in Place, but Globalization Continues Apace
By the mid-20th century the nation-state fences were in place, but globalization of the economy and climate change continued and, according to the UN report, became the key drivers of migration by the 1990s. In the last fifteen years migrants seeking survival—not just opportunity—abroad have soared. Yet both those who travel with some kind of permission and those who travel without endure exploitation if they lack language skills and legal advocates, advantages usually reserved for the educated migrants at the peak of the migrant pyramid. More often, desperate migrants risk dangerous journeys across desert and sea to find themselves on the economic and social fringe of their new homes.
The patterns set up by these earlier migrants are part of the backstory of the Syrian exodus. Earlier generations from the Middle East had already notched migration trails into Lebanon, Turkey or Europe, and these trails became escape routes after 2011. Then, just as they have affected every other aspect of the Syrian conflict, new telecommunication technologies kicked in and further changed the migration game.
Whether migrants were leaving Mali or Syria, the ease of sharing information completely altered the decision making calculation. Humans shared information in earlier eras, but the internet and cell phones sped up the process of information exchange and kept the migrants ahead of state-imposed barriers. Only in the past few years have migrants been able to reach out to their families and friends and research conditions in real time. The technology gave them knowledge of alternatives, and they used it.
Unfortunately, the cell phone not only kept the migrant informed and ahead of the state, it kept the human traffickers ahead of the game as well. Worldwide migration has provided a lucrative new expansion opportunity for transnational criminals. Human traffickers armed with technology and knowledge of local networks moved in quickly to offer their services to desperate Syrians and others. In fact, Syrians are not even the majority of the new European immigrant market. Of the estimated 1 million migrants to enter Europe in 2015 (a fourfold increase over 2014), less than half were Syrians. Migrants fled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, instability in Western Africa, and depressed rural economies in Central Asia as well as the conflict in Syria.
Social Media Amplify Exploitation of Refugee Crisis
There is one final way in which the Syrian refugees reflect the political dynamics of the age, and sadly, this might determine the future of many humans in the situation of displacement. The potential to manipulate social fears through exploitation of the refugee crisis is vastly amplified by social media. Even though the vast majority of terrorist acts in the West have been committed by radicalized citizens, not foreign jihadists, populist movements have demanded the closure of borders and rejected traditions of tolerance. Fighting over refugees has become a way of discrediting opponents. The immediate human harm may be less visible than that created when ISIS deliberately targets civilians in order to drive new refugee streams into Turkey, but they are both manipulations of the vulnerable for political strategy.
In the long run, the decline of cultural tolerance, the militarization of daily life, and the loss of cooperative problem solving between nations may leave even greater casualties than terrorism for the West. And leaving the human victims of war, climate change and economic collapse to struggle alone cannot possibly contribute to a more secure world. The most powerful predictor of who will follow extremist groups is the sense of being culturally, economically or politically marginalized. Extremists, (and perhaps some populist political movements?) offer a narrative that restores a sense of order and purpose where one was lacking.
Our sympathetic response to the iconic refugee, the mother and child fleeing destruction and waiting to be restored to their homes, is laudable, but it shouldn’t blind us to the bigger problem. This is a global human movement crisis, of which the Syrian refugee crisis is one piece. Hopefully, Syrians will be able to return home in the near future, but even if the Syrian crisis is resolved we will still be dealing with a mismatch between human needs and the modern state. Our old categories of refugee and migrant, citizen and non-citizen, with accompanying attitudes of generosity or rejection, may have fit our illusions of nation-state autonomy, but they are inadequate for the interconnected world we live in. Our response to the Syrians and other displaced people will tell us much about the world we will be building for our future.
Third in a series on how the Syrian conflict illustrates new dynamics in global politics.
Janice Lee Jayes, Ph.D. teaches Modern Middle East history at Illinois State University. She has worked in Morocco, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and was a Fulbright scholar in Egypt.
[Caption 1: Most Syrians live as internally displaced people within their own country, separated from their families, work and schools. They live with the constant risk of being caught between factions, or even targeted directly by militias or government troops.]
[Caption 2: In three years Camp Zaatari in Jordan has acquired an air of permanence, but this only increases hostility from neighbors who blame residents for lowering regional wages and causing food shortages.]
[Caption 3: The half million Syrians arriving on the shores of Europe capture most of the political attention in the West, but the majority of Syrian refugees (10 million others) were trapped within Syria or in neighboring countries.]
[Caption 4: Women and children are often found in camps within Syria. They are both the most vulnerable and the least likely to be able to flee war zones.]