Foreign policy Immigration

What’s missing from discussion of refugee crisis out of Syria? Context of long-running refugee crisis within Syria

 Chart 1 Iraqi refugees in Syria
Chart 1 Iraqi refugees in Syria
Chart 2 Displaced persons in Syria
Chart 2 Displaced persons in Syria
Chart 3 Displaced persons in Iraq
Chart 3 Displaced persons in Iraq

Source(s): Population Statistics, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

If something seems missing from most Western media coverage of the current Syria refugee crisis, it would be the origin of said crisis. A significant share of Syria’s population were already refugees fleeing other Middle East (ME) crises prior to the outbreak of violence in 2011. And all those crises, along with the current one in Syria, bear a striking similarity: Many of the same Western countries now voicing concern over the humanitarian crisis spilling onto their shores were complicit in propagating and perpetuating the ME conflicts giving rise to the crisis.

It’s difficult to discuss the origins of the current crisis in Syria without referencing the so-called “Arab Spring”. It started in January 2011 as a popular uprising in Tunisia, inspired by one desperate, frustrated young man’s act of self-immolation. In a matter of days the dictator who had ruled over Tunisia for nearly a quarter century acceded to protesters’ demand for his ouster. Inspired by events in Tunisia, young people took to the streets in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous nation. Again, within days the three-decade rule of Egypt’s military-backed leader had suddenly, and unexpectedly, come to an end.

Seeing an opportunity to co-opt the popular movement to push their own ME political agendas, after presumably having learned nothing from the disastrous fall-out of the 2003 Iraq invasion, a number of Western countries proceeded to militarily support uprisings in countries where they wished to see further regime change, in particular Libya and Syria.

The questionable Western-backed coalition of rebel fighters in Syria, which included religious extremist groups opposed to the secular Syrian regime as well as former military personnel from the secular Iraqi regime deposed in 2003, would go on to form the basis of what is now referred to as Islamic State — which another Western “coalition of the willing” is now purportedly bombing Syria and Iraq to save them from. Canada, which had opted out of the misguided 2003 Iraq invasion, has since become an active and belligerent participant in military misadventures in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and now Syria.

And no conversation about the ME is complete without reference to more than half a century of illegal annexation and brutal occupation of Palestine by Israel. It continues to this day because a couple of Western countries on the United Nations (UN) Security Council have repeatedly thwarted the broader UN General Assembly’s efforts to resolve the dispute; the current as well as previous Canadian governments have consistently opposed broader UN efforts at resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute.

Like neighbouring countries Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt – and yes, Iraq – over the years Syria had taken in hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. While those other countries limited the number of Palestinians they accepted in recent years, Syria did not. There were an estimated 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Syria alone prior to the current crisis. As UNRWA notes:”As of March 2014, over half of the Palestine refugee community in Syria is displaced – 270,000 within the country itself, and some 80,000 outside its borders.”

While the attached charts do not include the UNRWA historical data (to be updated when the data become available), they nevertheless speak to the history of the current refugee crisis in Syria and its connection to the 2003 Iraq crisis. Of the 1,000,000 Iraqi refugees from that crisis that remained in Syria prior to the 2011 crisis, it appears few if any returned to Iraq. As the note above regarding Palestinian refugees suggests, the statistics may be complicated by the fact the current crisis has produced millions of displaced persons both within Syria and Iraq.

Those nearly two million Iraqi and Palestinian refugees have been left displaced either in the now war-ravaged country where they had sought refuge  or back in the war-ravaged home country they had hoped to seek refuge from. They are among the potentially millions now seeking refuge in many of the same Western countries whose misguided ME policies helped create the current humanitarian crisis across the region.

As an astute fellow once succinctly put it: “If you break it, you own it.” Western countries now voicing concern over the Syrian and Iraqi refugees spilling onto their shores should bear that in mind.

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