The “Unhealable Rift” of Exile: The Plight of Arab Refugees

As the international community hurried to plan and implement COVID-19 vaccination programs, one country received special attention for its efforts to vaccinate refugees, considered the most vulnerable and marginalized populations. Jordan, one of the world’s smallest countries, was the first to start vaccinating its refugee population. While a moral and legal decision by the Jordanians, there is no doubt it was a pragmatic and strategic one as well. One in every three residents of Jordan is a refugee, from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other states. To be sure, Jordan’s own citizens could never be protected from COVID-19 if its refugees were barred or delayed from being vaccinated.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are approximately 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 26 million of whom are refugees. Twenty million fall under the authority of UNHCR and an additional 5-6 million Palestinian refugees are administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). While Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in total, by density Lebanon and Jordan are the highest hosting countries. These numbers, of course, likely exclude hundreds of thousands of undocumented and stateless people who have entered these countries unofficially.

A century of conflict, colonization, foreign intervention, occupation, and authoritarian rule has left many Arab states experiencing poor economic and social conditions. Thus, it is not surprising that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region disproportionately contributes to the world’s refugee numbers, both as states to which refugees flee as well as the host countries that take them in. No conversation about the contemporary Arab world is complete without examination of this population, specifically the refugees from Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Palestine.

Syria’s Ongoing Civil War

While much of the world entered 2021 buoyed by optimism that the year would be better than the last one, the new year represents a different milestone for Syrians: a full decade of a civil war that has irrevocably torn the country apart. More than half of Syria’s prewar population has been displaced, and Syrians account for approximately one third of refugees worldwide while the country has less than 1 percent of the world’s population. About half of the displaced (close to 7 million) have fled Syria entirely, while another 6 million are dispersed internally, often having to move multiple times as they escape new rounds of violence or natural disasters. While the overall number of the displaced has not shifted in recent years, the full story is as complex as the war itself. Many hundreds of thousands have returned to their homes as bombing campaigns cease or target new areas; at the same time, hundreds of thousands more become newly displaced as the situation deteriorates in their own regions.

About half of the displaced (close to 7 million) have fled Syria entirely, while another 6 million are dispersed internally, often having to move multiple times as they escape new rounds of violence or natural disasters.

Host countries, many experiencing their own domestic woes, have been criticized for their handling of refugees and their premature desire for the latter to return to Syria. Although Jordan hosts Zaatari refugee camp, the largest for Syrian refugees in the world, Jordan has also been accused of deporting—in some cases forcibly—Syrian refugees to Rukban, a “no man’s land” in the desert on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Amnesty International estimates that 75 percent of the tens of thousands of Syrians housed in this area have returned to Syria, in part due to poor conditions. Deteriorating conditions in Lebanon have also encouraged Syrians to return home, but due to COVID-19, many have been stuck at the border between Syria and Lebanon. Although some attempted to return via formal repatriation mechanisms, delays in approvals have led those experiencing poverty and food insecurity to attempt more unofficial means. As one man told Al Arabiya TV, “We said we’ll come and sit until they let us in, because otherwise, we don’t have anything.”

In November 2020, the Syrian government hosted a conference ostensibly to encourage refugees to return. President Bashar al-Assad, who is responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians through bombing campaigns, executions, and torture, blamed western nations for the inability of Syrians to return due to sanctions and efforts to keep refugees in host states. Yet with Assad still in power, much of Syria’s infrastructure still destroyed, and a shattered economy that cannot support millions more jobs, experts say it is unlikely to see large numbers of refugees returning, especially those who have settled in Europe and North America.

Poverty and War in Yemen

Yemen, already the poorest country in the Middle East, is widely recognized as having the world’s worst humanitarian crisis due to overwhelming levels of poverty and food insecurity. The Saudi-led war of recent years has wrought disastrous conditions, with impending famine, multiple infectious disease outbreaks, and devastating bombing campaigns that have left tens of millions of Yemenis in significant peril. Close to 4 million have fled their homes, with assumptions that many more would flee if they had the resources to do so. Yemen’s location at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula has also made it more difficult for refugees to escape, as the only countries with which it shares borders (Saudi Arabia and Oman) accept very few refugees; in the case of Saudi Arabia, it is a principal participant in the war itself.

Thus, millions of Yemenis are internally displaced people (IDPs) living in makeshift camps, primarily in Taiz, Hajjah, and Sanaa, while many others flee across the Red Sea to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Egypt. Washington, providing the Saudis with weapons and logistical support, has accepted very few refugees from Yemen. In 2018, for example, only two refugees from Yemen were resettled in the United States. Europe, typically a premier destination for MENA’s refugees, has also resettled very few. Because the UN requires refugees to be in-country to claim refugee status, the few Yemeni refugees who have made it to Europe have often had to make journeys through Turkey or pay smugglers to take dangerous voyages across the Mediterranean to reach European lands.

In 2018, for example, only two refugees from Yemen were resettled in the United States. Europe, typically a premier destination for MENA’s refugees, has also resettled very few.

Yemen is unique for a low-income conflict-affected state in that while it is experiencing very poor conditions, it also serves as a host state for refugees from other countries where conditions are even worse. As of summer 2020, nearly 300,000 refugees and asylum-seekers were living in Yemen, 90 percent of whom hail from Somalia. UNHCR is thus stretched in terms of resources, having to support both internally displaced Yemenis and the refugees who have left even more dire situations of poverty and oppression. While many of these Somali and Ethiopian refugees aim to enter Saudi Arabia for work, the Saudi government has been just as unreceptive as it has been to Yemenis, deporting hundreds of thousands to their home countries and revoking work visas.

Decades of Violence in Iraq

With a population of more than 40 million, Iraq is one of the largest Arab states with a significant refugee population. It is estimated that approximately 9 million Iraqis are either IDPs or refugees. While Iraq has been engaged in foreign and domestic conflicts for decades, the invasion by the United States and its allies in 2003 pushed the country to a new breaking point and caused 1 in 25 Iraqis to flee their homes. Like in many refugee environments, the first to flee were those with means, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals, leaving the country’s most impoverished without basic services. Many of the internally displaced have fled to the northern Kurdistan region, where refugees and IDPs make up 25 percent of the population. Like Yemen, Iraq also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from Syria.

Like in many refugee environments, the first to flee Iraq were those with means, including doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals, leaving the country’s most impoverished without basic services.

Aside from the US-led invasion in 2003, the 2010s brought a new threat to Iraqi civilians: the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now the Islamic State (IS). At one point, IS had captured 40 percent of Iraq—including Mosul, the second largest city in the country—and imposed its brutal whims on civilians. As a result, millions of Iraqis fled their homes in areas held by IS, causing another wave of migrants and IDPs. IS was particularly brutal to minorities, including the Yezidis in northern Iraq, Christians, and Shia Muslims. In 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry called the actions of IS toward these groups tantamount to “genocide.” Thousands of Yezidis fled Iraq after a massacre in the Mount Sinjar region in 2014, finding homes in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Lincoln, Nebraska, has become an unlikely hub for these refugees in the United States, with over 3,000 Yezidis living there in what is thought to be the largest Yezidi community in the country.

While the fall of IS has permitted some of the displaced to return, many factors make a transition to normalcy more difficult, including psychological scars left by the attacks, poverty and homelessness, or a perceived affiliation with the organization—sometimes merely due to sharing the same religion. As one refugee told The Washington Post, “You need to understand: Our houses weren’t bulldozed by random strangers. The man in the bulldozer was my nephew. Even our families want us dead.”

A Toppled Dictator in Libya, and a Country in Chaos

The early 2000s were a period of relative growth for Libya, once a sought-after destination for refugees and migrants from fragile African and Middle Eastern states. Buoyed by natural oil reserves and an inflated public sector, the economy was able to sustain widespread corruption and inefficient financial policies during the decades of Muammar Qadhafi’s authoritarian rule. Libya enjoyed increasing positive social and economic outcomes for years, eventually becoming Africa’s most highly developed country according to the United Nations Human Development Index.

However, critics argue that much of this growth was superficial, and these cracks began to become evident after the 2011 civil war when Qadhafi was killed. This set off a decade of conflict, lawlessness, and rapidly deteriorating living conditions that have led to major displacements that include approximately 50,000 refugees, nearly 400,000 IDPs, and another 500,000 who had left Libya but since returned, either forcibly or voluntarily. According to human rights groups, large numbers of those who are intercepted after fleeing Libya face enforced disappearance, detention, torture, and extortion upon their return. Initially, many of the refugees went to nearby Tunisia, at one point in 2014 their numbers reaching nearly 2 million, or one fifth of Tunisia’s total population. Others attempted to escape to Egypt, where they are often not offered a warm welcome.

According to human rights groups, large numbers of those who are intercepted after fleeing Libya face enforced disappearance, detention, torture, and extortion upon their return.

Libya hosts an estimated 600,000 refugees and migrants who, in the past, used its port cities like Tripoli to travel to Europe. Yet the Libyan Coast Guard is consistently intercepting vessels attempting to cross the Mediterranean, capturing well over 11,000 refugees in 2020. Most of these refugees are not native to Libya but instead come from nations like Mali, Bangladesh, and Sudan. Crackdowns in European migration policies have led many of these vulnerable populations to get stuck in Libya, living in overcrowded and poorly resourced camps where they face human rights abuses like forced labor and torture. One migrant detention center was bombed in 2019, prompting an evacuation of thousands of migrants from the country. As rival factions vie for power, the conditions on the ground remain poor, especially in the migrant camps, where refugees are clustered together in rooms too small for all to sleep at the same time.

Conflict, Occupation, and Blockade in Palestine

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 led to one of the largest and longest lasting refugee crises of modern times. The clear intentions of the British to end the Mandate for Palestine, which they had occupied after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and to partition the land primarily held by an indigenous Arab population led to tensions and violence. Some Palestinians fled in the initial fighting before the Israeli Declaration of Independence was officially signed. Yet quickly the expulsion policy became more forceful, with documented massacres and forced displacement that intensified as Israeli leaders sought to claim certain lands for their own future state. Up to 800,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled during this time, known as the start of the Nakba, or catastrophe. Most of these Palestinians intended to return once the fighting ceased, having left their personal belongings behind and held onto their house keys. However, most found return impossible as borders closed, many homes were destroyed, and, in the Palestinian landowners’ absence, personal property was claimed as Israeli territory. The house keys, functionally useless, have instead become a symbol of one of the primary Palestinian aspirations: the right of refugee return.

Most Palestinians found return impossible as borders closed, many homes were destroyed, and, in the Palestinian landowners’ absence, personal property was claimed as Israeli territory.

Due to the significant role the United Nations played in the partition process and to the humanitarian crisis resulting from the 1948 war, UNRWA was founded as a result of UN General Assembly Resolution 302(IV) in 1949 to offer services to “[a]nyone whose normal place of residence was in Mandate Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war….” Their descendants were also included in this definition to keep families unified. Initially, UNRWA’s mandate was for 750,000 refugees; today, nearly 5 million Palestinians are eligible for services, although only 1.5 million live in 58 of the UNRWA refugee camps throughout the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. UNRWA also administers dozens of schools, hospitals, and other facilities for the refugee population. While some Palestinians fled to other countries like Iraq, Egypt, and Kuwait, UNRWA has little presence there.

The experience of Palestinian refugees is quite varied. Jordan is a unique host country for Palestinians as it was the only one to grant most refugees full Jordanian citizenship. Conversely, in Lebanon, Palestinians remain “stateless” and thus are denied many rights.

The experience of Palestinian refugees is quite varied. Jordan is a unique host country for Palestinians as it was the only one to grant most refugees full Jordanian citizenship. Conversely, in Lebanon, Palestinians remain “stateless” and thus are denied many rights, including the right to build, to serve in certain professions, and even the ability to access certain health and education facilities. Palestinians in Syria, while not Syrian citizens, are offered more rights than their counterparts in Lebanon; however, in the context of the Syrian civil war, Syria has become more inhospitable to Palestinian refugees. For example, in 2018, the Yarmouk refugee camp was bombed and 80 percent of the infrastructure was destroyed. In Gaza, almost three-quarters of the population has refugee classification, while approximately 800,000 registered refugees live in the West Bank. Much peer-reviewed literature from the refugee camps confirms what anecdotal evidence suggests: the conditions in the camps, overall, are quite poor.

UNRWA has been subject to heavy criticism, and in 2018, the Trump Administration cut all funding to the agency (but other donors covered much of the shortfall), arguing that the agency perpetuated refugee status. This is a misunderstanding of the agency’s obligation, which is to serve a specific refugee population as long as it continues to exist. No agency can force host states to offer citizenship to refugee populations, and without a just political resolution to the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the blockade of the Gaza Strip, there is no obvious solution for the Palestinian refugee crisis in the near future.

What Can Be Done for the Refugees of the Arab World?

The majority of the refugees from Arab states did not leave their homes due to economic concerns or natural disasters; they fled instead as a result of political reasons, especially state fragility and conflict. It is widely assumed that most refugees wish to return home. However, in the case of the refugees assessed in this analysis, there is often no home to return to, no functioning economy in the home country (except in the Palestinian case), and no guarantee of physical safety. Coupled with arbitrarily enforced and often harsh policies toward migrants in many host countries, refugees seemingly face no good choices.

The conflicts leading to most of the world’s Arab refugees are protracted and complex, with multiple actors facing diverging incentives. Poverty and food insecurity make political participation difficult for the average citizen, and in many nations, it is the state authorities themselves that are persecuting citizens in their home countries, compelling them to flee. Short of ending the conflicts and rebuilding the home countries under robust democratic institutions, goals that unfortunately do not seem to be on the horizon, there are several policies that could make the practices of today more effective and more accessible for refugees, both in leaving their home country and, potentially, returning home.

The socially constructed stigma of being a refugee is significant. Refugees are often blamed for bringing crime and disease to host communities, or for taking the jobs of locals. But research has shown that refugees do not bring disease; in fact, their presence leads to healthier host communities. There is also vast evidence that refugees are also good for host economies. While refugees overall do not seem to contribute to higher crime, many of the refugee crimes committed are not by conflict-affected refugees with potential to stay in the host community, but by economic migrants who cannot integrate in local societies because they know they will not be able to obtain legal status. It is also thought that crime would decrease if refugee families could more easily travel together.

Whether the refugees plan to return home or not, all parties would benefit if host countries prioritized the integration of refugees, even if they are not willing to easily confer legal status. Discrimination against refugees in the workforce keeps them in poverty, and refugee populations are sometimes legally prohibited from working in certain fields. As many refugees with the means to leave their homelands are in professional trades, host countries should recognize their qualifications and certifications in a standard transferrable process. In Syria’s case, for example, some 15,000 doctors fled the country by the end of December 2013. Employers may initially need incentives to hire refugees; states should offer such incentives, knowing that refugees with access to work are healthier, happier, and integrate more easily. Rather than ignore the social and cultural needs of the refugees, host countries should offer appropriate resources, including mental health services and job training. Marginalizing and degrading refugee populations do not make them disappear, and as long as there are civilians within a state’s borders, that state should have humane policies in place to benefit both the refugee populations and the host communities.

For some refugees, traumatic memories, economic distress, or fear upon return can be compelling reasons to stay away from their homeland. Many may settle down in their host country for either personal or professional reasons. Yet some host states wish to return refugees as quickly as possible.

Repatriation, or returning home, is a delicate topic. First, it is illegal to return a refugee to a dangerous setting. For some refugees, traumatic memories, economic distress, or fear upon return can be compelling reasons to stay away from their homeland. Many may settle down in their host country for either personal or professional reasons. Yet some host states wish to return refugees as quickly as possible. In Lebanon, for example, officials argued in 2019 that most of the remaining Syrian refugees were there for economic opportunities and not security reasons, and thus should return to Syria. Denmark started pushing a similar policy, arguing that Syria’s capital of Damascus, held by Assad, was safe and thus refugees could be returned there. These policies were enforced regardless of reports that showed that many refugees compelled to return to Syria were interrogated or even arrested upon reentry. For most of the 5 million Palestinian refugees, of course, there is no home to return to, as Israel will not currently consider the right of return nor reparations for any number of Palestinian refugees. Iraqi, Libyan, and Yemeni refugees face similar economic, security, and logistical concerns upon return, making the prospect seemingly impossible for many.

As long as conflict persists, civilians will continue to take the steps necessary to protect themselves and their families. Often, these populations find no option but to flee entirely, not knowing if their journey will be safe or even where they are headed to begin with. Rather than fear and ostracize these communities, host countries should recognize refugees as people facing impossible circumstances who are compelled to make a difficult choice. The conflicts in the states that contribute to most of the Arab world’s refugees are the result of decades of instability and will not be fixed overnight. As such, refugee policies should no longer be seen as stop-gap measures and receive inconsistent funding; rather, they need to be built as sustainable policies that save lives while offering benefits to host communities.

As the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said said of exile, it “is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” While this rift may never be fully mended, policies rooted in human rights and social justice can begin to lead to healing.

Yara M. Asi, PhD, is Non-resident fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Yara and read her publications. click here