Weaponization of the refugee crisis must be addressed

During the Turkiye presidential elections, the status of Syrian refugees became a central topic. The winner of the election, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took a strong stand and stated that it was the nation’s duty and role to support “unfortunate people.” The opposition ran a strong anti-migrant message throughout the election campaign. With 3.7 million refugees, Turkiye is the biggest host of refugees in the world. Most of them come from Syria; some 6.8 million Syrians have been displaced by conflict according to the UNHCR. The main debate around refugees and displaced populations reveals in fact the political weaponization of this issue.

At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, when millions of Syrian refugees crossed toward Europe, Erdogan was accused by many states of weaponizing the refugee issue to put pressure on geopolitical files and other negotiations. His position on refugees during the last elections was a big change, and indicated a commitment not to weaponize this issue with the EU. It is in line with the reconciliatory foreign policy approach Erdogan has pursued within the region lately.

From the Levant to Europe and to the other side of the Atlantic, we find similar confrontations on refugees and displaced populations. The vocabulary is important and there is an amalgam between refugees and economic migrants. A refugee is someone who is forced to leave their home country due to persecution, conflict, or violence, while an economic migrant is someone who voluntarily moves to another country primarily for better economic prospects. Indeed, when looking at the images shown of economic migrants at the borders of any country or in convoys, many commentators and politicians describe them as asylum seekers. This is a mistake because an asylum seeker leaves his home country and seeks international protection in another country, typically due to fear of persecution. This difference does not undermine the right of economic migrants to seek a better future for their children. Yet it is important to understand the difference as it is exploited in the weaponization of displaced populations. 

Following Brexit, we noticed a similar situation between France and the UK. Tensions on the passage of “asylum seekers” started in 2021 as the UK withdrew from the Dublin Agreement, which determines that refugees can be sent back to an EU country. This increased the difficulty of the situation and Channel crossings by migrants. It became a point of negotiation between the two countries, just like the fishing rights dispute and other disagreements that followed Brexit. It also became a domestic issue for both countries. Earlier this year, Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron reached an agreement on the issue and the prevention of migrants crossing the Channel. France also faces tensions on refugees with the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Comoros over the expulsion of refugees from its poorest territory, the island of Mayotte.

The conflict in Sudan will be added to the growing list of countries such as Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela, where conflict has displaced millions.

Khaled Abou Zahr

The same is happening in the US too. Here it has become purely a domestic political file amongst the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republican Party is not against immigration but demands legal immigration whereas the Democratic Party in its majority looks for federal support to accommodate illegal immigration. The reality is that the US is one of the most welcoming countries for lawful immigration. It is part of the DNA and set-up of the country to welcome new migrants every year. According to the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, the US welcomes more than 1.5 million new migrants, including economic migrants and refugees, every year. With the upcoming expiration of Title 42 (which allowed for expulsions during the pandemic) and the 2024 presidential election, it is difficult to see a solution for this issue as political polarization will reach its peak.

Weak and broken Lebanon bears more than its capacity with the highest refugees per capita worldwide. There are 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon with roughly a population of 480,000. They live in extreme dire conditions and do not have the same rights as Lebanese citizens. And, since 2011, more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees have been hosted in Lebanon. They, too, live in terrible conditions and face abuse. In a country of minorities such as Lebanon, which has a total population of 5.5 million, one can understand the difficulties of this situation. Today, the most pressing issue is the risk that Syrian refugees could face if they return to their own country.

And so, similar to the images of Syrian refugees’ convoys at the beginning of the 2011 war, the images at the borders of the US and in France or Lebanon all point to the weaponization of the global migration and refugee crisis. There are now new threats in various geographies. The conflict in Sudan will be added to the growing list of countries such as Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela, where conflict has displaced millions. This puts more pressure on bordering countries than on Europe and the US. And so, bigger efforts for conflict resolution and more resources devoted to local capacity-building need to be put in place. Unfortunately, like many problems, we look at treating the symptoms rather than the root cause. It becomes even more impossible when domestic politics are thrown into the mix.

As a first step and at bare minimum, a commitment to stopping the weaponization of migrants should be achieved. It is too often true that refugees are abused within international negotiations or even in domestic political rivalries. This is exacerbated by the impact on elections in Western countries, which are facing inflation and debt and witnessing their own populations in precarious situations. A sincere question remains about the duty of nations toward “unfortunate people” from far away places versus a duty to their own people. As we notice more and more disparity within society, is there still a place for global solidarity?

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