Security, Security Bulletin

Conflict as a Push-Factor for Migration

Continuing our analysis of migration and the refugee crises around the world, we turn our eyes to the migration crisis arising out of wars in West Asia. This week, the world watched in horror as the Syrian army conducted their final push to take back Aleppo from rebel forces. This was the latest in a conflict that has plagued Syria for the past five years. The conflict as a whole has so far been responsible for the displacement of more than 12 million people (more than half of Syria’s population). This crisis along with others such as Yemen and the civil war in Sri Lanka a few years ago, highlight the changing nature of wars. In these cases, the governments have actively used civilians as pawns in their power games against “rebel forces” often leading to the dismissal of their rights and obliteration of their way of life.

The Syrian conflict (as well as the one in Yemen and Afghanistan) has been perpetuated by the involvement of global powers, namely the US and Russia. This overreach in the name of their “interests” and support of their allies has made life unlivable in many parts of the world. This telling UNHCR graphic explains the flow of migrants into Europe. Note that the top 5 countries (Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq and Eritrea) where the migrants come from are plagued with long-lasting conflicts in war-like situations.

The systems in place to deal with these conflicts at an early stage in the UN General Assembly and Security Council are often ignored or end in deadlock as opposing sides are given an equal veto power. The very composition of the Security Council (Permanent members – US, UK, France, Russia and China) shows that stalemates will be a frequent, if not, permanent occurrence. In turn, these deadlocks continue to increase tensions between these states and the growing negative perception and lack of trust in these international organizations.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commission on Refugees estimates that on average, a displaced person will remain so for an estimated 17 years which shows a basic inability of international organizations to effectively rehabilitate refugees. Often this period remains so long because of renewed fighting, strict government rehabilitation policies and closure of refugee camps such as the Calais jungle.

Europe faced a migration crisis in the early 1990s; because of the Balkan wars. The Centre for Economic and Policy Research explains that the difference between the two situations is manifold. Firstly, in today’s context Europe has a partial role to play in the conflict. Secondly, the general mood in today’s Europe is not as optimistic as the triumphant tone of the period immediately after the end of the Cold War. And finally, since most immigrants come from Asia and Africa, they possess very different cultures, languages and religions from a majority of Europeans.

Recipient countries are constrained for practical reasons and limited resources in the numbers of migrants they can take in. And they are also bound by political constraints. Decisions on migration polices can make or break a government. With a wave of electoral successes for anti-immigrant political parties in the west, politicians are increasingly sensitive to opinion polls. Not surprisingly, most public opinion polls in the EU reveal disapproval of the way governments are handling the refugee crisis. Disapproval is the highest among the states which had the highest number of asylum seekers such as Greece and Sweden.

It is important to highlight the fact that Western media dominate global news and emphasize their own issues. While the migration crisis into Europe dominated the headlines and our social media newsfeeds, the UN reports that the three countries which sheltered the largest number of refugees were actually Pakistan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Meanwhile, in a post-truth world, we as a global audience are more susceptible to manipulation by populist leaders. While it is important for countries to deal with short-term priorities such as rehabilitation of refugees, policing within their borders, and managing limited natural resources, they must also recognize that the refugee crisis may be a permanent problem. In other words, these crises are less to do with pull-factors (the misconception that people are traveling for better jobs and better lives) and more to do with push-factors where people are forced to abandon all they have in search of a life free from violence and persecution. We must come to terms with the fact that the migration crisis is just a symptom of war and conflict, perpetuated very often by international institutions which are not fit for purpose.