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What motivates people to leave their homes and venture into an uncertain future?
Migration has defined history since the beginning of humanity. Indeed were it not for migration, people would have remained within the narrow confines of the rift valley in East Africa.
There are two forces at play: push factors compel people to leave their ancestral lands. Push factors can be environmental: soil degradation, flooding, drought and other calamities. In addition to natural causes, there are of course man made ones: war, persecution, poverty and strife. Human beings have a strong survival instinct with an inbuilt biological imperative to ensure their genes are passed to the next generation. If one place is unsafe, humans will move to the next.
The pull factors draw humans to a destination, rather than away from one. Pull factors include better housing, education and employment prospects. These factors (together with generous invitations) led to many members of Asian and Afro-Caribbean communities to migrate to the United Kingdom in the 1950’s and ’60s. Migrants who uproot because of pull factors are rather disparagingly called ‘economic migrants’. This term is misleading as evidence suggests migration actually benefits the host community more than the migrants themselves.
Before the current crisis, there was very little migration from Syria and Iraq to Europe. This would suggest the pull factor of Europe was not sufficient to drive people to leave their homes. Indeed, despite its despotic nature, according to UNESCO’s 2004 report – “Iraq education in transition needs and challenges”, Iraq pre-war had higher rates of literacy, educational attainment and employment than many Western countries.
No, mass migration stems from conflicts that have engulfed the Middle East since the turn of the millennium. The Second Gulf War, which succeeded in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, was also unfortunately an utter failure with regard to post-conflict state building. By establishing, in effect, a ‘two state’ Iraq with an autonomous Kurdistan in the north and a Shia dominated south, the conditions created during the war became fertile ground for sectarian tensions. In particular, the perceived subjugation of Arab Sunnis (who comprise around 30 percent of Iraq’s population), aroused tension and flared anger throughout the Middle East and Turkey where Sunnis hold an overwhelming majority.
Into the heady mix came the promise of democracy. If Iraq can be democratic, and so can the Iraqi Kurds, the argument went, why not the rest of the Arab world? Many Arab countries had lived under despotic leaders such as Mubarak in Egypt, Ben Ali in Tunisia and Assad in Syria. The status quo maintaining these odious rulers was for two reasons. First, the desire of the international community to maintain ‘stability’ and second, the Cold War. With the demise of the Soviet Union, and the resulting disarray in Russia, many of these regimes looked vulnerable.
Bring on the Arab Spring of 2010. The regimes in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia were overthrown, and Syria looked to be headed down the same path.
Bashar Al-Assad has survived what appeared to be a fait accompli only with the military support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon – to the fury of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Assad’s Alawite Shia sect is a small minority in Syria, but has support from Iran. Russia’s intimate involvement has prompted both financial support and training for Sunni extremists from an array of sources.
Had the opponents of Assad been more cohesive, Russia may not have intervened. Each Middle Eastern state effectively sponsored its own opposition group. This splintered opposition has enabled Assad to portray himself as the victim of terrorist groups. The presence of the most extreme group, the so called Islamic State (Daesh) provided Russia with a pretext for military intervention. Russia has been bombing all opponents of Assad (Daesh and others) whilst Turkey has resumed shelling of Kurdish positions.
The human cost has been enormous. An estimated 400,000 people are trapped in and desperate to escape Aleppo. According to the UNHCR, more than 10 million Syrians have become displaced out of a population of 23 million and nearly 300,000 have died. There is famine in vast strips of Northern Syria and temperatures plummet below freezing.
This is a human disaster of biblical proportions.
Whilst sending migrants back to Syria or Iraq is not an acceptable or viable solution, we should not dismiss the anxieties of host communities. There is no doubt large-scale, rapid migration puts a strain on public services, jobs and community cohesion. Fears that Daesh terrorists could infiltrate the UK as refugees are justified. But they should not distract us from a shared responsibility to help those in need. As global citizens, and members of a country in part responsible for a latent conflict, which finally boiled over, we must share accountability.
Although there is a risk of terrorists masquerading as refugees to sneak into the UK, migrants who have experienced extremist rule firsthand can become voices for counter-narratives to dissuade would be home grown terrorists.
The current situation is untenable, and a settlement, rather than a solution, must be reached in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and the Levant.
Finally, there is the right wing mantra of importing terrorism through refugees which is part of the wider insidious narrative of lumping Muslims with extremism and Jihadism. This abstraction is not only incorrect but dangerous. As mentioned earlier refugees who have suffered at the hands of extremists are able to provide a great counter narrative within Muslim communities to those seduced by the lure of Daesh. Secondly and more importantly, it detracts from the real task of managing and controlling home grown terrorists who are a bigger threat.
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