The Middle East is witnessing the largest flows of population movement since 1948, when Palestinians were displaced with the creation of the state of Israel. The repercussions of that exodus over 60 years ago continues to be felt throughout the region to this day, and are being compounded in a multitude of ways today by refugees losing their homes and livelihoods, from Syria to Yemen.
It would have been impossible to pick up a newspaper or watch a news bulletin in 2014 without hearing stories of displacement and the agonizing suffering of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the Middle East. Iraqis fleeing with only the clothes on their back as ISIS stormed the city of Mosul; refugees stranded and drowned off the coast of the Mediterranean; the list goes on.
The current dynamics in the region give us little hope for reversing this trend in 2015. In addition to the devastating humanitarian crisis, unparalleled in the 21st century, there are political, social, economic and security implications for the largest demographic shift in over six decades. The ultimate solution must be to end these conflicts politically and find justice and dignity for the peoples of this region. However, until then, we all carry a responsibility towards those stranded in their own countries, among their neighbours and beyond. And in all cases, rate of return of refugees is often slow in post-conflict areas, and the average length of time a person may spend in a refugee camp is 17 years. And the majority of refugees in the region are not in camps, rather in makeshift housing that exacerbates their suffering.
The implications are huge for the countries suffering the loss of their best and brightest, and for those countries receiving hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people in need of protection and basic services. The “brain drain” has taken on an accelerated pace, not only in places of conflict such as Iraq and Libya, but in most countries of the region where the future looks less secure than ever.
In addition, the social fabric of the region is under direct threat as minorities are targeted and asylum abroad seems like the only viable option. As security threats increase, the mass movement of people has become a liability that affects all those in the region and beyond. While we mark the centenary of the First World War, and the political maps of that area come under strain in the Arab world, we must make sure that 100 years on, genocide and the stifling of identity are not repeated on our watch.
One of the most daunting of the many statistics about refugee flows in the region is that the third largest city in Jordan is now the Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees. Syrian refugees currently account for more than 30% of Lebanon’s population. On 10 June, when ISIS stormed Iraq’s second city, Mosul, 500,000 people fled in 24 hours. A whole new set of problems emerge once safe passage, or dangerous escapes, are over.
Tensions in many of the countries that host refugees, and for those refugees who move from one city to another, will have a long-term impact on the region. When an Iraqi is not free to move in his or her own country, to flee from one devastated city to another, the impact on the social fabric and domestic relations cannot be overstated. It is here that efforts to find common ground between people, regardless of ethnicity or sect, are vital. Initiatives such as the Community Livelihoods Project in Yemen help to bring Yemenis together regardless of political differences: what binds them together in striving for a better livelihood is greater than what divides them.
It is vital to remember that displacement flows are occurring in the same region that hosts the largest percentage of young people in the world – and that has an average youth-unemployment rate of 27%, according to the International Labour Organization. This is often cited as one of the troubles of the region; yet young Arabs are tired of being labelled as a problem.
There is a need to stop seeing demographic shifts as a problem and start seeing the potential opportunities. Young people are the leading force of change in the region; they are often at the forefront of fighting the sort of extremism that was bred by previous generations. Creating job opportunities, giving them the chance of self-expression (as seen in the proliferation of TedX events in the region) and promoting cultural links through the arts can all be a positive influence.
Many Arabs feel they are getting to know one another more now, as whole new communities emerge through this mass population movement. One of the joys of visiting Baghdad and Damascus used to be the array of culinary delights, from the world-famous Iraqi Masqouf fish to the ice cream of Bagdash. These are small comforts of home that can be found from Amman to London. This is not to belittle the devastation and challenges at hand, but to try to find a silver lining among the ruins.
UNHCR, the United Nations agency responsible for refugees worldwide, has launched an appeal for $1.7 billion for 2015, and the immediate need will be for donors to meet that appeal. However, past years have shown that appeals aren’t always fully met by donor states, for a variety of reasons: often a lack of political will. That means it is up to every influential voice to pressurize the international community and for donor countries to meet that appeal.
In addition to monetary support, refugees and IDPs need help in finding employment or education so that their lives don’t grind to a standstill while the conflict in their home countries rages on. It is here that many of us can play a role. The financing of small business and the granting of permits to set up projects are vital, as is education. Helping to secure scholarships at leading universities can offer young refugees a lifeline, the possibility of a brighter future and give hope to their families and communities.
Edraak, a project of the Queen Rania Foundation, is now providing MOOCs in Arabic to more than 200,000 students. Support from technology companies and universities could expand MOOCs to refugees and displaced people, young and old, around the Arab world, giving them the tool of education to battle despair and bring hope.
Author: Mina Al-Oraibi is Assistant Editor in Chief of Asharq Alawsat newspaper. As an Iraqi journalist based in the United Kingdom, her writing focuses on Middle Eastern politics and Western policy towards the region. Mina is Young Global Leader and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the Middle East and North Africa.
Mina Al-Oraibi is attending our Annual Meeting 2015 in Davos, and is a panel member in the session Religion: A Pretext for Conflict?, on 21/1 at 12.30 CET.
Image: Syrian refugee children attend a class at their camp in Amman December 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.