Sustainable peace can reverse region’s migration trends

Sustainable peace can reverse region’s migration trends

Sustainable peace can reverse region’s migration trends
Migrants wait in line to board a boat Lampedusa, Italy, on June 8, 2023. (AFP)
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What could be worse than being the world’s largest refugee source region? A startling finding in the World Migration Report 2022 stands out as an answer to that question. Many Middle East and North Africa countries simultaneously represent points of origin, transit and destination for migrants. It is a triple whammy no region can afford, especially one that already has its fair share of conflict, economic and demographic challenges and intense climate change fallout.

Another study suggests that most of the 20 countries with the largest number of internally displaced people were in the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa due to the conflict and violence there. The number of international migrants (including registered refugees) residing in the MENA region reached 40.8 million in 2020; the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies adds 14 million internally displaced people to that tally.

Unfortunately, the region has endured this label for years and collective efforts to address the challenge have had limited success. Even in 2015, MENA was the largest refugee producer worldwide, with more than 6 million originating from within the region. And more people were internally displaced due to armed conflict than in any other region. The share of the world’s migrants in MENA grew from 9 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic added more than 22.2 million internally displaced people in 2020 alone and its long-term impact is yet to be fully ascertained.

Amid these gloomy scenarios, let us try and paint a rosier picture based on sheer assumptions. What would happen if, by a quirk of fate, even half of the estimated 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, more than 4 million internally displaced people in Yemen and 4 million Syrians in Turkiye returned home? What would happen if Jordan, which hosts about 600,000 registered Syrian refugees and 700,000 unregistered individuals, started returning at least a segment of migrants? Moreover, what would happen if Iraq’s civil strife ended and more than 1 million displaced people returned to their places of origin?

That would be a transformation not known to our generation. Now, let us match those assumptions with what is changing. There is good news on the horizon, potentially influencing the region’s migration patterns, albeit on a small scale. Recent rapprochements across the Middle East, seeking to resolve long-lasting political differences, promise to enhance security and economic collaboration. If handled well, they could return millions of refugees to their places of origin.

However, for this to happen, the region must simultaneously strengthen the governance matrix, address demographic challenges and enhance social development and inclusivity indices. It would also require altering the narrative, emphasizing climate change as an existential challenge beyond geographical boundaries, transcending the political differences and economic inequalities that make the vulnerable suffer the most.

There is good news on the horizon, potentially influencing the region’s migration patterns, albeit on a small scale

Ehtesham Shahid

Reversing migration trends is typically about addressing the underlying causes that push people to migrate. It requires creating conditions that encourage them to return. It also requires the consolidation of skill sets relevant to job markets, building industries to employ citizens and eventually helping them thrive in their sociopolitical surroundings instead of tents made available by the UN.

Climate change, food insecurity and migration form another triple whammy in the region. They converge to create conditions that make MENA even more susceptible to unrest and conflict. Another significant component of the migration battle is engaging the rest of the world, especially Europe, where most of the region’s migrants are headed, legally or otherwise. Unfortunately, while the region struggles to keep its flock together, there is generally a lack of unison on that front too.

Understanding a few fundamental factors related to migration is imperative, especially in this part of the world. One relates to the complexity of climate change, which has been an influencing factor and could accelerate mass migration. Even though staying within one’s country of birth overwhelmingly remains the norm globally, a slight imbalance can potentially trigger climate migration at a scale not previously witnessed by the region. As the Middle East warms at nearly double the worldwide rate, a renewed battle against climate change is the only way to reverse this trend.

Emphasizing the human element of this challenge is another way to put things into perspective. Long-term responses must address the root causes of the crises they create, including the dire economic situations of origin countries that spur migration to countries with “more generous shores.” Addressing a Brookings Institution webinar recently, Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s regional vice president, said some countries have done the world a “global public good” and “the world has asked them to pay for it.” This must change too.

Empirical evidence suggests some movements in the right direction. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 51,300 Syrians returned home in 2022, up from 36,500 in 2021. The UN body says it submitted 24,400 refugees for resettlement from the region — an increase of 19 percent compared to 2021 — and another 20,400 were submitted from Turkiye, 17,000 of them Syrians. “Over 31,000 people departed on resettlement,” it stated. These comparatively small numbers collectively promise a brighter future for both the migrants and the region.

It is reasonable to expect a cascading effect once a substantial reverse migration starts to happen. It would be the equivalent of a demonstration effect on the collective psyche of the millions of conflict victims across the region.

Once the momentum is built, those on the fringe awaiting further stabilization would perhaps jump on the bandwagon and start a narrative favoring a return to their roots. Such a trend might still be in the realm of the imagination, but a wild imagination is always better than the gloom of hopelessness that the region’s conflict zones have witnessed for more than a decade. 

Ehtesham Shahid is an editor and researcher based in the UAE. Twitter: @e2sham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view