What shapes the Middle East’s migration patterns

Children ride atop a water truck that is also loaded with furniture in the countryside of the village of Saharah in Syria's northern Aleppo province on Feb, 15, 2020. (Photo by Ibrahim Yasouf / AFP)
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Updated 20 February 2020

What shapes the Middle East’s migration patterns

  • An estimated 29 million people have migrated from Arab countries since 1990, according to UN data
  • Political crises and civil conflicts have blurred the lines between voluntary and forced migration

ABU DHABI: Less than two months since an unhappy year for the Arab region’s migrants and refugees came to an end, the omens of things to come are far from good.

According to the latest “Situation Report on Migration in the Arab Region,” prepared by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in collaboration with various UN agencies, displacement and migration are two prominent trends at the beginning of 2020. Particularly — and unsurprisingly — in countries with ongoing wars.

An overwhelming majority of Arab countries endorsed the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) at the UN General Assembly in December 2018, voting to adopt its principles in national legislatures.

Subsequently, the number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea was found to have plunged in 2018 to almost a tenth of what it was in 2015.

However, the reality of the region’s migrant and refugee situation belies the hopes raised by the adoption of the GCM.

In Libya, for example, there was a steep deterioration last year in the living conditions of migrants and refugees stranded in the unstable North African country.

FASTFACTS

29m - An estimated 29 million people have migrated from Arab countries since 1990.

1/2 - Almost half of the people who migrated stayed within the Arab region.

9.1m - Refugees who have sought protection in the Arab region include 3.7 million under the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency and 5.4 million registered with UNRWA.

14.5% - The number of migrant workers in 18 Arab countries stood at 23.8 million in 2017, representing 14.5 percent of all migrant workers globally.

The country’s protracted civil conflict has not only caused massive displacement within its borders, but also means it has become a dangerous place for economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa wishing to travel to Europe.

World leaders have just pledged in Berlin not to interfere in Libya’s civil conflict and to uphold a UN arms embargo, but only time will tell if that promise will be honored.

In Syria, meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Idlib — the last stronghold of opposition forces and a safe haven for millions of internally displaced persons (IDP) — remains shaky as Russian-backed regime forces press on, despite mounting civilian casualties.

In Yemen, a peace opportunity was missed in early 2019, and there has been no let-up since in the fighting between government forces and the Houthi militia, who control the capital Sanaa and the northern highlands.

The country currently hosts between 2 million and 3.5 million IDPs and another 1.28 million returnees, in addition to 279,000 migrants and refugees — almost exclusively from Somalia and Ethiopia — for whom the country is a short-term way station, not a final destination.

Lebanon is in the grip of a wide- ranging crisis, too. People at the bottom of the economic ladder, including 1.5 million Syrian refugees and almost 500,000 Palestinian refugees, supplement their meager incomes with handouts from aid agencies.

Even before the protests erupted in Lebanon in October last year, a UN vulnerability assessment report for refugees in the country, carried out in early 2019, made grim reading.




Illustration courtesy of International Organization for Migration (IOM)

It said about 73 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were living below the poverty line — up from 69 percent the year before, and considerably higher than the estimated 28 percent of Lebanese in the same situation.

Of course, migration and displacement have long shaped the Arab region, with countries simultaneously acting as points of origin, transit and destination.

However, in recent years, the distinction between voluntary and forced migration has become blurred as political crises and civil conflicts — viewed as the chief causes of human displacement — have proliferated.

“The challenge today is to put in place policies that will ensure successful and true integration while benefiting both the countries of residence and origin,” Laura Petrache, a senior adviser at Migrant Integration Lab, told Arab News.

According to UN reports, the number of migrants and refugees originating from the Arab region reached 29 million in 2017. Almost half of them remained in the region. Overall, the number of migrants and refugees as a proportion of the total population of the Arab region has risen steadily over the past three decades.

In 2018, around 80 percent of the region’s refugees originated in the Levant, mostly on account of the Syrian conflict.




The number of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea was found to have plunged in 2018 to almost a tenth of what it was in 2015. (AFP)

 

Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Sudan are among the top 10 Arab destinations for migrants and IDPs owing to conflicts in the neighborhood. Apart from Lebanon, all of those countries have witnessed an increase in the number of refugees and migrants within their borders since 2015.

After Turkey, Jordan was the second-most-popular destination country for refugees and migrants from the region, with Lebanon,  Saudi Arabia and the UAE also reporting significant numbers. Iraq was the only country that saw its national refugee and migrant population decrease.

What the latest reports confirm is that migration in the Arab world not only has multiple drivers — socio-economic pressures, political instability and environmental degradation — but also complex patterns and trends.

Take the Gulf and the Levant regions. They attract different kinds of migrants because their levels of stability, security and development are not comparable.

While Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen are plagued by conflict, violence, corruption and divisions in both society and polity, GCC member countries are leading the way in groundbreaking ideas and investments, building cities of the future and attracting talent from across the world.




Illustrations courtesy of International Organization for Migration (IOM)
 

The migrant population in the GCC countries swelled from 8.2 million in 1990 to 28.1 million in 2017 — a substantial rise compared with figures for other parts of the Arab region.

Around 27 percent of global remittance outflows in 2017 reportedly came from the Arab region, estimated at $120.6 billion, and almost all of that (98.9 percent or $119.3 billion) came from GCC countries. According to the IOM’s report, the top remittance-sending countries were the UAE (at $44.3 billion) and Saudi Arabia (at $36.1 billion).

Under the circumstances, it is difficult to see meaningful, positive change for migrants happening any time soon in the Arab region, with the possible exception of the GCC.

“Migration policy making should move away from assimilationist frameworks,” Petrache, of the Migrant Integration Lab, told Arab News. “Instead, the policy emphasis should be on working with countries of origin to achieve sustainable integration — and re-integration in the case of return immigration.

“The policies should take into consideration the potential for win-win solutions using and developing the capability of the migrants to make a positive contribution to local host communities,” Petrache said.

 


With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

Updated 28 March 2020

With virus, cherished Mideast traditions come to abrupt halt

  • In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult
  • The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees

BAGHDAD: Under the sign “Take out only” and a tall bottle of antiseptic by his side, Mazin Hashim, 54, rearranged the coals heating a water pipe outside his famed cafe in Baghdad.
He put up the placard to satisfy recent government restrictions on movement and gatherings that are aimed at slowing the outbreak of the new coronavirus. Once inside, however, thick white plumes of fragrant smoke choked the air as over a dozen young men whiled away the hours in defiance of the directives.
As the pandemic continues to spread, governments across the Middle East are clamping down on the region’s cherished traditions: No more massive weddings and celebrations. Restrictions on sales of qat, a mild plant narcotic chewed in groups in Yemen. No more evenings spent mostly by men in traditional coffee shops across the region. And most importantly, no more smoking of the beloved shisha, or water pipe, in public places.
In a region where life is often organized around large families, communal meals and tribal rules, social distancing can be difficult.
In Iraq, clarion calls sound twice a day to remind people to adhere to the ban on public gatherings. But that has little impact at Hashim’s shisha parlor, second home to 29-year-old Mustafa Ahmed who comes every day to meet friends and seek solace from the monotony of domestic life.
Not even at the height of Iraq’s sectarian wars was he made to spend seven straight days at home. He and his friends smoked shisha at Hashim’s instead.
“It’s normal for us to come here during times of crisis,” said Ahmed. “The only difference this time is we are hiding from the police.”
Safety tips being traded by many in Iraq often fly in the face of global appeals by experts to avoid physical contact and keep a safe distance from others.
Iraq’s revered Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, whose opinion is sought by many, said it was necessary to avoid shaking hands, hugging and kissing except when the “necessary precautions” were taken, including sterilization, masks and gloves.
But Hashim said his acquaintances routinely ignore even such warnings. In Iraq, the custom is to plant one kiss on each cheek. That is why he keeps the bottle of antiseptic nearby.
“Whenever someone greets me I quickly wipe my hands and face with it,” he said.
Down the street from Hashim, Tony Paulis, 60, said he tried to promote social distancing with a poster outside his barbershop door. It has an “X” over an image of two men leaning in for a greeting, and a warning message: “Please limit yourselves to handshakes and do not kiss given the current difficult situation.”
The attempt was futile. “Iraqis aren’t scared of coronavirus, but they should be,” he said.
At least 40 people have died in Iraq from the coronavirus, which causes mild or moderate symptoms in the majority of people but can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.
Checking out with a kilo (two pounds) of oranges from the local grocer in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood, Najm Abdullah Saad, 70, said the curfew was wreaking havoc on his marital life.
“Going out to smoke shisha every night was my escape,” he said.
Shisha-smoking isn’t the only public pastime affected.
In Yemen, which has already endured five years of civil war, the chewing of qat is a daily activity that brings groups together to exchange gossip and debate.
Authorities in Yemen’s southern city of Aden have banned qat markets to prevent the spread of the virus. However vendors have found ways to keep selling it, either with help from armed factions controlling the city, or in the outskirts.
In the north, which is controlled by the Houthi militia, authorities said they plan to move crowded qat markets to open areas and ban gatherings of more than eight people.
The measures might be hard to implement as the country has busy markets in almost every city and town. At around noon every day some 90% of Yemeni men converge on local markets to buy qat, according to Houthi health ministry spokesman Youssef Al-Hadhri. He said markets will remain open since they become crowded only a couple of hours a day.
“It’s not dangerous,” he insisted, despite growing fears that an outbreak could prove devastating to the Arab world’s poorest country.
The Lebanese port city of Sidon, south of the capital Beirut, is mostly deserted. It once bustled with people flocking to its traditional coffee shops where elderly men gathered to smoke cigarettes and play cards and backgammon. Those closed after the Lebanese government ordered a lockdown last week.
Qassem Bdeir, a fisherman, sat with a group of friends near a hidden segment of the port, discussing the situation, each seated a meter away from the other.
“We used to meet at the coffee shop after a day’s work to talk and play cards. Now there’s no work, and we steal these few moments to talk and commiserate sitting away from each other before we go home to lock ourselves up,” he said.
The virus has also upended plans for weddings — often extravagant affairs in the region, with hundreds of invitees.
In Beirut, Bassam Makki, the 42-year-old owner of a jewelry shop had been in the final stages of planning his wedding when the pandemic started. He and his fiance took out a loan and planned a celebration for 130 people at a four-star hotel in Beirut. The party, which had been scheduled for April 10, has been canceled.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” he said, trying to offer a smile.
Others pressed ahead with weddings.
Rawan Mohammed found an open tract of agricultural land outside the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk for his wedding after the Kurdistan Regional Government closed wedding halls as part of preventive measures.
“We told everyone at the beginning, they can come by to tell us congratulations and take pictures, but without handshaking or hugging,” he said.

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