The migrant burden grows heavy so the world must act

Hafed Al-Ghwell

There has been a significant decline for some time across the Arab world in support of migrants and refugees. The trend has accelerated in recent years, worsening the plight of desperate populations fleeing the effects of sustained regional and global shocks that continue to cause more displacement.
This erosion of support can be attributed to the prolonged nature of displacements, coupled with severe economic crises in a number of host countries; which have exacerbated hostilities displayed toward migrants by desperate communities, often at the urging of opportunistic politicians.
Pushed to the edge, unable to return home or eke out a decent living in host countries, many migrants turn to risky sea crossings on flimsy, overloaded boats, resulting in disasters that barely provoke outrage any more, even when bodies begin washing up on shores.
According to the International Organization for Migration, deaths on migrant routes across the Middle East and North Africa have reached their highest levels since 2017. And the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that the MENA region continues to face significant challenges in terms of migration and displacement.
In light of a number of alarming developments and rising death tolls, it is therefore crucial to examine the underlying factors that are contributing to the declining support for migrants and refugees in the Arab world, and to explore potential solutions that might alleviate the burden on host communities, provide sanctuary to those that need it, and counteract negative attitudes toward these vulnerable populations.
As the migrant crisis continues to worsen around the globe, it is difficult to separate the effects of dwindling international aid from the ways in which the situation grows more dire with each passing year. The ameliorating effects of international aid have waned in recent years as donors face competing priorities at home or abroad, resulting in diminished funding and reduced capacities for absorbing the growing stream of migrants and refugees experiencing protracted displacement.
Consequently, the reductions in aid and other tailored incentives for host countries have led to unprecedented shortfalls in global refugee response efforts, which some experts have condemned as bordering on intentional negligence. In the Arab region in particular, the International Organization for Migration has warned that a decline in aid to host countries potentially amplifies negative anti-migrant, anti-refugee sentiment, which can easily create the sort of conditions that lead to tragedies such as the recent migrant boat disaster off the coast of Greece.
Should the international community fail to muster adequate responses in a timely manner to this now emerging crisis, we are likely to see more deaths, more inhuman detentions, more forced repatriations and the rapid growth of people-smuggling networks connected to transnational criminal elements.
It is fairly evident that the effects of reduced aid on host countries and refugees are multifaceted and far-reaching. Countries that are already strained and struggling as a result of their own economic and social challenges find themselves left to shoulder the burden of supporting large refugee populations with limited resources and dwindling external support.
Meanwhile, public attitudes toward migrants in host countries have grown increasingly strained, as evidenced by the growing resentment in countries such as Turkiye. The devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake there in February intensified these tensions. In the aftermath of an official response to the earthquake widely perceived as inadequate, Turkish nationals expressed resentment over the $40 billion spent by their government since 2011 to host Syrians.
In Lebanon, the massive devaluation of the country’s currency over the past few years, combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to unprecedented levels of poverty that disproportionately affect refugee and migrant populations and the poorer communities that host them.
Severe financial problems in these countries and others have exacerbated the negative attitudes among the public toward migrants and refugees. In Lebanon, the economic crisis has left 90 percent of Syrian refugees living in extreme poverty, and 93 percent of Palestinian refugees in poverty.
In Jordan, 80 percent of displaced Syrians live in poverty made worse by the rising cost of basic necessities. Coupled with reduced opportunities for earning a living, this is fueling rising tensions between host communities and migrant populations.
Furthermore, the international organizations that provide assistance to refugees are facing funding shortfalls, leading to cuts in essential programs designed to expand access to essential services such as healthcare, education, and employment opportunities.
As the funding continues to dry up, it fuels a sense of abandonment and additional despair among refugees, further exacerbating their sense of vulnerability and susceptibility to exploitation and abuse.
Several factors have contributed to this decline in aid. Competing global crises, including the pandemic, climate change, the war in Ukraine, and sustained unrest in other parts of the world, have diverted resources and attention from a brewing migrant crisis that disproportionately affects the Arab region. Furthermore, donor fatigue and shifting priorities among international powers have also played a role in the reduction of aid to the region.
As pressure continues to mount on displaced populations in the Arab world, it is incumbent on the international community to devise more effective strategies to help alleviate the burden on host communities, offer sanctuary to individuals fleeing violence or persecution, and mitigate anti-migrant animosity.
Addressing this complex issue necessitates a multifaceted approach that transcends mere Band-Aid solutions and engages with the underlying drivers of migration and displacement. The best time to target these drivers of migration was yesterday; the next best time is now. The global response so far leaves a lot to be desired, however, as the political will and prioritization are simply not there.
We should not wait until anti-migrant animosity becomes mainstream, turning the desperate into defenseless scapegoats for a cascade of ills in host countries. The international community should ensure that its interventions do not prioritize the needs of refugees over host communities, which could fuel anti-refugee sentiment. At the same time, they should facilitate resettlement to other countries and provide greater support to host nations, in tandem with increasing their own commitments to resettle refugees.
If anti-migrant animosity becomes palatable to the public, and politically tenable, the potential consequences could be far-reaching and devastating. Host communities will not only become more hostile toward migrants, rising social tensions could easily lead to violent clashes. Unchecked, this could result in state-sanctioned xenophobia, further increasing the vulnerability of desperate people and undermining the social cohesion and stability of host countries, especially if the plight of migrants is co-opted into, or used to fuel, partisan politics.
Given the complex and multifaceted nature of the migrant crisis in the Arab world, there is a pressing need for innovative strategies to alleviate the burdens on host communities. This requires a rethinking of conventional approaches to humanitarian assistance and development aid, with a fresh focus on promoting self-reliance and resilience among both refugees and host communities.
Such strategies might include the creation of economic zones that provide employment opportunities for both groups, as well as investments in local infrastructure and services that benefit all residents.
Addressing the root causes of displacement is also essential in efforts to achieve a sustainable and equitable solution to the migrant crisis. This entails tackling the political, economic and social drivers of forced migration, such as conflict, climate change, and underdevelopment.
By addressing these underlying issues, the international community can work toward creating the conditions necessary for the safe, voluntary, and dignified return of refugees to their home countries, or facilitate their integration into host societies.
Potential solutions that prioritize the needs of both refugees and host communities include the establishment of comprehensive frameworks for burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing among states, as well as the development of regional and global partnerships that promote cooperation and solidarity in addressing the migrant crisis.
Additionally, efforts to foster social cohesion and counter anti-migrant sentiments through inclusive policies, public awareness campaigns and the promotion of intercultural dialogue can help to create more welcoming and supportive environments for migrants and refugees.
In conclusion, the declining support for migrants and refugees in the Arab world, exacerbated by economic crises, international negligence, and rising hostilities, necessitates a highly engaged and multifaceted global approach that focuses on alleviating the burdens on host communities, providing sanctuary, and mitigating anti-migrant sentiment.
It is imperative that major actors acknowledge the urgency of the situation and increase their support and commitment to efforts to resolving, or at least tempering, this crisis before it is too late.
By adopting innovative strategies, addressing the root causes of displacement, and prioritizing the needs of both refugees and host communities, the international community can work together to forge a more equitable and sustainable path forward, creating space for the world to collaborate on other complex challenges.