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Refugees are still leaving Syria and Iraq

17 December 2021

Gerald Butt traces would-be migrants to the UK back to their source in the Middle East


A refugee boy flies a pigeon at the end of last month. Behind him, the camp for internally displaced Syrians near the town of Atma stretches into the distance

A refugee boy flies a pigeon at the end of last month. Behind him, the camp for internally displaced Syrians near the town of Atma stretches into the ...

BY THE standards of the Middle East, 2021 was a relatively quiet year, overshadowed in news reports about Afghanistan, Covid, and growing global alarm over climate change. The largely ignored war in Yemen ground mercilessly on, but Iraq and Syria — scenes of headline-grabbing conflicts over the past decade — enjoyed a generally calmer year.

It may seem strange, therefore, that refugees from both these countries have been seeking sanctuary in Europe in increasing numbers over recent months; thousands are making their way to Belarus, hoping to enter a neighbouring European Union country. Thousands more have risked their lives in flimsy boats seeking to reach the south coast of England.

The Anglican Primate of Jerusalem and the Middle East, the Most Revd Michael Lewis, says that “the surge has much to do with the increasingly lucrative market for people smugglers”. But the main reason is that “Economic and political conditions remain poor in both Iraq and Syria. Many, irrespective of religion, long to get out, and the relative decrease in violence and military action has been spurring some of them to take their chances.”

His view is shared by Dr Christopher Davidson, a Reader in Middle Eastern politics and a Fellow at Durham University, who says that “Up until this year, the risks of getting caught up in an ongoing conflict were too high for many families to travel. Thus many had held on to their savings and waited for a more opportune moment.”

Some of those arriving in Europe are Kurds, from the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq, once regarded as potentially the most stable and prosperous part of the country. But a series of factors have tarnished that vision: the takeover of large areas of Syria and Iraq in 2014 by Islamic State (IS) forced thousands of families to take shelter in the Kurdish region, adding to the growing number of people without work.

The spread of Covid-19 and the inability of the Kurdistan Regional Government to pay wages on time, against a background of political paralysis and allegations of widespread corruption, have sparked social unrest. Many Iraqi Kurds feel that there is no future for them at home.

In Iraq as a whole, there are fears that the current lull in the violence will be only temporary. In elections in October, pro-Iranian groups fared badly, prompting them to accuse the authorities of rigging the polls and to issue threats of revenge. A subsequent failed attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi (News, 12 November), was blamed on the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces. The atmosphere remains tense; the editor of the daily online newspaper Al-Rai, Abdel Bari Atwan, takes the view that “Iraq is on the cusp of a greater state of chaos.”

Aside from political instability, the pandemic, according to an Iraqi government report, has pushed a further 4.5 million people into poverty, bringing the total to 11.4 million: more than a quarter of the population. With jobs hard to find and signs that IS is re-emerging in the region, the prospects look bleak, meaning that Iraqis in exile are not likely to be returning soon.

The main factor for Iraqis, Bishop Lewis says, is the “pessimism about life chances and economic survival. Muslims and others, as well as Christians, share it. There’s certainly an ongoing worry that religious minorities, including but not limited to Christians, are less protected and respected in these times; but I don’t believe that religious intolerance is the principal driver for those leaving the country.”

AlamyA migrant from the Kurdish region of Iraq keeps himself warm earlier this month by burning wood at a makeshift migrant camp outside Dunkirk, northern France, one of an estimated 800 migrants there hoping to make their way to the UK

Crucially, Iraqis have no confidence in any future government’s taking the necessary measures to improve living conditions. The head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, spoke of the country’s “current fragile peace”. She said that the grievances that had led to street protests across the country “remain as relevant as ever” in the post-election period. In Dr Davidson’s opinion, “The likely months or years of instability ahead will exacerbate the situation further, prompting many more to consider leaving the country as and when possible.”

A state of fragile peace of another kind exists in Syria. After a decade of brutal conflict, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, with massive support from Russia and Iran, is emerging as the victor. As Mr Atwan wrote, “all Western and Arab Gulf bets on changing the Syrian regime have been lost, despite the billions of dollars spent on trying to achieve this goal.” One by one, Arab governments are restoring relations with Damascus.

The big question is whether the defeat of armed opposition groups will create conditions that encourage the millions of Syrians in exile, including 5.5 million sheltering in neighbouring states, to return home. Bishop Lewis believes that “If things do settle in Syria into an acknowledgement that the Assad regime will hold, Syrians in tough conditions in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon may well reluctantly, and with misgivings, consider going home, if only because life in the camps is so hard — but not those who got further.”

Conditions in those refugee camps are dire. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and other UN bodies say that they are “deeply concerned about the rapid deterioration of living conditions”: nine out of ten refugees are “living in extreme poverty”. The poverty is mental as well as physical: 30 per cent of children of school age (six to 17) have never been to school. “My biggest fear is that I will never complete my education,” a young Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Turkey told the UNHCR. “The future of my children is lost,” a Syrian man in Lebanon said. “They’re going to grow up without knowing how to speak properly or write a letter.”

The lack of trust in the future of both Iraq and Syria will inevitably mean that the overwhelming flow of people will continue to be out of the region, a much smaller number of people returning. Those who want to go home will be looking for more than just an end to the fighting: they want to see signs of better economic and social prospects.

It is a message, Bishop Lewis says, that Christians around the world should heed: “Churches everywhere need to know that development is the key, especially the creation of employment, over and above aid and advocacy.”

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