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Najwa Al-Qattan on Middle Eastern Migration

Professor Najwa Al-Qattan
Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts

Fear of terror attacks like those in Paris and frustration with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East have launched a migration like the world hasn’t seen in decades if not centuries. Thousands of people are leaving war-torn areas of the Middle East to find refuge in Europe and elsewhere. Najwa Al-Qattan, associate professor of Ottoman and modern Middle Eastern history in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, studies the region and answers common questions as we try to understand the complex dynamics of people displaced.  

Which Middle East countries are migrants leaving?

Syria is No. 1, although people are also leaving Iraq. Some Syrians are leaving Syria to go to Iraq. That tells you how bad things are in Syria. Some people also are leaving Libya, although the numbers are not as great as those leaving Syria and Iraq. 

Which countries are they going to?

The first waves went to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. I’ve seen [estimates of] 1 million and 1.5 million mostly Syrian refugees in Turkey. There are at least a million in Jordan and another million in Lebanon. In the past year or so, people have been leaving Turkey to go to Greece and from there make their way to Europe, mostly Germany. Some say there are 7 million internal refugees in Syria who probably will try to leave.

Why are people leaving Syria in particular?

Most of the [Syrian] people arriving in Europe today started leaving in late 2014 and early 2015. Once populations found themselves caught between Islamic State and other Islamist groups and the government, it made the conflict much, much worse. I also think time [is a reason]. A lot of people waited four years, but by now they realize that their children’s lives and education are getting lost, businesses are not going to come back, so there is hopelessness, fear, hunger and desperation.

There is a widely held perception that most refugees have a clear destination in mind: Western Europe, and Germany in particular. Is that true?

People are not leaving because they see this as an opportunity to get to Germany. Certainly there has been more attention paid [to migrants entering Europe] than when people were going to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Unfortunately, the neighboring countries are already saturated. If other Arab and Middle Eastern states were more welcoming, my guess is that most would go to familiar places, just as happened with the Palestinians. This is one of the biggest tragedies, and I would say crimes. Not only are countries not opening their borders, but they are really doing so little to help Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to carry the burden. 

Will migrations to Europe force those countries to confront assimilation issues?

It all depends on whether the refugees return to their home countries. Many would go back if it were secure and safe, especially those who have just arrived. The refugees’ presence is already raising issues in some countries. In the long term, if they don’t get assimilated, we may see worse poverty and cultural alienation. On the other hand, this influx is welcome in some countries, such as Eastern Germany and Austria, which are underpopulated or have older populations. The key thing is how long the refugees stay. They bring a huge economic burden, but you will not see huge social dislocation unless they stay and have children. That’s what changes a population.

What are the ethical responsibilities of European countries and the United States in this crisis?

I can imagine that some argue that European colonialism is at the heart of so many issues in the Middle East and that the United States should continue to pay the price. I do not subscribe to that, which is not to say that colonialism hasn’t been very disruptive and destructive. But I also think that the Saddam Husseins, the Bashar al-Assads and groups like the Islamic State are the real criminals, and they are homegrown. 

I’m not trying to absolve the West. But I have become increasingly impatient with Middle Easterners who seem to want to absolve themselves from any responsibilities, especially in the second half of the 20th century, and blame everything on the West and the United States. The West is not dropping barrel bombs and using chemical weapons against their own populations.