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Refugee economics 101 

Lies about refugees and the misperceptions of migrant economics

by Thomas Schellen

It is another summer of conflict and despair in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which is to say that a sad saga of displacements, deprivation, and humanitarian aid dependency of an estimated 12 to 14 million people, in overwhelming majority of Syrian origin, now meanders through its 13th annual chapter.

Having started in Arab Spring days of 2011-12, the saga has two intertwined plot lines, the first being one of international humanitarian aid, insufficient burden sharing, and political self-interest dressed up as – or in the friendliest interpretation mixed with – high-brow moral imperialism. The second plot line in the 13-year running serial tragedy is one of political cronyism and obstructionism, ever-decreasing structural reform prospects, and existential uncertainty of millions across the region, regardless of their national belonging or statuses under international law.

The first plot line dominates in international conferences and the second rules regional public squares in the Middle East. Both parts of the narrative share a deficit in real economic perspectives. Common to both plot lines is also the increasing realization that a combination of a cataclysmic institutional cleansing and unprogrammable upside reform shocks in the region’s economies is the only option for bringing the entire saga to a not-too-unhappy close.

The international ploy

The search for funding is a crucial element of the Syrian drama’s international plot line that is mainly written in Europe. At the end of May, EU administrators of foreign affairs and crisis management once again gather together ministerial representatives and civil society members from a handful of Mashreq countries to an annual crisis ritual of political futility and catastrophic numbers. 

The 8th Brussels Conference in Support of Syria and the region results in reiterative statements (live-streamed and recorded), promises of undying dedication, partial fact sheets, and a €7.5 billion commitment by the donor community to support populations in Syria and neighboring countries.

After the conference, international donors’ new commitment to the embattled region amounts to €5 billion in grants and €2.5 billion in concessional loans for 2024 and beyond, according to European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič. The pledged grants include €2.12 billion in EU support for 2024 and 2025.  

As Lenarčič elaborates in his concluding remarks to conference participants, three fourths of the grant pledges came from the EU and its member countries: €3.9 billion for this year and €1.2 billion for 2025 and beyond. A press release adds, in a standard expression of political EU correctness, that this assistance would support Syrians inside Syria and in neighboring countries, as well as their host communities in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

While one can analyze and dissect the numbers of humanitarian aid to countries in the Middle East under a large number of ideological and political approaches, one thing that cannot be derived from such scrutiny – or from remarks uttered at the Brussels conference or smaller-scale crisis meets – is that the efforts are closing the inequality gaps within regional countries or are narrowing these gaps between crisis-hit MENA countries and OECD countries even by a single percentage point. 

To the contrary, numerous delegate remarks in Brussels this year corroborate that pledges a) have been trending downwards and b) neither are nor have ever been matching the needs. The data cited in press releases of the Brussels conference outcomes since 2017 tell the same story.

From the perspective of economy and sustainability, the financing story’s  main characteristics – and chiefly disheartening aspects – thus are decreases in funding but even more so the dearth of progress towards any economically viable outcome. EU official Lenarčič admits to “immense frustration” because, as he says in his keynote, over the past 13 years of the Syrian refugee and internal displacement crisis, “every year the situation worsens and little progress is made towards finding solutions.”

The regional angle: universal insufficiency

Read from the, albeit greatly varying, local perspectives in the affected five East Med countries, the saga is today a drama of threefold insufficiency of international support, solidarity and respect. Insufficiency first in provision of viable support to an estimated 7.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria and secondly, insufficiency in provision of humanitarian aid to approximately 6.5 million externally displaced persons (DPs) in four other sovereign states directly neighboring Syria. Thirdly, and very severely, regional opinion makers bemoan the insufficiency of international “burden sharing” with those four states. 

Burden sharing is a concept that is today often referred to in climate risk discussions but is historically associated with the defense strategies of the transatlantic alliance. In humanitarian context it is the catch phrase for equitably distributing the cost of hosting forcibly displaced persons in the areas where people flee to: up to 90 percent of people forced from their villages and towns by whatever catastrophe flee to places where they have relatives or similar support networks, and thus become IDPs in their own country or refugees in countries nearest to their homes. This phenomenon is one of universal human behavior and requires burden sharing by the affluent countries that benefit greatly when refugees shelter comfortably far from their borders. 

Wider ramifications 

In this sense of analyzing the reach of catastrophes, one might compare the social and economic shock waves of a war, internal conflict, or huge disaster to the blast wave from an explosion (which the denizens of the Beirut conurbation in Lebanon have become involuntary experts on). Such a blast wave rapidly and near instantaneously travels outwards from its “ground zero” at first and subsequently causes, albeit gradually weakening, disruptions in a wide radius. 

Taking this lesson to heart, at stake in the violent drama of Syria are not only the survival and minimal wellbeing of internally and externally displaced human populations in and around Syria. At stake are also the economic fates of directly – as host communities – and indirectly impacted populations in the aforementioned nearby countries, and ultimately also in countries far beyond.

The indirect regional impact of the unmitigated Syrian disaster is today such that citizens in surrounding states are experiencing cumulative economic and social pressures from minor to massive degrees. This exacerbates the urgency of shoring up political reforms and economic resilience in countries with an approximate total inhabitant count of 172 million persons (by population from largest to smallest: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon), which is roughly equal to the combined populations of Germany, France, Belgium, Denmark, and Luxembourg in Europe.

Lastly, there is a critical but neigh unanswerable question: what is at stake for the world if one sees global uncertainties beyond the sensationalized role of scapegoats that refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers have been playing in physical beer garden debates and televised political rhetoric in Europe since the days of the European Economic Community (to which, in the debates on Syrian refugees, the marvels of internet communication technology have added troll-infested online forums)? 

The economic and social peace of the European Union has been shored up and defended throughout the bloc’s short history by shielding its common market and high living standard with political and economic means. Could this status quo at some point be materially disrupted to the point of being fundamentally disrupted by a unprepared-for refugee scenario?

It somehow stands to reason that in a globalized world with a population that has doubled from 4 to 8 billion in the past 50 years and that is today experiencing unprecedented mobility of information and knowledge, of financial and human capital, of services, relationships, and cultures – with equally unprecedented, interconnected risks from pandemics to financial contagions and systemic breakdowns – new and different coping strategies and contingency plans for human catastrophes are needed.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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