War, Destruction, Refugees – Business as Usual in Our Times

Essays - October 16, 2023

A little over ten years ago, millions of Syrians were fleeing their homes, to escape a brutal conflict that was to rage on for over a decade, resulting in widespread destruction, and a profound humanitarian crisis. It involved multiple factions, including the Syrian government, various opposition groups, as well as international actors, and its impacts have reverberated across the Middle East and Europe, sparking a migration crisis and ongoing political and humanitarian challenges. Most refugees have not returned to their homes, to this day.

A little over 600 days ago, just as the world was beginning to recover from the Covid-19 Pandemic that devastated entire economies, shut down businesses and claimed millions of lives, we were waking up on the morning of February 24th 2022 to the speech of a dictator rambling about historic events that never happened, and non-existent threats to his country while his tanks were rolling across the border with a neighbouring country in what was to become the largest armed conflict that Europe had seen for decades.

A little over 10 days ago we were again waking up, on a warm autumn morning, to the terrifying images of young people running for their lives, families being slaughtered in their homes and women being abducted by Hamas, in what was to become the bloodiest day in the history of Israel.

If the prior paragraphs were the beginning of a book of fiction one could assume, with confidence, that it was a horrifying one. But they are not. They are but a brief description of a small piece of the reality that surrounds us, day in and day out, something that, as strange as it may seem, we are getting used to and is fast becoming business as usual.

The Syrian refugee crisis is a monumental and protracted humanitarian catastrophe resulting from the devastating civil war that has plagued Syria since its outbreak in 2011. To date, it has caused the displacement of over 13 million people, with more than 6.7 million being internally displaced within Syria’s borders, and another 5.7 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries in the Middle East. Turkey has hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees, with more than 3.6 million, while Jordan and Lebanon have absorbed around 670,000 and 1.5 million, respectively, straining their resources and infrastructures.

Additionally, the Syrian refugee crisis had a profound impact on Europe, where a significant number of Syrians embarked on treacherous journeys to seek asylum. In 2015, over a million migrants and refugees arrived in Europe, with a substantial portion originating from Syria. This surge in migration spurred debates on immigration policies, border control, and the management of the humanitarian response. European countries have implemented various approaches to address the crisis, with some offering refuge and others tightening border security.

The conflict between Ukraine and Russia, has resulted in a significant and ongoing displacement crisis, with approximately six million Ukrainian refugees forced to flee their homes, most of them taking shelter in European countries. This staggering number underscores the enduring human toll of the conflict, as countless families have been uprooted, their lives disrupted, and their communities shattered.. The Ukrainian refugee crisis has posed immense challenges for both the displaced and the nations hosting them, from providing shelter and essential services to addressing the long-term prospects of those affected and the difficult if not impossible task of integrating them into fragile economies, still dwindling from the pandemic.

According to Africa Center for Strategic Studies, the number of forcibly displaced Africans, including internally displaced persons, refugees, and asylum seekers, has surged to an estimated 40.4 million, more than doubling since 2016. To put this into perspective, this figure surpasses the populations of entire countries such as Angola, Ghana, or Morocco. Notably, a significant majority, more than 77 percent, are internally displaced within their home countries. Of those who do leave their nations, approximately 96 percent remain within Africa, often through legal channels such as resettlement or education visas. This alarming trend in forced displacement in Africa is closely tied to conflict, with 14 out of the 15 African countries generating the highest numbers of forcibly displaced individuals currently embroiled in conflict. Furthermore, 12 of these 15 countries exhibit authoritarian tendencies, highlighting that oppressive governance serves as both a direct cause, through repression, and an indirect catalyst, through conflict, for the escalating forced displacement crisis in the continent.

Ever since the October 6th attack on Israel, the World has been holding its breath in expectation of the reaction to come. What is sure to be Israel’s tough response will most likely include an invasion of the Gaza Strip that may very well result in enhanced turmoil in the West Bank as well. The estimated Palestinian population that lives in the Occupied Territories is over 5 million with about 2.3 million living in Gaza and the rest in the West Bank. Let us consider for a moment what should happen to these people once the Gaza Strip is turned to rubble, which it most likely will be. The only ways out of Gaza are by sea or by land, through Egypt or Israel. As it is highly unlikely that Israel will allow the Palestinians to cross into their country, it may be safe to assume that most will cross into Egypt sparking tensions between the Arab nation and Israel as well as straining the country’s resources and infrastructure. We can expect that at least some proportion of the refugees will take the way of the sea, swelling the numbers of migrants in Europe, if they are very lucky, or those of migrants who die at sea during the attempt. On top of that it is possible that other countries with Muslim majorities, that are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause such as Lebanon, Syria, Iran, and perhaps, using more diplomatic means, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain will be dragged into the affair in some way or another.

The Middle East is already a melting pot of diverging interests comprised of rich oil nations and war devastated ones. Failed states are many times safe havens for terrorist activities while weak governments that cannot provide proper leadership, are often corrupt and powerless to attend to the needs of the people they are supposed to represent. We have seen a normalisation of relationships between Israel and several Arab nations in the past couple of years through the Abraham Accords, but tragedy struck just as optimism was beginning to take root in the region. One cannot help but ask himself whether this is just a coincidence or there is some foul play at hand. Whatever the answer to this question may be it is almost certain that we are bracing for an extended period of instability in the Middle East.

Despite the numbers and policy discussions, it is important to remember that at the heart of the any refugee crisis are the individual stories of millions of people who have experienced displacement, loss, and trauma. Whether they are Syrian, Ukrainian, Sudanese, Nigerian, Palestinian or of any other nationality or ethnicity their resilience and determination in the face of adversity are a testament to the human spirit. These crises underscore the pressing need for international cooperation, humanitarian support, and diplomatic efforts to not only address the immediate needs of the refugees but also work towards a peaceful resolution to the conflicts that plague us and to allow these displaced individuals to rebuild their lives and return to a stable homeland.