Game of numbers

In Middle East on 31. December 2016 at 16:18

WITH THE END of this year the amount of refugees throughout the world are at an alarming level – precisely 65,3 million according to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Refugees have become a major tool in the hands of countries and leaders with their own ambitions and goals. People who flee their homes are indirectly becoming a cause to win elections in our western European democracies, they are being used as bargaining chips by Ankara in its dealings with Europe, and they are a huge breeding group for war by proxy for regional rivals in Middle East the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.


Here is the focus in this piece regarding refugees. There is a game of numbers for different actors and how they use official propaganda in order to paint themselves as the guardians of civilians. How come it is easier for certain major actors to do little in order to safeguard refugees, and at the same time increase number of refugees in other areas, as long as they have financial means to both fight wars and to pay for refugee camps?

More importantly, how is it that the scores upon scores of refugees that flee their homes, receive among some Muslims a sympathy only after the nature of what kind of conflict they flee from? The amount of them seems to be only of interest as long as the tyrant they flee is belonging to a regional rival. It is easy to say the following words for the cynicism of leaders, but what of the masses who are safe, privileged, but who end up supporting rights for one people, but tend to support a tyrant in another conflict?

To sate the lust of power; more horrid still,

The foulest stain and scandal of our nature

Became its boast — One Murder made a Villain,

Millions a Hero. — Princes were privileg’d

To kill, and numbers sanctified the crime.

Ah! why will Kings forget that they are Men?

From Death: A Poetical Essay by Beilby Porteus (1759)


Benevolence from distance

Not only do Saudi Arabia and other gulf states pay huge amounts to refugee camps in countries like Jordan and other UN administered camps, they also try to propagate that they support the right of these people for their freedoms in Syria against a brutal dictatorship. Issue is Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are themselves not democracies, rather authoritarian to the core and massive supporters of counter-coups against other revolutions from Arab Spring period.

The same countries, with Saudi Arabia at helm, has supressed the popular uprising in Bahrain, financed the dictatorship in Egypt and bombed to wreckage the poor country of Yemen. In Bahrain and Yemen, the official propaganda has been that it is rather a reaction against Iranian steered activity. In the case of Syria, the tone is completely different – that people are demanding rights and should have so.

For Iran on its part, it is the same game at play. While being one of the major hosts of Afghan refugees during Taliban-rule in 90s, Iran is now using Hazara-Shias from Afghanistan, who either still are refugees or recruited to fight in militias under Tehran command in Iraq and Syria. These refugees and formerly civilians have little choice when faced with the opportunity of wealth to family or cohesion – in addition, a religious dogma of predestined battles and coming of messiah do influence in this propaganda game. Instead then, of taking in refugees, and instead of using the vast reserves for the displaced people, Iran is doing in Syria, what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen – financing bombardments, and creating more refugees.

Benevolent countries

Then we have countries that take in refugees – a lot of them. Many of these are themselves inherently unstable, and have had popular uprising themselves, yet refugees are arriving and they have even changed demographics.

Syrian spill over has resulted in a huge inflow of Syrians into Lebanon, a country of four million, where about an addition of a million are refugees. The country already is in a deadlock, steered by regional actors who influence the two major political blocks. The country also has militias – among them the Hezbollah that is fighting on behalf of Assad in Syrian borderlands between Damascus and north to Idlib. The very same organization that massacres and creates refugees is a major power broker in a country that receives scores of them.

To south lies Jordan – a country that is a historic legacy of something not in its hands anymore. A population divided between urbanites, and rural, between Palestinians and locals. The country now hosts about 700 000 officially registered Syrians. For Jordan this can both be a misfortune – a signal of a future to come trouble – or rather an opportunity, in where these are granted citizenship, and therefore to weaken the biggest segments already existing in the country.

While talking of citizenship – the regional power in north, Republic of Turkey is using refugees for all of its worth. Not only is it convenient when President Erdogan tries to bargain with Europe, it is also a tool for the same man to boost his image among the wider Sunni population. Turkey has received about 2,8 million Syrians – most settled alongside border regions with the ill-fated country.

Many of these are thankful for a safe place to be, and safe is everywhere else that is not their own homeland. Now for domestic purposes, Erdogan wants the refugees to be a loyal voter’s base if granted citizenship. His party would expect that since they opened up their borders they would have the right to claim a vote. This would guarantee a prolonged rule. However, at the same time, the same Erdogan and his AKP is strengthening their Turk-nationalistic sentiments, and while this happens incidents of racial hatred and attacks have increased, to a much higher degree than those in Europe or Northern-America, but they receive relatively little attention.

Turkey is also the centre of a war against Kurdish nationalist militias. By using strong force, the Turkish army is levelling cities and neighbourhoods with bombardment – and following creating even more internally displaced people, in an area that suffers from chronic unemployment and grievance. Results has been a revival of the decades old PKK-Turkish war with terror attacks and indiscriminate arrests, torture and killings.

For the refugees of Yemen – there is little choice than to flee to neighbouring regions, and even to countries that might be worse off. Saudi Arabia has taken in Yemeni refugees at approximately the same level as has Djibouti and Somalia – while the relatively stable neighbour in east, the Sultanate of Oman has taken in the most. Yemen is suffering from a semi-sectarian, partly a proxy that might be exaggerated, and some former regime elements that all find alliances and foes in an intriguing game where religious and regional rivalries are exploited.

What was inherently thought to be a Houti rebel has deeper foundations from Arab spring, and even before, and which has in turn been added other factors. The country suffers a drought, lack of water, and an iron blockade that results in hunger and death. What instead has been witnessed is the focus on humanitarian reaction, while among Muslims there seems to be a sectarian preference towards Saudi Arabia, in case of certain Sunni sympathisers, or for the Houti rebels in case of certain Shia sympathisers. The humanitarian effort thus becomes less of an attention, and the cynic and ideological game plan gets preference.

Benevolent deal

Caring for one group of refugees, their plight and their rights, for in the same turn to support the suppression of other civilians and even the attacks that creates this is not humanitarian. It is no rocket science to comprehend that it is a rather political and ideological fight instead of a humanitarian concern.

Countries like Saudi Arabia and other GCC states are getting easily away with the excuses of them not registering refugees in the sense of UN definition. While adding to the total toll of displaced people, these countries are also notorious for their lack of immigrant workers’ rights. These things do get their time in mainstream media and on social media, but they tend to die easy after some muddling and apologetic counter-arguments. The same is the case of Iran, which has used its nuclear deal to strengthen its conventional strength in the region – not only imposing its will on other countries, but also trying to dominate one set of doctrines, within the Shia Jaafari school of thought, on other older rival schools.

This politization of religion, using of refugees as tools, and entire states to rebalance and find power in the future to come order in Mesopotamia and Levant is harming the rights and wishes of its civilian inhabitants. While these power plays will have their limits, they will shed blood as long as the arsenal is full and opportunities available. Do take into consideration that Saudi Arabia have had a change of guard, with a strongman in guise of deputy crown prince Mohammad ibn Salman. At the same time, Iran is waiting for its Supreme Leader to die, which will erupt in a new power struggle that already is at play behind the scenes. These changes – with the few individuals in driver’s seat, are defining the welfare and wellbeing of millions of civilians in the region.

Middle East do need a kind of Westphalian moment – surely nothing can be replicated from history, but it needs to have a development which will strengthen its citizens, and give them stability and sovereignty. However, at the immediate and crucial time being, it also needs a marshal plan, one that prioritizes refugees’ basic needs; their safety, education and health – and one that in future can channel an easy homecoming. Countries almost destroyed, or badly damaged will need fast and reliable inflow of development aid – this in order to accelerate a stability that will guarantee safety and development.

When such suggestions are promoted, there is an automatic expectation that Western Europe and Northern America should have some kind of a steering role in it. That these areas both take in refugees and pay up for the necessary reconstruction. The point of this piece is to demand, from the regional actors, through popular demand, that they do their fair share of handling refugees, reduce tensions and to pay up for the necessary rebuilding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: