The European migrant crisis is the most severe crisis of its kind in Europe since World War II. When discussing this crisis, the blame is often placed on the civil war in Syria, with the culprit being Assad or ISIS—or both. However, such claims are shortsighted and neglect the fact that the entire Middle East is in a state of geopolitical turmoil. The instability in Iraq and Syria are just more visible examples of this instability. Contrary to popular sentiment, we have not yet reached the pinnacle of refugee flows from the Middle East to Europe. On the contrary, given the confluence of geopolitical, socioeconomic, religious, and environmental factors, the exodus of refugees will become unimaginably worse in the long-term.

 It should first be stressed that the refugee crisis is a manifestation of a much more serious disease related to the erosion of the post-colonial system of states. This paradigm is eroding because states created as a result of decolonization, such as Iraq and Syria, have been severely compromised over the past 15 years in the face of political and social dysfunction, as well as foreign military interventionism. 

 As a symptom of this erosion, these states’ capacity to remain intact in the territorial sense has been compromised. Iraq and Syria, for example, are unable to control the intangible, such as the violent divide between Shia and Sunni and the unresolved issue of Kurdish statehood. Their capacity to provide their citizens with security and the most basic social services have also been compromised—hence, the flood of refugees heading toward Europe, seeking, above all, to survive. They seek the most elemental forms of social welfare and human dignity that can no longer be provided by their native countries – or that will not be provided by those countries in the region in a position to help. Refugees are convinced of receiving better treatment in Western European countries, given their stronger social policies and generally more welcoming stance towards refugees, as opposed to Russia or countries in Asia.   

 In 2015, Christopher Coker, professor of international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, described geopolitical and historical depth of this erosion.[1] He stated that, if Britain were Syria and Syria were Britain, then 2.5 million people living in the Greater Manchester area (as well as half the population of greater London and the whole population of Glasgow) would be gone. Refugees have mostly gone to Lebanon, whose population has grown by 40 percent--the statistical equivalent of all persons who have emigrated into Great Britain for the past 105 years in just three years. If Britain were Syria and Syria were Britain, the unemployment rate would not be 3 percent, the outcome of the global financial crisis in 2008. Instead, it would be 40 percent. This is the equivalent of being hit with almost fourteen 2008 crises within a four-year period. If Britain were Syria and Syria were Britain, half of British children would not be attending school.

Most concerning is the number of other countries in the region that are also in jeopardy. One of these is most certainly Iraq. Policy experts, including Vincent Stewart, the Director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, are seriously concerned whether this state will be able to remain intact. Jordan is also in danger of ceasing to exist effectively as a state. In 2012, Jordan counted 750,000 refugees who had escaped the 2003 Iraq War.[2]  In 2014, Aaron Agid, a reporter for online newspaper Al-Monitor, wrote that half the Jordanian population at that time was made up of Palestinian refugees.[3] Jordan now has the second largest number of refugees per capita after Lebanon.[4] Moreover, as a result of Syria’s civil war, 630,000 refugees subsequently fled to Jordan, with many believing that this number is larger in reality. This is the statistical equivalent of the entire population of Finland moving to the UK.[5]

As mentioned, while countries bordering Syria and/or Iraq are overburdened with refugees, their wealthy fellow Arab countries (referring to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC]) have shown an unwillingness to host Syrian refugees --despite being large financial donors of aid to these same refugees. Amnesty International, for example, claimed that GCC countries have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.[6]

Chatham House research fellow Jane Kinninmont noted two major reasons for the lack of refugees to GCC countries.[7] First is the legal factor, as the GCC countries are not signatories of the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. Thus, these refugees would not have refugee status in these countries and would not receive the same treatment and legal protections as guaranteed in European countries that have signed and ratified this convention. This creates a strong incentive to refugees, leading them to favor Europe over GCC countries.

Secondly, the nature of the economy and development model of GCC countries means that these refugees are not even wanted, should they wish to go there. Wealth is concentrated in a small minority comprised of the social and political elite, while the labor force is made up of foreigners who live in these counties temporarily. The elites are not willing to risk a major change in the demographic, financial, social, or political fabric of their societies by hosting a large number of refugees from Syria and Iraq. This problem becomes more pronounced given the drop in oil prices, which is decreasing the capacity of GCC countries and their ruling regimes to use oil revenues to bribe their population as a way of preventing social and political discontent.    

Another set of problems impacting the region concerns environmental threats posed by climate change and water depletion. According to a forecast by the World Resource Institute, by 2040, nearly half of the world’s water-stressed countries will be from the Middle East.[8]

 As an example of how acute the climate change problem has become in the Middle East, the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman[9] noted that the first act of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, was to disband his cabinet because some members were unable to provide air-conditioners to their electorate when the temperature rose to 48 degrees Celsius – this due to electrical restrictions. Another example of the growing importance of climate in political contexts was seen with one of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s first acts. He emphasized that Lake Urmia, one of the world’s largest salt water lakes, has dried up by 80 percent and will likely disappear in a few years. Thus, Rouhani underscored the need to focus on environmental issues in addition to the more standard issues of state.

One of Friedman’s most compelling assertions is that the Syrian civil war was precipitated by a four-year drought, which led to an influx of farmers and herders into large urban centers in Syria. Dissatisfied with their social positions, these farmers and herders were added participants to the mass protests that led to the civil war. This shows that, in the future, the Middle East may become an exporter of a new type of refugee--the “climate change refugees”[10], adding further to the extant geopolitical instability of the region.  

 As a summary, if we think that things have come to the worst in the Middle East and that we have experienced the apex of the troubles forcing these citizens to leave en masse to Europe – this is decidedly not the case. The worst is yet to come in terms of the instability that will spread across the region and the ensuing stream of refugee to Europe. The refugee crisis is not a separate phenomenon influenced by individual events, like the Syrian conflict. On the contrary, the entire region is engulfed in social, economic, political, geostrategic, and environmental crises that will generate a massive new wave of refugees toward Europe in the long-term, bringing with it new social and economic strains, as well as potential security threats of terrorism, human trafficking and organized crime.

By Vuk Vuksanovic
Senior Research Analyst



[2] Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, Random House Publishing Group, New York, p.311