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The unsexy truth about why the Arab Spring failed

By the time it became clear to the world that Egypt’s Arab Spring had gone terribly wrong, that the seemingly Hollywood-like drama of good-guy protesters triumphing over bad-guy dictator had turned out to be something much more disappointing, the other revolutions across the Middle East had soured as well.

Today, Egypt is under a new military dictatorship; Libya, Yemen, and Syria have all collapsed into civil wars.

In the years since everything went so wrong, it has become fashionable to blame the naiveté of the revolutionaries or the petty incompetence of transitional leaders.

We are still trying to make this a story about the personal accomplishments or failures of individual heroes or villains, but that narrative is just as silly as it was when we first tried to apply in 2011.

(Mind you that what failed the revolution in Egypt is that the USA insisted to have an election right away, before the revolutionaries got the time to organize as a voting force. The US wanted the Moslem Brotherhood to come to power at any cost. The democratic revolutions were Not meant to succeed.)

Updated by on January 27, 2016

The truth is that this was never a story primarily about individual heroes or villains. Rather, it was about something much bigger and more abstract: the catastrophic failure of institutions. (There were institutions in Egypt and their failure was tightly linked to US never caring to control where the money went)

It’s not a story that is particularly dramatic, and it’s not easy to profile for a magazine cover. But when you look at what has happened from the Arab Spring, from its 2011 beginning through today, you see institutional failure everywhere.

That story isn’t as emotionally compelling as the one we told ourselves in 2011. But it’s a crucially important one, if we want to understand how this went so wrong and the lessons for the world.

The story we tell ourselves about the Arab Spring

In the five years since the Arab Spring disappointed the world’s hopes, a story has developed for the revolutions and their failures.

On Egypt, for example, the story usually goes something like this:

First, the brave and idealistic but tragically naive revolutionaries focused only on bringing down the evil dictator Hosni Mubarak, but not on governing when he was gone. (Armchair essay, as usual)

They failed to plan or to politically organize, foolishly placing their faith in hope, change, and Facebook instead of doing the difficult work of real politics.

In that story, the liberals’ supposed failures left an opening for the Muslim Brotherhood to sweep in and establish a hard-line Islamist government.

The Brotherhood failed as well, pursuing shortsighted, petty agendas that alienated the public and elites alike. The military was able to exploit the liberals’ naiveté and the Muslim Brotherhood’s incompetence, taking power for itself and placing Egypt under a military dictatorship.

(The military has been in power since the 50’s and their budget is more than one third of the total budget and is the largest employer and investor)

This narrative looks very different from the story we first told ourselves in 2011 about the Arab Spring, in which brave, enlightened protesters were said to be standing up to the evil dictators. But what these two narratives share is that they ascribe everything to the personal failings or strengths of certain individual people: a wicked dictator in the original 2011 story; naive protesters, shortsighted and oppressive Islamists, and an evil general in the 2016 version.

(No one is a fool in this region and claiming that they targeted individual dictators is the same narrative all over again)

But both versions of the story are incomplete. Individual failures alone didn’t cause the disastrous consequences of the Arab Spring revolutions, just as the individual heroism of Arab Spring protesters wasn’t enough to ensure their success.

The truth is that while the revolutionaries were in fact very brave and the dictators were in fact very bad, the real story of the Arab Spring wasn’t one about individual people being heroic or wicked. Rather, it was a less cinematic — but far more important — story about the dangers of brittle dictatorships and weak state institutions.

Democratic transition, it turns out, isn’t about whom you can overthrow or whom you replace them with. It’s about whether or how you can change the vast network of institutions underneath that person. ( as if revolutions do Not know this principle)

If you don’t make those institutions work — and often, by the dictator’s deliberate design, you simply can’t — then your revolution is doomed. That’s the real lesson of the Arab Spring — and it’s important precisely because it’s not as exciting or emotionally satisfying as the good-versus-evil story we prefer to tell.

The story of Egypt’s Arab Spring we don’t see: institutional collapse

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak began preparing for revolution long before it came.

In the three decades of his rule, he systematically ensured that no opposition party or civil society institution grew strong enough to challenge him. But in ensuring that no institutions were powerful or independent enough to threaten his rule, Mubarak also ensured that they were too weak to support a transition to democracy after he fell.

Mubarak stuffed the interior ministry with political loyalists rather than effective public servants, which allowed corruption and brutality to corrode public security.

He turned the judiciary into a pro-regime puppet, which gave him a tool to persecute political opponents but left judges dependent and the rule of law weak.

He undermined liberal opposition parties and tolerated the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood only enough to let him credibly claim to the world, “It’s me or the Islamists,” using frequent crackdowns and careful electoral rules to ensure that they never got real governing experience.

The one institution that gathered strength was the military. Its role in politics expanded under Mubarak far beyond what his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, had permitted, with Mubarak using patronage to buy the military’s loyalty as it grew more powerful.

But those measures couldn’t protect Mubarak forever. Even before the revolution, there were signs his regime was in trouble.

His apparent plans to pass power to his son Gamal provoked popular outrage, including a 2010 protest at which demonstrators burned photographs of Gamal.

Popular tolerance for the regime eroded further as inflation raised the cost of food, especially bread, placing real strain on poor Egyptians.

Unemployment grew so catastrophically high that the International Monetary Fund warned it was a “ticking time bomb.” Popular anger against police brutality grew.

When the protest movement finally exploded in January 2011, Mubarak’s regime proved brittle. The revolution quickly gathered public support. The Interior Ministry failed to restore order.

And then, perhaps most crucially, Mubarak lost the loyalty of Egypt’s powerful army. Instead of crushing the protests, the army withdrew its support from his regime and installed itself in his place, ostensibly temporarily.

But it turned out that the military, an institution itself, had become focused on preserving its own interests over those of the state, and, a mere year after the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi became president, executed a military coup that deposed him and installed Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president.

The Morsi government, in its year of rule between military regimes, did some things right and a great many things wrong. But at all times, regardless of its performance, it was beset and undermined by the weakness or total incapacity of institutions and civil society.

The judiciary turned openly against the Morsi government, security services withdrew from the streets, and even the state institutions that provided gas and electricity failed, according to the New York Times, “so fundamentally that gas lines and rolling blackouts fed widespread anger and frustration.”

Many of Morsi’s failures were self-inflicted, but even if he had been better at governing, the hollowness of Egypt’s state would still have at least severely weakened and possibly doomed him. And so when Morsi faltered, the country’s democratic transition collapsed. The military filled the void left by the rest of the state’s failures.

The problems that brought down Mubarak have never been fixed

The conditions that Mubarak deliberately engineered to elongate his rule — an excessively powerful military, a weak opposition without governing experience, corrupt security services, hollowed-out civil society, and no effective democratic institutions — have all remained after his fall, and have undermined successive governments as much as they eventually undermined his own.

When you see that, it becomes clear that the real problem was never the degree to which individual protesters did or did not understand grassroots political organizing. That democratic transition isn’t merely the absence of a dictator. Rather, it is the presence of democratic rule. (A sustainable democratic process that the western nations made sure never to materialize in the Middle-East)

And democratic rule requires something a lot more important, if less obviously visible, than having a good-guy democrat at the top of the government. It requires the institutions of democracy: political parties capable of winning elections, politicians capable of governing, a bureaucracy capable of implementing that governance, and civil society groups able to provide support and stability to those institutions.

Many of the liberal protesters had years of organizing experience, yet they couldn’t seem to develop a political party to carry their ideals beyond Tahrir Square into actual governance. Maybe this was due in part to infighting, an inability to reach the working classes, or other failures.

But it is also the case, perhaps most important of all, that Mubarak had systematically ensured, over the decades of his rule, that the conditions for developing a successful liberal political party simply did not exist.

The Muslim Brotherhood had fared a bit better — it had a genuine party machine, political candidates, and a base of public support — but as Morsi’s disastrous administration showed, those are only necessary conditions for forming a viable party, not sufficient ones for governing.

Mubarak had ensured, over the decades of his autocratic rule, that basic institutions were weak or missing in Egypt. Yet when his regime fell, we were all shocked — shocked! — to discover that Morsi couldn’t, in his 12 months in power, muster those institutions either.

The story of the Arab Spring is one of weak states imploding

A similar dynamic played out in most of the other Arab Spring countries — with even worse results.

In Libya, for instance, Muammar Qaddafi had gone to even greater lengths to weaken institutions such that none was strong enough to challenge him.

It was, according to the International Crisis Group, “a regime centred on himself and his family; that played neighbourhoods and groups against one another; failed to develop genuine national institutions; and deliberately kept the national army weak to prevent the emergence of would-be challengers.”

So when Qaddafi’s regime fell, there was little left of the Libyan state. The country collapsed into conflict and today is mired in a civil war involving two rival governments and countless militant organizations, including ISIS.

In Syria, the military is strong and has largely remained loyal to Bashar al-Assad. But Assad had engineered the military not primarily as an external security force to guard the borders, but rather as an instrument of sectarian rule, staffing it with Alawites who would remain loyal to the regime.

The result is that when Assad ordered the military to fire on unarmed protesters — orders that many militaries might have refused — some of the troops complied, while others defected to help begin an armed rebellion.

(Mind you that it is in 2012 that Bashar finally decided to let out the regular army begin the Reconquista at the expense of his total power and his Alawi clan. Syria has strong and competent institutions which allowed it to face a world offensive)

And so the Arab Spring protests in Syria have led to the worst of both worlds: the preservation of a brutal dictatorship that still holds substantial territory and attacks civilians, but also a power vacuum in territory that Assad lost, which has proved to be fertile ground for ISIS and other extremists.

It has  been a disaster for Syrian civilians.

Is Tunisia the exception that proves the rule?

There was one Arab Spring country whose institutions weren’t hollowed out prior to its revolution: Tunisia. It turns out that it was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring with anything approaching a real democracy.

Although there have been moments of serious crisis, including the murder of two liberal politicians in 2013, Tunisia has thus far stayed the course of its political transition. Its first post-revolutionary government remained quite stable throughout its term, and although it eventually lost public support, that resulted in a defeat at the ballot box in 2014’s free and fair elections, rather than another revolution or coup.

Explaining the success of Tunisia’s revolution necessarily involves some unseemly Monday morning quarterbacking. But Tunisia did have one advantage over its neighbors that seem to have made a crucial difference: Its civil society institutions were far, far stronger.

That meant that when the country faced a political crisis following the 2013 assassinations, and when initial attempts to draft a new constitution broke down, there were other institutions within the country that were strong enough to prevent a descent into violence or state collapse.

Tunisia’s largest trade union, its business organization, its lawyers association, and a leading human rights organization formed, in 2013, a “national dialogue quartet” that successfully brokered talks between rival political factions. Their ability to steer the political system toward consensus defused political tensions, supported the successful drafting of a new constitution, and paved the way for 2014’s historic elections.

In 2015, the quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its work.

Tunisia’s story is, yes, one of brave protesters and noble-minded individual Tunisian leaders, but it’s also one of strong institutions and civil society that allowed those individuals to succeed.

That’s not a particularly emotionally compelling story. As a former lawyer, I know all too well that no one has ever written a revolutionary ballad romanticizing the heroism of a lawyers association’s participation in a series of meetings, and I suspect no one ever will.

But without lawyers and trade unions and NGOs willing to step in to do the dull work of civil society, it’s not clear that Tunisia would be the success story we consider it today.

Institutional weakness isn’t as exciting a topic as evil dictators or heroic protesters — but it’s far more important

The lesson to draw from this is not that it would have been “better” for Egypt to keep Mubarak, Libya to keep Qaddafi, or Syria to keep Assad. Rather, it’s that by the time these countries got to the moment of choosing to keep or depose these leaders, the game was already lost. The governments were already so brittle and institutions so weakened that any outcome would be bad.

The lesson here is that although rigid autocracies often like to advertise themselves as a regrettable but necessary way to ensure stability, they’re actually drivers of instability. They are only ever buying their regimes’ temporary stability today by mortgaging their future security.

The primary question we should be asking after the failures of the Arab Spring is not whether more should have been done after 2011 to bolster transitional governments, or whether we should have chosen to simply preserve the dictatorships. The question we should be asking is why and how we allowed those dictatorships, over the decades before the 2011 revolutions came, to hollow out their states so completely that the Arab Spring was all but assured to bring chaos regardless of the world’s response.

(The answer is that each time a democratic process was taking shape, the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia would foment a military coup)

It was Qaddafi’s brutal and ruthless regime that paved the way for Libya’s eventual collapse into civil war, and Mubarak’s shortcomings that left Egypt vulnerable to a coup by a mass-murdering general. And Bashar al-Assad is still proving every day that he was and remains the most terrible danger to the Syrian people, both in his own wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians and in his regime’s catastrophic failures that opened up space for ISIS’s own brutality and violence.

That’s not the exciting, emotionally compelling message that anyone craves. Brave young protesters aren’t going to take to the streets waving banners demanding judicial reform or civil society groups that can one day support a slow, incremental process of change. Hollywood isn’t going to make any summer blockbusters about political negotiations that succeed because respected pillars of the community convince stakeholders to adopt a consensus-based approach. And political candidates aren’t going to win applause with debate zingers about the importance of institutions to American foreign policy.

It’s far easier to call for a dictator’s downfall than to pressure for boring, unsexy policies that anticipate such a downfall years in the future and look for ways to ensure a smooth and uneventful transition.

But it’s a story worth paying attention to. The Arab Spring nations aren’t the only countries with brittle autocratic governments that could suddenly and catastrophically collapse. This is a problem we will face again.

Andrew Bossone shared this link

I’ve been saying this for awhile, that the previous regime ensured that no one could takes its place. Although I disagree with the final conclusions and inside Washington perspective.
“The conditions that Mubarak deliberately engineered to elongate his rule — an excessively powerful military, a weak opposition without governing experience, corrupt security services, hollowed-out civil society, and no effective democratic institutions — have all remained after his fall, and have undermined successive governments as much as they eventually undermined his own.”

After 5 years, we’re still telling the wrong story about the Arab Spring.|By Amanda Taub

The many ways refugees are created

There have always been refugees: people who are forced from their home countries by conflict or repression or something else, and who must find new homes and new lives abroad.

But there is something different about what’s happening now.

(Barbed wire fences stretching for hundreds of miles are delimiting the borders of the EU Schengen Area for free mobility. Hungary has been encouraged to take the bad rap so that the rest of Europe could apply its selection process on the influx of refugees. No rif raf admitted.  Educated and professionals are preferred to the large families with no potentials.)

The world is experiencing a crisis more severe than anything it has seen in decades — and we are just beginning to wake up to what that means.

All the multiple countries destabilized simultaneously in North Africa, Middle East, Africa and Myanmar… are demonstrating at a vast scale what tampering in underdeveloped countries by the multinationals and Superpowers can have as dire consequences in the short and longer terms.

Those governments who decided to destabilize countries will have to face, this time around, the magnitude of their mischiefs and disrespect for the autonomy of people to adjust to their own pace and customs.

and on September 9, 2015,

Make no mistake: The current refugee crisis is global.

The coverage has focused heavily on the refugees arriving in Europe, and especially on Syrian refugees. But in fact refugees are fleeing countries from Honduras, Nigeria, Myanmar, Pakistan, Afghanistan and they are arriving in wealthy countries including the US and Australia, as well as adjacent poorer ones like Turkey and Lebanon.

It is a worldwide problem — one whose scale and severity is unmatched since World War II.

What follows is a straightforward explanation of the very basics of the refugee crisis: the key facts you need to know to understand what’s happening, how the crisis became so severe, and what can be done to fix it.

1) What is the refugee crisis?

 <img alt=” ” src=””> UNHCR


At its most basic level, the refugee crisis is driven by a single fact: There are 19 million people in the world who are currently refugees — a disastrously high number — and they all need to find somewhere they can live in safety. (Not counting the internally displaced people in their own homeland)

But when we talk about the global refugee crisis, we’re not just talking about numbers. We’re really talking about the ways in which nations fail refugees.

That happens at 4 distinct stages — all of them terrible in their own way.

All refugees go through at least one of those terrible steps, but the most vulnerable people, if they do ever manage to reach safety at all, are likely to go through all four.

The first step of the refugee crisis is the persecution that forces refugees to flee their homes in the first place. Some are fleeing war, some political persecution, and some other kinds of violence, but all refugees, by definition, experience this.

Today Syria’s civil war is especially dire. But it’s not the only cause of the global refugee crisis, which is being driven by a host of national crises taking place around the globe, many of which are totally unconnected to one another.

There are wars in Somalia and Afghanistan and Libya, lower-level violence in Central America and Nigeria and Pakistan, persecution in Eritrea and Myanmar and Bangladesh, and so on.

The second step is what happens to those refugees once they are forced out of their homes: Often, though not always, they end up in camps.

Life in the camps is often difficult, cramped, and unsafe, with few prospects for work or education. This is a crisis for the refugees as well for as the countries that house them; for instance, host countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are struggling to manage their camps for refugees and to absorb the thousands or even millions of people who live in them.

These camps are a global failure: The UN is far short of the $8.4 billion it says it needs to provide bare minimum services just for Syrian refugees.

(The US has promised Israel $20 billion additional financial aid to compensate for its nuclear deal with Iran. Why this lavishness for barely 8 million Israeli who have a high standard of living when $8 billion can provide a decent human dignity to over 20 million refugees?)

And they are also national failures: They keep refugees from integrating into the local communities and creating stable, productive new lives there. At their worst, camps can keep families stuck in limbo for generations.

(Think of those Palestinians who have been living in camps since 1949 when Israel forced them out of their lands)

The third step is what happens when refugee families, perhaps after seeing that the camps offer them little hope or protection, seek out safety from persecution further afield, often in developed countries, particularly in Europe.

(David Cameron and the French Holland are visiting Lebanon to bribe and coerce the government to settle the 2 million Syrian refugees, in addition to the 500,000 Palestinians for a total population of 4 million Lebanese)

The journey is often horrifyingly dangerous: Many families drown crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats, for example, which is why a Syrian toddler’s body washed up on a Turkish beach last week.

The families understand the risk, and may pay thousands of dollars per person for the trip, but often feel it is their only option. The trip is so perilous in part because Western governments, wanting to discourage all forms of uncontrolled migration, have let it be that way as a matter of deliberate policy.

The fourth step is the one that many Western countries are experiencing now: what happens when large numbers of refugees show up. Often, they face systems that are badly broken — the squalid overcrowded camps in Greece, for example — or that are overtly hostile to refugees in an effort to keep them out.

This is changing a little bit, but most European countries are still trying to keep refugees out and refusing to accept even a remotely sufficient number of them for resettlement, which means the families who make it to Europe end up in camps, sleeping in train stations, or living in fear of deportation.

This last step of the crisis is about much more than just funding: It’s forcing some really sensitive political issues to the surface in Europe, over migration and identity and the future of the European Union. Until Europeans can figure out those issues, hundreds of thousands of refugees will continue to suffer.

2) Why are there so many refugees right now?

bashar assad Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images <img alt=”bashar assad Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images” src=””>

There’s no single reason, because a number of the crises driving people from their homes are not connected. There’s no apparent direct link, for example, between the war in Afghanistan and the persecution of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, or between violence in Nigeria and violence in Honduras and El Salvador.

But there is one thing that jump-started the crisis, and that has helped to make it so especially bad: the Arab Spring.

(What the Arab Spring revolts have to do in Honduras and El Salvador?)

It began in 2011 as a series of peaceful, pro-democracy movements across the Middle East, but it led to terrible wars in Libya and Syria. Those wars are now helping to fuel the refugee crisis.

It’s not hard to understand why Syrians are fleeing. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has targeted civilians ruthlessly, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs; ISIS has subjected Syrians to murder, torture, crucifixion, sexual slavery, and other appalling atrocities; and other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have tortured and killed civilians as well.

The civil war has killed a shocking 250,000 people, displaced half of the population, and caused one in five Syrians (4 million people) to flee the country.

Libya’s role in the refugee crisis is different: The war there is terrible, but it has not displaced nearly as many people. What it has done, however, is open up a long-closed route from Africa to Europe.

(Gadhafi was doing a fine job limiting access to this closest of routes to Europe)

For years, the EU kept refugees out of sight and out of mind by paying Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s government to intercept and turn back migrants that were heading for Europe.

Gadhafi was something like Europe’s bouncer, helping to bar refugees and other migrants from across Africa. His methods were terrible: Libya imprisoned migrants in camps where rape and torture were widespread. But Europe was happy to have someone else worrying about the problem.

When Libya’s uprising and Western airstrikes ousted Gadhafi in 2011, Libya collapsed into chaos. The route through Libya — and, from there, across the Mediterranean — suddenly opened, though it remained dangerous. As a result, the number of people making the perilous journey to Europe climbed considerably.

There is another reason that this crisis is so severe: Politics within Europe are unusually hostile to refugees and migrants at the moment.

That isn’t causing the numbers of refugees to actually increase, of course, but it’s part of why the refugees are in crisis, stuck in camps or dying in the Mediterranean rather than resettling safely in Europe.

There are a few reasons anti-refugee and anti-migrant politics are rising in Europe (more on this below), but it’s making it harder for Europe to deal with the crisis, and many refugee families are suffering as a result.

3) Why is there a war in Syria, and why is it so terrible?

yarmouk refugee camp syria <img alt=”yarmouk refugee camp syria” src=””>

The Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians, in Damascus, in 2014. (United Nation Relief and Works Agency/Getty Images)

Here, from Zack Beauchamp, is the briefest, simplest way we can describe this complex, horrific war:

Syria is a relatively new country: Its borders were constructed by European powers in the 1920s, mashing together several ethnic and religious groups.

Since early 1970, a family from one of those smaller groups — the Assads, who are Shia Alawites — has ruled the country in a brutal dictatorship. Bashar al-Assad has been in power since 2000.

This regime appeared stable, but when Arab Spring protests began in 2011, it turned out not to be. (It still was. And is resisting the onslaught of foreign interventions)

Syrians were clearly sick of the country’s corruption, brutality, and inequity. Protests began that spring. Though the protests weren’t about sectarian issues, many of the protesters were from the country’s largest demographic group, the long-disadvantaged Sunni Arabs. (Not correct. The Moslem Brotherhood members were excluded. And for good reasons as the world has witnessed their mischiefs in Egypt and the Al Qaeda Nousra Front)

On March 18, Syrian regime forces opened fire on peaceful protestors in the southern city of Deraa, killing three. Protests grew, as did the increasingly violent crackdowns. Assad’s troops shot demonstrators en masse, abducted and tortured activists, and even murdered children.

Perhaps inevitably, Syrians took up arms to defend themselves. Defectors from Assad’s regime joined them. By early 2012, the protests had become a civil war. Government forces indiscriminately bombed and shelled civilian populations; Assad aimed to crush the rebels and their supporters by brute force.

Assad deliberately targeted Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, civilian and rebel alike. His goal was to polarize the conflict on religious lines, to turn what began as a broad-based uprising against a dictator into a sectarian war, with religious minorities on his side. He knew this would attract extremists to the rebel side, which would make the world afraid of seeing Assad lose. (Mostly regurgitated stories. These kinds of Machiavelli tactics are extracted from the colonial strategy to control the occupied countries)

It worked. By 2013, hard-line Sunni Islamists had become some of the most effective anti-Assad fighters, backed by Sunni states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran’s Shia government backed Assad with cash, weapons, and soldiers. The conflict became, in part, a Middle East sectarian proxy war of Shia versus Sunni.

Meanwhile, a Sunni extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had been mostly defeated in 2007, was rebuilding itself (because the US ignored its existence in order to achieve the destabilizing process). It grew strong fighting against Assad in Syria, and later swept northern Iraq under the new name ISIS.

By 2014, Syria was divided between government, rebel, ISIS, and Kurdish forces. (The Kurds, an ethnic minority, have long sought independence.) It is divided in a terrible stalemate, as this animated map of the conflict’s front lines since March 2014 shows:

Civilians always suffer most in war, but Syria’s have suffered especially. Assad targets them ruthlessly, including with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. ISIS and other groups, when they take over towns, put them under brutal and violent rule. Fighting has flattened entire neighborhoods and towns.

Most of Syria’s 4 million refugees have ended up in overcrowded and underfunded camps in neighboring countries. But with little hope of returning home, many are seeking new lives in Europe, though the journey is expensive, uncertain, and often fatal. That they would risk so much speaks to the horrors they’re fleeing, and to their hopes, however faint, of finding a future for their children.

4) Why is the journey so dangerous?

There are two culprits:

the exploitative criminal networks that move the refugees for high fees but offer them little safety, and the Western governments that have tolerated these dangers, at times as part of a deliberate effort to discourage refugees from attempting the journey.

Last fall, for instance, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing.

The Italian government ended the operation in November. Since then, it has been replaced by the EU’s far more limited Frontex program, which only patrols within 30 miles of the border and does not have a search-and-rescue mission.

The result, predictably, has been deadly: An estimated 2,500 people have already died so far this summer.

This is not an accident. It is the result of European policy meant to keep out refugees. But, again, this isn’t just a European phenomenon — the pattern looks pretty similar in other rich countries, as well.

Australia, for example, has gone to great lengths to prevent so-called “boat people” from reaching its shores, including imprisoning them in abusive detention centers on remote Pacific islands, and shipping them off to Cambodia.

In North America, the US has stepped up enforcement efforts after last year’s child migrant crisis, including sending aid to Central American countries in exchange for efforts to keep children from making the journey to the United States.

As with Europe and other countries, the whole idea is to keep refugees from showing up in the first place — even though these efforts never solve, and often don’t even address, the underlying crises that cause the refugees to flee in the first place.

5) Why are Western countries making it so difficult for refugees to come?

David Cameron <img alt=”David Cameron” src=””>

UK Prime Minister David Cameron. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Some of this is about issues that are particular to the US and to Europe and Australia, but there is also a generalized anti-immigration sentiment playing out across the developed countries where refugees are arriving.

Europe, like a lot of places, has pretty robust anti-immigration politics. The British tabloid press, for example, has for years scaremongered about the supposed threats from refugees and migrants. Such politics, in Europe or elsewhere, often get described as being about pure racism or xenophobia, but in fact they’re about something a little different: a fear, rarely articulated, of changing demographics and civic identity.

Taking in large numbers of refugees requires accepting that those refugees might bring changes to your nation’s identity or culture. And while that change is often economically and culturally enriching, it can still feel scary. It requires people to modify, ever so slightly, their vision of what their town and neighborhood look like.

That change can be hard to accept. You can see this play out in Europe, for example, in the regular political backlashes against new mosques being constructed. Those backlashes are partly about Islamophobia, but they are also an expression of people’s fear and insecurity about “losing” what made their community feel familiar.

And anti-immigration sentiment tends to rise when people feel economically insecure, as many do in Western countries now. This insecurity can bring a sense of zero-sum competition, even though in fact migration is typically economically beneficial. There is thus enormous political demand within Western countries for keeping out migrants and refugees.

6) Why is Europe so unwelcoming to the refugees?

 <img alt=” ” src=””> UNHCR


Refugees are showing up just as the European Union is in the middle of a pretty fraught debate over migration, which is part of the EU’s growing political tension over the feasibility of the Union itself.

In the 1990s, the EU introduced something called that Schengen Area that allows near-unlimited migration between EU countries. It’s worked well, but not everyone is comfortable with the influx, and the backlash has contributed to right-wing, anti-EU parties in Europe.

This gets expressed as generalized hostility against migrants. If you’re a politician in, say, France, then you can’t call for kicking out the Poles — that would violate EU rules — but you can call for keeping out Nigerian refugees.

European countries are also taking advantage of EU rules to keep refugees out. In theory, the EU’s open internal borders mean that it ought to handle refugees collectively.

But in practice, most EU member states don’t want to take their fair share, and EU rules mean they don’t technically have to. Part of how this happens is a European Union rule called the Dublin Regulation, which requires refugees to stay in the first European country they arrive in until their asylum claims are processed. This rule has allowed Europe to push most of the burden onto Greece and Italy, which are overwhelmed with thousands of refugees.

At the same time, countries such as Hungary and Austria are tightening their borders with other European countries to keep refugees from crossing their territory, even en route to other countries like Germany. In Hungary’s case, this is apparently intended to discourage refugees from entering the EU at all — Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban is openly hostile to refugees, who he believes are a threat to Europe’s “Christian character.” While Germany has dramatically relaxed its asylum rules, which is a very important step for dealing with the crisis and helping refugees, the rest of Europe has not really followed, and is tightening restrictions rather than loosening them.

Until the EU can take on the refugee crisis collectively, as it’s supposed to, the problem will remain unsolved. But the EU may be incapable of coming together on this until it is able to deal with its underlying issues over the Union and whether individual states are really willing to give up a little bit of their separateness to function better together.

7) Why isn’t America taking more Syrian refugees?

Gokhan Sahin/Getty <img alt=”Gokhan Sahin/Getty” src=””>

A Syrian refugee family in a camp in Turkey. (Gokhan Sahin/Getty)

The US is usually pretty good about resettling refugees — it resettles about 70,000 a year — but has so far badly lagged in resettling Syrians.

Since 2011, the UN refugee agency has referred 17,000 Syrians to the US for resettlement, but the US has only resettled about 9 percent of those.

The US process for applying for resettlement can take up to 24 months for Syrians, due in part to extensive background checks and enormous paperwork requirements. The US can get away with imposing a long, painstaking bureaucratic process because it is voluntarily resettling Syrian refugees who are an ocean away.

By contrast, countries that are confronting large groups of refugees who arrive in their territory and request asylum, as Europe is now, do not have that luxury. They cannot legally deport refugees with valid asylum claims, and so in most cases they have to let them stay until their cases have been decided.

But America’s bureaucratic resettlement process, like its low acceptance rate for Syrian refugees, comes down in many ways to a fear of terrorism.

“The Obama administration has provided virtually no assurances that the admission of Syrian refugees will not pose a national security threat to the United States,” Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, told the New Republic.

“If anything, in speaking with leaders in executive branch departments and agencies, I have grown more concerned that we do not have the ability to confidently vet the Syrian refugee population for potential threat actors.”

The joke is that the US won’t give your family asylum if you once sold falafel to a jihadist, but the darkly humorous punch line is that it’s not really a joke at all: The tolerance for “affiliation” with extremists is basically zero, even though it’s just about impossible to survive in Syria today without interacting with extremists in some way.

McCaul and some other Republicans have warned that ISIS could exploit any Syrian refugee resettlement program to use as a “a federally funded jihadi pipeline.”

The Obama administration knows this isn’t true — these are families stuck in camps we’re talking about — but it is unwilling to overcome the political opposition.

And as with the White House’s failure to close Guantanamo, a big factor here is probably a fear of being blamed for a terrorist attack if one were to eventually occur.

If the US were to admit, say, 65,000 Syrian refugees, as some humanitarian organizations have called for it to do, and just one of them were to be involved in some sort of attack, then it seems likely the Obama administration would face a severe political backlash.

So while many Americans today say they want the US to resettle Syrian refugees, they have also sent a very clear message that they fear terrorism above almost all else.

US leaders have good reason to believe that if even one resettled Syrian committed extremism-tinged violence, they would pay a heavy political cost. The Obama administration appears, at the moment, more concerned with protecting itself against this perceived political risk that with saving the lives of thousands of Syrian families.

(Those committing terrorist activities are Not Syrians: They are from Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisians, Libyans, a few Lebanese)

8) What’s the difference between refugees and migrants?

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty <img alt=”MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty” src=””>

People hoping to travel to Europe are rescued by the Libyan coast guard after their boat begins to sink. (MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty)

Not everyone who is crossing the Mediterranean or otherwise showing up at a European or American border is a refugee; many are migrants coming for other reasons. That gets to the distinction between refugees and migrants.

Refugees are people who have been forced out of their home country against their will.

The word “migrant” can mean someone who moves to a foreign country voluntarily, or it can be used as a broader umbrella term that includes refugees as well as voluntary migrants. For example, a Syrian man fleeing war is a refugee, whereas a Cameroonian man seeking economic opportunity is a migrant.

Whether someone is considered a refugee or a migrant effects what sorts of legal rights they have:

Refugees can apply for asylum and are protected by international and domestic law, for example, while economic migrants cannot.

There is no such thing as an “illegal asylum-seeker” — refugees can seek asylum in another country without obtaining a visa or resettlement authorization first.

Economic migrants, by contrast, are usually required to have a visa or other form of work authorization in order to immigrate legally.

There is also a meaningful symbolic distinction between the words, one that often becomes political.

Calling a group of people “refugees” can be a way of describing them as legitimately deserving of shelter and care, whereas calling them “migrants” can be a way of accusing them of arriving for economic reasons, and perhaps even lying about their asylum claims.

This is why anti-immigration politicians will sometimes insist that a group of refugees are actually migrants who have come to exploit Western entitlement programs. And it is why, in this article and many others on Vox, you will see us use the word refugee rather than migrant when we are referring to people fleeing persecution.

But this distinction, for all its legal salience, is actually quite blurry — and it can also imply, wrongly, that non-refugee migrants should be rejected, that only refugees deserve their rights. Jørgen Carling, a scholar at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, put this well:

The ‘two kinds of people’ argument is further undermined by the drawn-out trajectories of many current migrants. A Nigerian arriving in Italy might have left Nigeria for reasons other than a fear of persecution, but ended up fleeing extreme danger in Libya.

Conversely, a Syrian might have crossed into Jordan and found safety from the war, but been prompted by the bleak prospects of indeterminate camp life to make the onward journey to Europe. Regardless of the legal status that each one obtains in Europe, they are both migrants who have made difficult decisions, who deserve our compassion, and whose rights need to be ensured.

Drew Hinshaw, a West Africa–based reporter for the Wall Street Journal, elaborated on Twitter. “In many places I cover, asymmetrical war makes it hard to tell where war/poverty end/begin,” he wrote, citing as an example parts of Nigeria where low-level violence and bleak economic opportunities, combined, lead families to decide to try for a better life in Europe.

In such cases, of which there are a great many, the distinction between migrants and refugees — and the implied value of judgment of who does and does not “deserve” to seek a better life abroad — falls apart.

9) I want to help. What can I do?

Spencer Platt/Getty <img alt=”Spencer Platt/Getty” src=””>

A Syrian refugee girl in Lebanon. (Spencer Platt/Getty)

There are a number of ways refugees are suffering, and thus a number of ways to help alleviate those specific traumas and injustices.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, is a few billion dollars short on funding just to administer aid to the millions of displaced Syrians. There are a number of excellent charities operating in conflict zones such as Syria and Afghanistan, as well as good governance organizations working to improve political conditions in countries where persecution and corruption contribute to refugee outflows.

There are also charities that help care for resettled refugees, or that provide them with legal council to seek asylum once they arrive in Europe or the US or elsewhere. These are all worthwhile causes that can help translate your time and money into ameliorating refugees’ plight.

Ultimately, though, checkbook humanitarianism is not going to solve things. This crisis is about 19 million people who have been forced from their countries and need a new country to call home. Solving it will require resettling them, which will require the countries that can afford to absorb them to overcome their own political anxieties about large-scale immigration.

For those of us who live in those countries, that means accepting that our communities will look and feel different from how they have in the past. It requires adjusting, at least slightly, our vision of what our communities look like, and widening the definition of our culture to accommodate new arrivals, even if their customs and values might seem alien to us. That’s not something that has ever come easily to people, but it is the only real solution there is.




August 2022

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