13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


Hello, my name is Luay. I was a refugee.

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Editor’s note: The proliferation of social media and the precarious state of the eurozone economy has, to some extent, distorted the public’s perception of the migration of refugees into a Manichean type world view. Luay al-Khatteeb reflects on his time as a refugee in his September 3 Huffington Post piece and highlights some key considerations that underpin the crisis to help gain a broader perspective on the debate currently raging in European capitals.

Once upon a time I was a refugee who, unlike many of my relatives, was fortunate to escape persecution and genocide. The plight, struggle and impact of the exodus of refugees engulfing Europe is something I feel obliged to write about.

Historically, the migration of refugees is nothing new in our global history. The proliferation of the social media and the precarious state of the Eurozone economy has to some extent, distorted the public’s perception of this phenomenon into a Manichean type world view. This article highlights some key considerations that underpin this crisis for readers to gain a broader perspective on the “Fortress Europe” debate currently raging in European capitals.

Economic Necessity

Being a refugee is not necessarily a choice. Sixty percent of the Middle East and North Africa population is under the age of 25 and has the highest level of youth unemployment of any region in the world. Some 29 percent of its youth are unemployed. The combined and cumulative effects of the Arab Spring, Western military intervention, corruption, poor economic planning, weak European immigration controls and a lack of global consensus in defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are all contributing factors of the current Exodus to Europe.

Sobering Migration Statistics

The failure of Western Countries in achieving a cohesive, rapid and effective response to the clear and present danger posed by terrorist groups such as ISIS has effectively destroyed the economic infrastructure of countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. The threat of ISIS and other Qaeda offshoots might potentially destabilize others including Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

The United Nations statistics are sobering. The civil war in Syria had led to approximately 55 percent of the population (12.2 million) being in desperate need for humanitarian assistance, whilst 7.6 million people are now internally displaced people (IDPs) and 4 million have already fled to other countries to avoid the violence.

As for Iraq, 8.6 million people are in desperate need for humanitarian support including 3.2 million IDPs in addition to 250,000 Syrian refugees that have moved to Kurdish and southern Iraqi provinces. The growth continues with the UN expecting the global record-breaking figure of 38 million for IDPs to be exceeded in 2015.

Counting the Costs in the Middle East

The effects of the refugee crisis are not only localized in the Eurozone but also the Middle East which remains on the frontline in battling this crisis. Jordan’s economy is already struggling to manage 630,000 Syrian refugees living in camps which resemble large shanty towns.

Lebanon with an unemployment rate of 25 percent and a poverty rate of over 25 percent of the population is struggling to cope with the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees. Its infrastructure is close to meltdown with water and electricity distribution failing to meet demand and it is struggling to contain sectarian divisions which are exacerbated by the influx of Syrians. The parallels with Iraq are all too clear.

In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government with relatively modest oil revenues is struggling to finance its conflict against ISIS as well as provide support for the influx of refugees both within Northern Iraq and from Syria. The KRG needs $1.5 billion above and beyond its annual budget to keep its regional economy afloat. The once thriving region which modeled itself on Dubai’s economic policies and perceived by multinational companies, particularly in the energy sector as a safe place to do business, is in serious jeopardy. The story in the rest of Iraq is no different as the cost of war continues to increase by the day whilst oil prices plunged way below the Federal budget estimate.

Therefore Iraq’s 2015 fiscal deficit is expected to increase from $20 billion to nearly double. The war on ISIS and ongoing plight of IDPs have already forced Iraq to dilute its foreign reserves from $77 billion (December 2013) to $59 (June 2015), which has depressed the value of Iraq’s dinar.

Libya which, like Iraq and Turkey, is now one of the transit points for refugees in North Africa and the Middle East, is being torn apart by civil insurgency and terrorism. The plight of migrating refugees is being exploited by ruthless gangs of human traffickers posing as rebel fighting factions. Libya’s oil resources for a relatively small population of some 6 million, has fallen into economic decline since Nato’s intervention as fundamentalist warlords battle with the government for control of strategic territories. Should the European Union fail to provide adequate support to the Libyan government despite its repeated requests for urgent assistance, the refugee crisis in Europe is likely to deepen.

Turkey since 2011 has received officially 1.8 million refugees costing its economy over $25 billion in direct costs of maintaining refugees and lost revenues. As there is no end in sight to this crisis, the costs to a relatively buoyant economy can only escalate putting further pressure on Ankara in its struggle to keep sectarian tensions to a minimum and maintain a secure buffer through Syria to keep ISIS out.

Counting the Costs in Europe

Thousands each day end up on the shores of Greece, Italy or the borders of Hungary heading for the developed nations, some of them die trying to migrate or in transit once they reach Europe. Refugees are bypassing these countries who themselves are struggling with high rates of unemployment. The hostility and fear of those local populations is to some extent understandable as they do not welcome an expansion of their black market economies, which will only depress wages and job opportunities further.

Europe’s politicians are divided from the liberal view of “let them in and let them earn” to those who want to build more fences to keep them out. Talks of sharing the burden seem far from reaching an amicable solution. The Germans accuse the Italians of slipping them money to move migrants on to Germany. Britain’s current government was elected on a mandate to reduce immigration. Therefore they claim they have already taken enough migrants from the Schengen area and can’t take any more. Slovakia is only willing to take Christians. Sweden has taken more than its fair share previously and is now reluctant to take more when, in its eyes, other larger economies have failed to respond humanitarianly.

The Eurozone currently has over 20 percent rate of youth unemployment with some countries reaching total unemployment at 50 percent. Europe is struggling to create sustainable job growth for its youth and graduates. Countries such as Germany and France are politically wary of increasing disaffection amongst their own populations and are seemingly reluctant to allocate dwindling resources to solve this human tragedy, particularly given the rising sentiment of Islamophobia.

Initially, the European Union refugee policy has been to create a “Fortress Europe,” which is a costly attempt to stem the migrant flow to its shores. Southern European economies inevitably served as the first transit points, thereby facing a heavier economic burden than their northern counterparts. For instance, Greece spent 63 million Euros in 2013 trying to prevent illegal migration receiving only 3 million Euros of support from the EU. Italy was spending 9 million Euros a month in 2013 trying to stem the tide of refugees.

Developed European economies therefore arguably turned a blind eye to the principle of protecting refugees in the first safe transit point in Europe as long as that point was far away from their borders. It is now clear that EU policy towards refugees requires a radical overhaul in line with member states obligations under international law and conventions.

Too Little Too Late?

Concerns about their economies, ethnic conflicts and terrorism are raising Europe’s xenophobia and especially Islamophobia. Commentators seem to be ignoring the fact the U.S. and Europe are partly responsible for the current crisis, having contributed to a political and military vacuum in countries such as Libya, Syria and not least Iraq. The resulting refugee crisis should therefore be a foregone conclusion.

The West has so far deliberately avoided direct military confrontation on the ground with ISIS and instead perversely relying on failed states to secure their own borders and populations, which is surprising given the unsurpassed U.S. annual defense budgets and the pervasive threat of terrorism.

Despite the refugee crisis being the largest humanitarian one since World War II, the UN has done little other than decry Europe’s belated and confused response to the problem. It is worth noting that three years ago the EU made no response to Turkey’s plea to establish a safe haven within Syria. Furthermore, the UN’s failure to enforce a no fly zone and safe haven in Southern Iraq, post the uprising of 1991, led to the genocide of over 200,000 Iraqis in a short space of 3 months and an acute exodus of Iraqi refugees.

Reality Check

Is the demonization of refugees in some parts of the mainstream media portraying a fair assessment of their impact? The short answer is a resolute no! Refugees as stated earlier leave their homeland primarily out of economic or security necessity coupled with physical survival. Seriously consider the following:

  • Why shouldn’t a refugee whose country was a historic protectorate of a European power seek a safe haven in that European country, especially where immigrants now form a thriving and largely peaceful part of that European country’s socio-economic fabric?
  • Shouldn’t signatories to international conventions apply the spirit and letter of their obligations and provide a safe haven to refugees?
  • Shouldn’t countries such as the U.S., UK and France bear more than a trickle of refugees from failed states, particularly given their direct or indirect military interventions in those states on supposed humanitarian grounds?
  • Shall we ignore the fact European nations and the UK invited if not welcomed successive waves of immigrants who remain an important part of their economies and cultural identity?
  • Isn’t the level of democratic nation to be judged by how it protects and enforces the legal rights of its minorities (which would include refugees)?
  • Do you know the Refugee Convention of 1951 recognizes the use by refugees of false identification to escape persecution?
  • Shouldn’t refugees escaping despotic regimes have the same legal rights as those who historically fled persecution such as the Jews from Nazi Germany?
  • Your thoughts on the questions should provide a more balanced approach to the debate.

Immediate Solutions to the Crisis

Establishing a safe haven in the region free of combatants and where civilians are guaranteed protection, thereby avoiding a Srebrenica type massacre may be a viable solution to the current refugee crisis. However, this would need to be led by the UN backed by the multinational coalition and in accordance with international law. Russia’s cooperation with the U.S. in the Security Council will be decisive in this respect.

Another option would be for the Gulf Cooperation Council in coordination with the Arab league to facilitate entry of refugees to safe Arab countries which may indeed slow down the refugee crisis in Europe, given their relatively abundant financial resources. However, such a scheme may prove unattractive to Gulf countries who are wary of disturbing their delicate socio-economic demographics. And last but not least, for the European Countries and the United State to agree on an escalating and realistic quota and fast track asylum applications to those already in transit or who have arrived in western territories.


Most people will recall the terrifying 9/11 scenes of those jumping from the highest floors of the Twin Towers in 2001 which remains forever etched on our global consciousness. What should equally be remembered that those who were trapped in the burning towers risked their lives rather than wait and suffer a horrific fate. Is the tragedy of refugees who risk their lives at sea, in trucks, on trains or in camps so different?

As a former refugee who like millions of refugees value the sanctity of life above all else, I would have to answer no.