Migration, Displacement and the Arab Spring: Lessons to Learn

This time last year about 1,000 people per hour were fleeing Libya into Egypt and Tunisia. In total perhaps two million people have left their homes over the last year as a result of the impact of the Arab Spring across North Africa and the Middle East, and at least thirty countries have been directly affected by these flows. Many have since returned to their homes in Libya, but there are still at least 90,000 people internally displaced there; while the current estimate for displacement in and from Syria is at least 150,000 and rising rapidly.

The impacts of the NATO intervention and internal uprisings on migration and displacement have largely been overlooked in the analysis of the Arab Spring, and are largely being ignored in discussions about international responses to the crisis in Syria and future transitions in the region. This commentary considers lessons that may be learned from the Arab Spring experience over the last year about international responses to migration and displacement. A subsequent commentary will look to the future to identify the key migration and displacement issues to keep an eye on over the next year.

Lesson One: The Differential Impacts of Conflict on Migration and Displacement
The Arab Spring has resulted in rulers being ousted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen; civil uprisings in Bahrain and Syria; major protests in Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Oman; and minor protests in Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Western Sahara. Yet large-scale migration or displacement has only taken place in two of the affected countries, Libya, and Syria. Three reasons can be discerned for these differential impacts.

One concerns the nature of the uprising. Full-fledged conflict has only occurred in Libya and Syria, although there has also been protracted violence in Yemen. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia within a month of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi while President Hosni Mubarak resigned after 30 days of peaceful mass protests in Egypt. In contrast, conflict in Libya endured five months between the NATO intervention in mid-March 2011 and the capture of Tripoli and ousting of Colonel Gaddafi in mid-August. The conflict in Syria has been raging since late November 2011 when Syrian opposition forces first occupied the Baba Amr district of Homs.

A second and related explanation concerns the political will and capacity of the states concerned to protect civilians, including migrant populations. While there were sporadic police raids in Algeria and Bahrain, and government forces clashed with protestors in Tunisia, Iraq, and Oman, only in Libya and Syria has civil war erupted between the government and opposition forces.  In Egypt, in contrast, the revolution was largely peaceful. Similarly, civil society was better institutionalized and mobilized in certain states than others, one result being that violence against citizens could be better documented and broadcast both internally and internationally. In Yemen, for example, Tawakul Karman won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in supporting women’s rights during the Arab Spring.  In Bahrain, protests were initially not targeted on overthrowing the government but on greater political freedom. A third factor appears to be the presence within national borders of large migrant populations. The largest migration impact has been in Libya and Syria, which respectively were host to about 2.5 million migrant workers and at least one hundred thousand Iraqi refugees at the beginning of the upheavals. On its own, the presence of a large migrant population is not a full explanation for the emergence of a displacement crisis – there are also very significant migrant and refugee communities in Egypt and Jordan, for example, although in the case of the Palestinians these refugees have been settled there for decades. But some combination of the nature of conflict; political will to protect civilians and civil capacity to resist attacks on civilians; and the presence of a mobile population largely explains the differential impacts on migration and displacement of the Arab Spring. Certainly these are the sorts of factors to take into account when considering the broader consequences of political transition.

Lesson Two: Highlighting  a Protection Gap
Numerically the largest single category of people who have been forced from their homes over the last year during the Arab Spring has been migrant workers – that is people from other countries working (or looking for work) in one of the affected countries. This phenomenon has been particularly significant in Libya. In the three months between March and June 2011, over half a million migrant workers left Libya for Egypt and Tunisia – more than the number of Libyans who fled the country during all of last year and more than the number of internally displaced Libyans or Syrians. While the majority of these migrant workers were from Egypt and Tunisia, about 250,000 were from other countries, in particular sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to those who crossed borders, a significant proportion of the 150,000 or so people who were displaced from their homes within Libya were also not Libyans.

The legal status of migrant workers who are subsequently displaced is uncertain. The legal framework for protecting migrants in general is weak.  Relatively few countries (and no major destination countries) have ratified the 1990 UN Migrant Workers Convention – and in any event that Convention does not extend explicitly to cover migrant workers who are subsequently displaced. Where they cross borders they are not usually legally entitled to claim refugee status, as this status relates to conditions in their country of origin (unless they can demonstrate that the country where they have been working has become their ‘country of habitual residence’). And they are not specifically included in the definition of internally displaced persons in the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, although the Guiding Principles do apply to those who are habitual residents. Nevertheless, most countries do not yet have national laws or policies on internal displacement, and where they do these do not always incorporate the Guiding Principles in full. As a consequence of such legal gaps, there is no clear institutional responsibility in the current international system either for protecting or assisting displaced migrant workers.

Yet the number of migrant workers is on the rise – there has been an increase worldwide of at least 50 million in the twelve years since the beginning of this century. And as emerging economies in Latin America, Asia, and Africa become increasingly important destinations for migrant workers, the likelihood that some may find themselves in situations of violent conflict and be displaced as a result of that conflict will increase. Migrant workers, mainly from South Asia, were displaced during the conflict in Lebanon in 2006; Zimbabwean workers were displaced by xenophobic violence in South Africa in 2008; and over the last year in addition to the events in Libya, significant numbers of Burmese migrant workers were also displaced by floods in Thailand. Looking to the future, the expansion of Chinese development and infrastructure projects, which tend to import Chinese workers, including in Libya, will be especially important in this regard.

Developing new legal frameworks for the protection of migrant workers or even extending existing ones is unlikely in the present international climate. At an institutional level, in South Africa and more recently in Libya, the challenge of protecting and assisting migrant workers has promoted greater cooperation between the three main international agencies with competence – the International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Between them IOM and UNHCR evacuated some 60,000 migrant workers from Libya to 30 countries worldwide. In addition some countries that have particularly large overseas migrant populations are also strengthening systems of consular protection for them. In recent years, for example, a range of Chinese institutions to assist Chinese citizens working overseas has emerged, and in recent years have evacuated Chinese workers from Chad, Haiti, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, the Solomon Islands, Thailand, Timor-Leste, and Tonga – as well as Libya.

Lesson Three: Europe’s Quid Pro Quo
Much has been made of the contrasting responses of the European Union (EU) and neighboring North African states to the exodus from Libya. While Egypt and Tunisia maintained an open border policy and admitted between them perhaps half a million migrants (as well as receiving home half a million returning nationals), the EU stepped up security and border controls in response to the arrival of around 45,000 migrants on boats. Maritime operations and surveillance were bolstered through the EU’s FRONTEX border agency; training was provided for the coastguard service in Tunisia; and there was a debate about temporarily suspending the Schengen Treaty that guarantees the freedom of movement within the EU.

While the contrast in the respective approaches of the EU and Egypt and Tunisia is unavoidable, a number of reasons explain the hard-line response by the EU. First, the boats arrived mainly in Lampedusa (a small Italian island with a population of around 5,000 people) and to a lesser extent in Malta, and inevitably placed a strain on services and generated resentment on these islands, before the majority of migrants were resettled temporarily to camps in Southern Italy. Second, the majority of those arriving on the boats were economic migrants and not asylum-seekers. The boats carried Tunisians and Libyans, but also part of the annual flow of sub-Saharan Africans transiting North Africa for Europe. Most of those who arrived by boat have subsequently been deported. Third, many EU governments were concerned that these arrivals might be harbingers of much larger numbers of migrant arrivals in the future. Were those who arrived to have received legal status that entitled them to be joined by family members, then the numbers would have skyrocketed. Should the crisis in Libya have endured and become more deadly, which was certainly the concern when the first boats arrived, there may have been far more people taking to boats. And if a precedent was established by admitting people from Libya and Tunisia, how would Europe be able to turn away new flows from other countries affected by subsequent manifestations of the Arab Spring?

Through its response to the Libyan crisis, the EU has probably signaled its future intentions. Protecting EU borders can be justified as a security issue. While people fleeing conflict in Europe’s neighborhood may require assistance and protection, they should not have to come to Europe to access it. The quid pro quo is that Europe will support the capacity of those countries that are directly affected by influxes to process asylum applications, protect refugees, and maintain basic services for migrants and refugees.

The lessons to be learned about migration and displacement learned from the Arab Spring over the last twelve months have clear implications for the coming year.  Syria is characterized by a protracted and violent conflict, no political will to protect civilians, with weak civil institutions, and the presence of a very large migrant population, and significant displacement may be expected as a result. While this migrant population is largely comprised of refugees rather than migrant workers, the extent to which they will become further displaced by the conflict in Syria, and how they will be assisted and protected, is an important challenge for UNHCR and the international community. And it is clear that the EU will resist large-scale asylum flows, meaning that the burden of the displacement from Syria will continue to fall upon neighboring Turkey in particular.

The fate of Iraqi refugees in Syria is one of the three ‘hot topics’ for the next year that will be considered in a second commentary on migration, displacement, and the Arab Spring. A second is the return of migrant workers to Libya – which is essential for kick-starting the oil industry and Libya’s economy more generally. And the third is to what extent the Arab League will be spurred to follow the example set by other regional organizations in developing regional instruments on migrant, refugee, and IDP protection.