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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Human Rights

The Migration Crisis Facing the Arab World: Q&A with Dr. Noora Lori

JMEPP_DrLori_PicDr. Noora Lori is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at Boston University. Her research broadly focuses on the political economy of migration, the development of security institutions and international migration control, and the establishment and growth of national identity systems. She is particularly interested in the study of temporary worker programs and racial hierarchies in comparative perspective.

Regionally, her work examines the shifting population movements accompanying state formation in the Persian Gulf, expanding the study of Middle East politics to include historic and new connections with East Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Lori is the Founding Director of the Pardee School Initiative on Forced Migration and Human Trafficking. Lori’s current book project examines the development and enforcement of citizenship and immigration policies in the United Arab Emirates, where non-citizens comprise 96 percent of the domestic labor force. This work is based on her dissertation, which was awarded the Best Dissertation Award by the Migration and Citizenship section of the American Political Science Association in 2014. Lori has published articles in the Asian and Pacific Migration Journal, the Journal of Politics & Society, and for the Institut français des relations internationals (IFRI).

JMEPP: Where do you see the most exciting research/debates happening in your field?

Lori: Recently there has been a huge surge in the research and public interest in forced migration. What I notice—in paper after paper, lecture after lecture, workshop after workshop—is that many of us have developed a consensus about the problems associated with forced migration and displacement. We know, for example, that states and international organizations officially treat refugee flows as ‘temporary’ crises but human displacement is not only spreading (60 million as of last year), it is also becoming more permanent and protracted. In my opinion, the more interesting debates—from both a research and advocacy standpoint—are about how new technologies can be harnessed by civil society actors, the private sector, and even our own students to help develop and test new solutions or (at least concrete management strategies) to address the ever-growing challenges of human displacement.

JMEPP: What makes this a crisis? Some claim that, historically, migration is as old as humanity itself.

Lori: Exactly! There is nothing new about migration. While the speed and reach of human mobility have certainly increased over the past two centuries, it would be inaccurate to characterize this mobility as ‘new’; what is relatively new is the criminalization of movement. Scholars like James Scott, Charles Tilly, and John Torpey have shown that by the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, modern states monopolized the authority over legitimate movement into and out of their territories, aiming to (among other goals) settle mobile populations.The current unprecedented level of human displacement can only be understood as an outcome of the coordinated international response to systematically criminalize ‘unauthorized’ movement. National governments are hardening borders just as the larger structural forces of migration (like urbanization and climate change) are becoming more and more acute.

Displacement and immigration are not pressing global problems because people are moving now when they did not before—they are conceived of as ‘crises’ or ‘problems’ because people continue to move even when they lack the authority to do so.

Displacement and immigration are not pressing global problems because people are moving now when they did not before—they are conceived of as ‘crises’ or ‘problems’ because people continue to move even when they lack the authority to do so. In other words, while migratory routes can certainly be dangerous, the real perils of forced migration happen after the journey is completed—when displaced populations do not have the ‘authorization’ to rebuild their lives. Displacement is a problem when, for years (if not decades) after completing their journeys, families still cannot register births, enroll their children in school, gain access to national identity documents and licenses, or legally earn a living.

The challenges and experiences that you have upon entrance into a country as a migrant depends on the kind of status you get from the receiving state. Forced migrants receive a different status than economic migrants. For example, Jordan is not party to the refugee convention, and Turkey is party to the convention but applies the geographic limitation (which means that it only recognizes refugees from Europe and Syrians are not eligible for this legal status). As a result, in both countries Syrians are often referred to as ‘guests.’ This is not uncommon; the vast majority of displaced people find themselves in ‘refugee-like’ situations (in the sense of being unable to safely return home for long periods of time) without being afforded the formal protections of refugee status specified under international law. We act like there are easy lines between “illegal” immigrants and those who are “deserving” of being resettled, but these are often arbitrary distinctions that are driven by foreign policy calculations.

… the vast majority of displaced people find themselves in ‘refugee-like’ situations…

JMEPP: What are your thoughts on local and international NGOs working in the region regarding these issues?


Syrian and Iraqi refugees arrive in Lesvos, Greece. October 2015. Image taken from Wikicommons

Lori: We see a similar challenge in humanitarian situations–in order to have lasting peace you need strong local NGOs at the helm of this situation, but more often than not international humanitarian aid agencies can end up crowding out local ones. This is problematic because once the next big global crisis comes along all of the foreign aid departs, without leaving a strong organizational network or NGO infrastructure in its place. Secondly humanitarian aid should be allocated to broader development goals instead of short-term needs associated with refugees. We often sink millions of dollars into makeshift solutions that are designed with the assumption that refugees are ‘temporary.’ But this is not the case—even people who have successful refugee cases are often left in a legal limbo for decades. We need to start planning for protracted cases of displacement from the beginning. Humanitarian aid should be more like development aid: it should target the infrastructure of the host society and allow aid to be accessible to the broader community and not just to certain groups. Funding should go not only to short-term and perishable items like food and household goods but also infrastructural upgrades like shelter, transportation, water sanitation, and other needs. The key advantage of this approach is that it will allow refugees to better navigate cities and find secure shelter while also alleviating some of the tensions between refugee and local communities competing for scarce resources. Services and aid should not simply target refugees, but allow members of the host community to also reap the benefits of hosting refugees.

JMEPP: Where do refugees reside, once in another country?

Lori: The dominant policy response for housing refugees is to host them in temporary camps created in response to specific humanitarian emergencies but in reality over two-third’s of the globe’s refugees are outside of camps. Refugee camps are designed to be temporary and are constructed out of temporary materials to prevent permanent settlement. Though designed to be temporary, as a general trend refugee camps are becoming increasingly permanent, often persisting for decades and hosting populations over generations. The world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab in Kenya, is over 20 years old; the Sahrawi refugee camps in western Algeria are over 40 years old; and the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza and the West Bank are over 60 years old.

The overarching challenge is that short-term planning and leads to sunk costs and the lack of an infrastructure for dealing with increasingly protracted refugee situations.

There are major problems with these ‘temporary’ camps and the camp-based model of humanitarian aid more generally. The overarching challenge is that short-term planning and leads to sunk costs and the lack of an infrastructure for dealing with increasingly protracted refugee situations. Millions of dollars are spent on humanitarian assistance without any long-term gains for host communities. As one interviewee from the UNHCR explained, the emphasis on temporary assistance and shelter has meant that if and when refugees do leave, refugee camps like Za’atari—now the second largest ‘city’ in Jordan—will be a giant littered site. There is little in the way of a permanent infrastructure that could be used for poorer members of the host community and improve access to public housing or schooling.

Another challenge is that a majority of refugees do not actually live in camps, based instead in urban settings. The Syrian refugee crisis in particular has highlighted the shortcomings of the camp-based model of humanitarian aid: 90 percent of the approximately 4.4 million Syrian refugees live outside of camps. Refugees experience a significant drop in access to aid outside of camps, as many face challenges identifying aid providers in a dense urban setting or have problems securing safe and affordable transportation.

JMEPP: Could you elaborate on the movement of refugees that are pouring into Europe from the Middle East, especially from Syria?

Lori: The international system for dealing with refugees is broken in many ways. This is why we see such a huge gap between those who are displaced and those who are durably resettled. One key factor is that the definition of a refugee in international law is based on persecution; this emphasis on persecution excludes, by definition, a wide range push-factors (like climate change or economic restructuring) that can lead people to be displaced. According to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who has been targeted on account of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

To meet this definition, an individual must be able to show that they were targeted for persecution because of their identity, and did not merely experience generalized violence or insecurity. The emphasis on individual persecution requires a high burden of proof that can be difficult to meet, especially when people flee without identity documents and the causes of forced migration can be indiscriminate. Going by the letter of the law we would have to distinguish the ‘rightful’ refugees fleeing persecution from those ‘illegal’ immigrants seeking better economic prospects. But these factors cannot cleanly be disentangled. If we take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example—I don’t think you can understand the Syrian civil war without taking into account the fact that Syria experienced the worst drought in recorded history in the five years preceding the uprising.

This ‘climate’ factor turned into an ‘economic’ factor which turned into a ‘political’ factor…

This drought led to mass movements to urban areas and extremely high unemployment rates. This ‘climate’ factor turned into an ‘economic’ factor which turned into a ‘political’ factor; the lines cannot be clearly defined between them. That’s why we have to be critical about why we conceive of this refugee crisis as a crisis and when we, as a global community, considered it to be a ‘crisis.’ It didn’t come out of nowhere, but we didn’t pay attention until it reached Europe’s shores.

While the focus has been in Europe it is critical to remember that the largest host states are still the immediate surrounding countries; Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt have huge refugee populations pre-dating the Syrian influx. Many, if not most, of these refugee groups live in desperate conditions, and host countries cannot meet all the refugees’ needs. Lebanon and Egypt’s unemployment rates are in the double-digits. Jordan is the fourth most water-stressed country in the world, with insufficient potable water for its own people. Lebanon, Egypt, and now arguably Turkey have extremely volatile political environments, and unstable governments. We witnessed a surge in the numbers of refugees heading to Europe from 2014-5 because people are becoming more destitute and desperate in the immediate receiving region and are willing to take larger risks, or have been working saving to make the journey.

JMEPP: What are your thoughts on human trafficking and its role in the migration flow out of the Middle East?

Lori: If you say you do not have authorization to move, that doesn’t mean that just stop moving. People are still going to try to survive. They are resilient, and don’t want to die. What we have created is the biggest the black market, the illegal movement of people. A whole industry emerges to help people navigate the criminalization of unauthorized movement. This industry has also helped criminals use people as collateral in the black market, where human bodies have financial value. They are a commodity and are often sold in sex and work trafficking.

JMEPP: Can you please speak to the fact that more than 10,000 unaccompanied refugee and migrant children have disappeared in Europe?

… [The disappearance of migrant children] is extremely frightening.

Lori: It is extremely frightening. It makes perfect sense related to the previous question about human trafficking and the value of human bodies. From the perspective of the parents who facilitate these difficult journeys for their children to go one without them, we have to realize that they are choosing between one possible death sentence over another. People do understand that there are real risks for children, but want them to have the possibility of life. Irregular immigrants are exposed to exploitation because they cannot go to the police and are thus vulnerable to being trafficked.

JMEPP: What do you make of the refugees that are stranded in Syria outside of the Turkish border?

Lori: Jordan and Turkey are faced with similar problems. People are stranded outside their borders with no chance of crossing into these countries to seek refuge. The reason they are unable to cross and flee the conflict is because they have either come from or passed through ISIS controlled territories. Consequently, they will never pass the security clearance process or any kind of vetting for entry. While most of these individuals might be allies, they can also be quite dangerous. There is too much risk involved and as such refugee resettlements are often not offered to these individuals. Again- another example of how the designation of refugee status and who receives aid is a highly politicized process connected to foreign policy and security calculations (among other factors).