Can the Middle East migrant crisis be contained?


The migrant crisis has reached an acute  state in Greece and Europe for more than one year now. Millions of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries are flooding Greece aiming to continue their journey to other European countries. Some 45,000 of them are now stuck in Greece, after the northern borders of the country have been closed. Approximately 14,000 of them are in the area of Idomeni, a village of 150 inhabitants.


Photo: Hundreds of people arrive at the passport office in Kabul to apply for new travel documents. SLOBODAN LEKIC/Stars and Stripes

Images of the migrants stuck in Greece near the border with FYROM (Macedonia) are all over the news. On the 17th March 2016 the EU leaders met and finalized the EU proposal to Turkey to stem the flow of migrants to Europe. An agreement was reached with Turkey on the 18th March 2016. According to the agreement, every migrant arriving in Greece after the 20th March 2016 who does not qualify for asylum in a European country will be returned to Turkey. In exchange, a Syrian refuge who is in Turkey and has not attempted to cross illegally to Greece, will be given asylum to a European country. There is a cap to this, of 72,000 people. There are significant implementation issues for the agreement to run smoothly. However, the big question remain: “Can the flow of migrants from the Middle East to Europe be stemmed?”

It is obvious that the European leaders and their advisors think that the flow can be stemmed. The deal with Turkey is structured on the basis of this hypothesis. Why is this the case? How can this be proven to be a reasonable assumption?

Quite simply put, the flow can be stemmed provided that the causes of the massive migration can be addressed so that migration is no longer the path to the future for millions of people. It is therefore essential that we know which are the causes of the migration, and that we examine how they can ills behind creating them can be cured.

The war in Syria has made the whole phenomenon look like a mass exodus of people from the battlefields of the Syrian war. This is the explanation that best suits the European Union’s agenda. The war stops, therefore the migration flow  declines and eventually stops. All we need – in this case – is to stem the flow from Turkey to Europe and wait until the flow stops.

Photo: Boy on a destroyed tank in Kobane, Syria. Yasin Akgul/AFP/Getty Images

Before I proceed I would like to clarify the terminology. Following the BBC, I use the terms migrant and migration to describe the phenomenon. I suggest that the word refugee is not needed, as it creates confusion and obfuscates the phenomenon at large. A migrant is a person who decides to leave their country of residence in order to move to another country. No matter what the reason is, political persecution, economic need, or something else, the migrant is a man determined to move and seek asylum in another country.

The confusion with the terminology arose out of the need qualify a migrant as a refugee in case the reason for their decision is political persecution.Being a refugee qualifies the migrant for automatic granting of asylum by the receiving country, whereas a simple migrant who, say, emigrates in order to make a living (so called financial refugees) has no right to asylum whatsoever and is not accepted.




In order to establish the causes of the phenomenon, we must make sure we have the facts relevant to it. Lets begin with the country of origin.Where do the migrants come from?

The origin countries

According to Frontex, there were 1.83 million “illegal border crossings” into Europe in 2015 compared to the previous year’s record of 283,500. As we see in the Eurostat chart above, the three top origin countries of the migrants are Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. A total of 363,000 Syrians fled the war and entered Europe seeking asylum.

So far we have established one probable cause for the migration. The war in Syria. Assuming that this is the only cause, we have an issue to deal with in our analysis. How do we explain the migration from Afghanistan and Iraq as a result of the war in Syria?


Before addressing this issue it would be useful to gather some facts on the migration from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghan refugees walk through a beach where they will wait to board a dinghy sailing off for the Greek island of Chios
Afghan refugees walk through a beach where they will wait to board a dinghy sailing off for the Greek island of Chios, while they try to travel from the western Turkish coastal town of Cesme, in Izmir province, Turkey, March 6, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas


The Afghanistan population is approximately 33 million. Male life expectancy is 59 years, and female 61 years. Unemployment is over 50%, while 38% of the population lives below the poverty demarcation line.Afghanistan is practically a country whose economy is destroyed and more than one third of its territory is under the control of the Taliban insurgents.

Eurostat  figures show that 178,000 Afghanis entered Europe in 2015 seeking a better life.

Slobodan Lekic writes in “Stars and Stripes”:

“Afghans are now the second-largest contingent of migrants heading for Europe, after Syrians but ahead of Iraqis fleeing from the murderous Islamic State jihadis in the Middle East, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the European Union’s statistical agency. But exact numbers are difficult to come by because many of the Afghans heading east have already been living as refugees outside Afghanistan’s borders. A good proportion of those traveling to Europe live in Iran, where some 900,000 Afghans have resided since the 1990s.”(1)

Dasha Afanasieva reports on the Afghanis in Turkey:

“The EU is not even discussing these issues and is exclusively focused on Syria,” Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for Turkey, told Reuters last month.

“Even if the Syrian crisis would be solved tomorrow, there would still be a serious refugee crisis, with a large number of refugees in Turkey who don’t have access to their rights.”

Afghan migrants in Turkey interviewed by Reuters said that over the past few years they had been denied interviews with U.N. refugee agency UNHCR that would formally determine their refugee status, a key step in the journey to being resettled.

Polat Kizildag, program coordinator at ASAM, an organization which registers asylum seekers in Turkey, said they were generally told they were ineligible because Turkey was the third country on their journey and the expectation was that they apply for refugee status in their second, in many cases Iran.

Human rights groups have said Iranian forces deport thousands of Afghans without giving them a chance to prove their asylum status and that they are pressured to leave the country.

“More than 63,000 Afghans came to Turkey last year, a sharp rise from 15,652 in 2014, according to ASAM (an organization which registers asylum seekers in Turkey), counting only those who registered. Some came directly from Afghanistan, others from Iran, where they had tried unsuccessfully to settle.(6)



Iraq has a population of approximately 37 million people and its oil dependent economy is in a terrible shape. In her NPR report, Alice Fordham says:

“Everything seems to be working against the Iraqi economy. The government is waging a costly war with the Islamic State while dealing with falling oil prices, millions of displaced citizens and staggering costs for reconstruction of cities ruined by fighting.” (7)

Add to this the effects of the civil strife and you have the makings of an explosive situation. According to a report by the International Organization for Migration, more than 3 million people have been displaced in Iraq by violent conflict since January 2014.  Dominik Bartsch, the U.N.’s deputy humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, said 10 million people were expected to need humanitarian support by the end of the year in that country, where 3.2 million were already displaced. (4)

In the past years there has been  migration within the region, which is now becoming migration to Europe. In a New York Times article, Ken Arango wrote in September 2015:

“Adnan al-Azzawi, 45, was in Damascus, Syria, from 2004 to 2011, and then returned to Baghdad. He recently sent his family on the migrant journey, and they wound up in Belgium. He hopes to join them soon.” (3)


The mix of the origin countries is changing

Since September 2015, the mix of migrants by country of origin has changed significantly. The extensive quote below is from Chris Tomlinson’s article (5):

The number of Syrian migrants is falling, while the number of Afghans, Iraqis and West Africans continues to grow, according to the European Union’s (EU) Frontex agency.

The organisation, which is tasked with monitoring and controlling movements around Europe’s borders, has revealed that the new wave of migrants aren’t necessarily fleeing conflict, but rather “aspiring” for a better economic situation, according to two agency reports.

The first document talks about migration coming through the Greek islands from the Middle East. They state that in recent months the percentage of Syrian migrants is decreasing.

According to the agency, although Syrians represented 56 percent of the illegal migrants that crossed into Greece in 2015, by December that number had fell to 39 percent.

The report also said that Iraqis and Afghanis as a percentage of the migrants had dramatically increased with the share of Iraqis more than doubling from 11 percent in October to 25 percent by the end of December. Afghani numbers also have increased to one third of migrants crossing into Greece.


Photo: The Aigli Hotel, a bankrupt resort near Thermopylae Greece, is now an official migrant center. Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times.

First conclusions

What we can conclude from the Iraqi situation is that the tide of migrants will become stronger. When 10 million people are displaced and in danger of their well being, the tide will not only be big, it may also be unstoppable.

If the findings of the Frontex reports are valid, the wave of migrants from the Middle East to Europe will continue to come strong, contrary to the views that it will stop once the Syrian war is over. The reasons behind the migration are not restricted to the geographical territory of Syria, nor are they confined to fully blown war. There is an intense feeling of insecurity both in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this feeling is not going away if we believe the relevant reports.

If insecurity drives the migration, this is not strictly a political issue. It is also an economic issue, and it is related to demographics.

Given all of the above, the migration crisis facing the Middle East and Europe is here to stay. And this raises a lot of questions regarding the adequacy of the EU – Turkey agreement regarding the flow of migrants. If the migration tide is not just the result of a war in Syria that is going to end, what are the chances that an agreement to control the flow of migrants from Turkey to the EU will prove to be totally inadequate?

European politicians have developed a piecemeal approach to tackle issues, no matter how big or small they are. As the collapse of the American financial system in 2008 has shown us, piecemeal measures do not work when the issue is a big crisis that transcends the ordinary. The Europeans do not seem to have learned this lesson. If we judge from the way the Greek crisis is being handled, the piecemeal approach thrives.

Is this going to work in the migrant crisis facing Europe? I do not think so. A year from now the situation in Greece will be intollerable, with many more migrants stuck in the country unable to move either to Europe or back to Turkey. The northern borders of Greece will continue to be closed for the migrants.

And what is the worst of all, the economic conditions that make migration inevitable also fuel insurgency in the Middle East.



(1) Afghans join Syrians, others migrating to Europe, by Slobodan Lekic. Stars and Stripes. Published: September 18, 2015.

(2) In Syria: Four Years of War. The Atlantic.

(3) A New Wave of Migrants Flees Iraq, Yearning for Europe, by Ken Arango. The New York Times, September 2015.

(4) U.N. sees refugee flow to Europe growing, plans for big Iraq displacement, by Tom Miles. Reuters, September 2015.

(5) EU Border Agency: Syrian ‘Refugee’ Numbers Declining, Economic Migration Exploding, by Chris Tomlinson. Breitbart, January 2016.

(6) Afghans feel forgotten in Europe’s migrant crisis, Dasha Afanasieva. Reuters, 6 March 2016.

(7) Iraq Faces A Perfect Economic Storm, Alice Fordham. NPR parallels, January 2016.