This essay is part of a series that explores the human costs and policy challenges associated with the displacement crises in the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas. The essays consider the myths or misconceptions that have pervaded discussions about these two crises, as well as the constraints or capacity deficiencies that have hampered the responses to them. See more ...

In the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, migratory movements and forced displacements from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Syria have evolved into an integral component of global conflict dynamics. Governmental and public debates worldwide have focused intently on the migration question, conferring upon it the status of a primary non-traditional security threat.

This essay suggests lines of inquiry for a research agenda on why migration has arisen both as a consequence and a driver of conflict in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.[1] First, I shed light on conflict-induced migration flows and their determinants in the post-2011 landscape. Then I highlight how displacement has become both a consequence and a driver of new types of conflict and vulnerability. Third, I show how migration flows and patterns have become closely intertwined with the construction of security and power. Last, I raise the question of whether or not the post-2011 migrant crises have provided opportunities for political reform.

Conflict-induced Migration Flows

The post-2011 upheavals in the Middle East have generated new and unprecedented waves of mass forced migration. These have affected the Middle East states system, as well as the governance of migration, both at international and regional levels. While the Tunisian, Libyan, and Egyptian uprisings have triggered new migratory tendencies, by far the most acute post-Arab Spring migrant crisis is the Syrian one. With 4.2 million nationals forcibly displaced outside Syrian borders and about eight million internally displaced, the international system is grappling with the most shattering mass forced migration episode since World War II.[2] Large-scale refugee flows from conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, and Sudan are also to be factored into the analysis.

Determinants of Mass Migration

The primary drivers underlying the latest migration flows from the Arab world are bad governance, lack of economic opportunities, crackdown on liberties, erosion of state structures, intrastate ethnic conflicts, and political violence. The most acute flows have been primarily motivated by existential fears and violent conflicts.

Some characteristics constitutive of the post-Arab Spring conflicts seem likely to transform temporary forms of displacement into longstanding or permanent ones. First, the protracted nature of the violent conflicts in Iraq and Syria suggests that return migration will not be an option for many in the foreseeable future. Second, intercommunal tensions have led to the emergence of homogeneous enclaves in certain regions in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, signifying a de facto redrawing of borders and a permanent displacement of communities. Third, the erosion of state structures in some Arab countries has been a key driver for the departure of people and their search for safer zones of habitation. Fourth, the crackdown on liberties, which has been a classical ‘push factor’ for Arab migration, will likely continue into the future. The return of the deep state in Egypt in the post-Mubarak era has, for instance, prompted the departure of key intellectuals and activists.

Migration, Instability, and Conflict: A Mutually Reinforcing Dynamic

While being the consequence of intrastate conflicts, the recent acute refugee inflows—especially from Syria—have themselves generated new conflict dynamics and inequities in the Middle East and within Europe.

In the so-called first asylum countries, the refugee influx has exacerbated societal tensions. For example, Egypt initially welcomed refugees from the Syrian war with much enthusiasm. However, since 2013, anti-Syrian discourse and incidents of security crackdown on Syrians without legal residency status  have been on the rise.[3] The situation in Jordan and Lebanon is similarly complex. While Jordan has welcomed around 700,000 refugees, Lebanon currently hosts the highest  number of refugees per capita in the world.[4] In both countries, the refugee crisis has strained national resources and an already deficient infrastructure, prompting nationals to express worries about their own future livelihoods and well being. Since 2014, Lebanon has tightened rules governing Syrian refugee arrivals and residency. Jordan, for its part, has restricted refugee mobility outside of the camps.[5]

Meanwhile, the influx of refugees and irregular migrants into Europe has provoked contentious policy debates on responsibility sharing. The question of whether the refugee surge constitutes a national and societal threat has polarized public and media debates. In the last two years, the European Union has tightened border control and surveillance. Furthermore it has engaged in negotiating with its southern neighbors on ways to manage human flows. The European Union has been negotiating strategies with Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey meant to curb refugee flows to Europe. It has also been negotiating with Sub-Saharan countries, such as Niger, to stem the tide of transit migrants heading to Europe via Libya.[6]

Types of Vulnerabilities 

In this context, refugees have been subject to various types of vulnerability, be it existential, economic, or political. While there are internationally recognized definitions of refugees, national governments have at times altered such definitions and tightened control over human flows through border detention, building fences, or adopting restrictive registration procedures. This has cast a pall over the application of a rights-based refugee regime. In Lebanon, inconsistent procedures have been applied when it comes to Syrians’ legal residency status and renewals, leaving many in a state of illegality. In Jordan, many have not been able to obtain a legal residency status as they are unable to submit original documents required by the Jordanian government.

Such vulnerabilities are not limited to displaced people originating from Arab Spring countries. They also affect migrants who use some Arab Spring countries as transit routes to Europe. A case in point are African migrants transitioning through Libya to reach Europe via the Mediterranean, following a traditional transit that has now become one of the deadliest in the world.

1. Migration and authoritarian backlash 

The fears of post-Arab Spring migrants are, however, not only existential, economic, or related to deportation and eviction. Though not many dare to voice their fears, many refugees and diaspora communities from the Arab world are concerned about potential backlash or reprisal on the part of their autocratic homeland. In Lebano, nongovernmental organizations relate that some Syrian refugees have been reluctant to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.) for fear of reprisals from the Syrian regime if they were to return to Syria.[7] These fears are not only limited to refugees. For instance, with the rise of the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egyptian communities living in the West are afraid of being politically active, with some activists voicing a fear of reprisals should they venture to visit Egypt.

2. Migration, struggles and divisive debates

In yet another perspective, countries that have welcomed post-Arab Spring refugee flows have lately become the sites for political contestation and polarized public debates. In several European states, important policy and public concerns have been raised regarding the radicalization of Muslim communities against the backdrop of the rise of the Islamic State.

In the wake of the Cologne attacks in Germany, the initial open door policy that Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted vis-à-vis Syrian refugees late in the summer of 2015 has triggered divisive debates and demonstrations pitting pro-immigrant against anti-immigrant Germans. For example, the public sphere has been flooded with concerns over the compatibility of refugees’ sociocultural background with Western values.

Such divisive debates are not only restricted to Europe. In the Arab world, the fear that Syrian refugees are likely to transport their homeland’s conflicts to the country of reception has influenced refugee policies. In Lebanon, the non-encampment policy is to a great extent motivated by a deep-seated fear that refugee camps could become proxy battlefields.

3. Migration as a leverage and security card

Against this backdrop, one cannot but factor in the extent to which the ‘human flows’ card has been leveraged to advance state interests or instrumentalized into a security concern. A case in point is Turkey. Through its initial open door policy and several attempts to improve refugee law, Turkey has drawn on its role regarding Syrian refugees to enhance its normative power in the Middle East, and to show that it can outperform the European Union. In return for Europe’s demands that Turkey collaborates in stemming the Syrian refugee tide, Ankara has called for visa waivers and for resuming negotiations over Turkey’s E.U. membership.

The various ways in which governments have dealt with and represented refugee flows indicate a growing tendency to perceive migration through the security threat prism. Refugees fleeing political unrest have been either welcomed or sidelined in accordance to whether or not they were perceived as political or religious threats. Ankara, for instance, has favored Sunni Syrian refugees.[8] In contrast, policy makers in Lebanon portray the increase in the numbers of these same refugees as a threat to Lebanon’s delicate sectarian power.[9] In Europe, some officials, such as ones in France and Slovenia, have called for granting Syrian refugees asylum on the basis of whether or not they are Christians.[10] In light of the 2015 Paris attacks, governors of some American states have expressed a refusal to accept Syrian refugees under the pretext that they represent security threats.

In this context, one cannot but briefly allude to the security dilemmas that the post-2011 refugee crises have raised for the European Union. Of major importance is the E.U. refugee quota scheme, which has spurred a divisive debate over refugee sharing, especially the extent to which E.U. member states should take in forcibly displaced people. Controversial questions have arisen in this regard: to what extent should European governments share migration pressures with their southern neighborhood? While Germany has pressed other European states to take part in the refugee quota scheme, Hungary, for instance, has criticized it on the basis that it poses challenges to internal societal cohesiveness.[11]

The European Union has furthermore capitalized on its partnerships in the Middle East to limit migratory flows to the Northern shore of the Mediterranean. In the past few years, Europe has closely cooperated with Arab countries that are first asylum or transit migration countries (namely Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia) in an attempt to control migratory flows to Europe. Methods of cooperation in migration governance range from information sharing to offering incentives such as  refugee facility funds or mobility partnerships enhancing cooperation with the union in return for increased border policing.

Academics, NGOS, and civil society activists have criticized this politics of extraterritorial border controls for shifting the focus away from human security to state security. They have furthermore decried the increased militarization of regional migration governance. For instance, critics have decried the suspension of Operation Mare Nostrum between Italy and Libya in October 2014, which had, up to that point, searched for and rescued migrants in the Mediterranean. It has been replaced by Triton, a smaller scale Frontex operation focusing on border protection. Still, downsizing rescue operations has not discouraged migrants from coming. The shipwreck disasters over the last two years are sizable. Finally, critics have lamented NATO fleet’s deployment in the Aegean sea in February 2016 with the purpose of forcing back boats carrying migrants to Turkey.[12]

Migrant Crises as Drivers of Good Governance

Migrant crises have both arisen as a consequence of existing conflicts and served as the driver of new ones. At the same time, they have paradoxically provided opportunities for improving governance. The current refugee crises have triggered worldwide policy and public debates on how to overhaul deficient migration governance at international, regional, and national levels. The vibrancy and intensity of such deliberative debates are unprecedented.

At the international level, they have exposed the various flaws of global governance, given that international structures have so far failed to provide sustainable solutions to the refugee crises or to their primary political and economic causes. Against this backdrop, the crises have acted as strong reminders that a global shift of perspective on conflict management is required. There is a rising consensus today that we cannot merely look at waves of displacement through the lens of humanitarian relief. Rather, such crises require durable solutions, namely, pacifying the conflicts that constitute the root causes of displacement. The migrant crises have also revitalized dormant discussions on a global refugee regime and about mechanisms of global cooperation that would facilitate responsibility sharing.

At both the national and regional levels, the refugee flow has created opportunities for countries welcoming Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans to improve humanitarian protection and strengthen the civic sphere. Turkey, for instance, has had to improve its asylum procedures. The European Union is currently overthinking its common asylum policy, debating whether the Dublin system is suitable to deal with conflict-induced mass migration.[13] Lebanon and Jordan have been under increasing scrutiny to reform legal residency procedures for Syrian refugees.

While some media outlets and anti-immigrant platforms in recipient countries have portrayed refugee inflows as a societal and terrorist threat, activists, academics, and artists have tried hard to debunk such assumptions. There is growing realization that credible research is needed to produce rights-based policies and dispel stereotypes depicting refugees coming to Europe as ISIS members.

Shift in Perspective?

The latest migrant crises have arisen as the consequence of a fragile regional order in which some states are undergoing a process of dismantlement. At the same time, they are a wake-up call, demonstrating that conflicts such as those in Syria or Afghanistan will indeed have domestic consequences for the industrialized nations. ‘Complex interdependence’ suggests that we can no longer assume a separation between the Southern and Northern shores of the Mediterranean, let alone between the global North and the global South.

[1] This essay draws on field research I have conducted since 2011 in the Middle East, the United States, and


[2] Patrick Kingsley, “Arab Spring Prompts Biggest Migrant Wave since Second World War,”The Guardian, January 3, 2015, accessed March 23, 2016,

[3] See for instance Maysa Ayoub and Shaden Khallaf, “Syrian Refugees in Egypt: Challenges of a Politically Changing Environment,” Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, The American University in Cairo 7 (2014); and Kingsley, “Arab Spring Prompts Biggest Migrant Wave.”

[4] See for instance Stephanie Nebehay, “Syrians Largest Refugee Group after Palestinians: U.N.,” Reuters, January 7, 2015, accessed March 23, 2016,

[5] Interviews in Jordan, “Syrian Refugee Access to Justice,” Lebanese American University, International Center for Human Sciences and International Alert, December 2015.

[6] See for instance, “EU Aims to Speedily Return Migrants to Africa; Slovenia Erects Border Fence,” Associated Press, November 11, 2015, accessed March 23, 2016,

[7] Beirut Research and Innovation Center, “Survey on the Livelihoods of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” CLER/LCSR, BRIC and OXFAM (2013): 15, accessed March 23, 2016,

[8] Özden Zeynep OktavAycan Çelikaksoy, “The Syrian Refugee Challenge and Turkey’s Quest for Normative Power in the Middle East,” International Journal (2015), doi:10.1177/0020702015584305.

[9] “Citizens’ Perceptions of Security Threats Stemming from the Syrian Refugee Presence in Lebanon,” International Alert and the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (2013), accessed March 23, 2016,

[10] See for instance “Migrants Crisis: Slovakia ‘will only Accept Christians,’” BBC,

 August 19, 2015,; see also “French Mayor Says only Wants Christian Refugees,” Radio France Internationale (RFI), September 7, 2015, accessed March 23, 2016,

[11] See for instance, Ian Traynor, “Migration Crisis: Hungary PM Says Europe in Grip of Madness,” The Guardian, September 3, 2015, accessed March 23, 2016,

[12]  Michael S. Schmidt and Sewell Chanfeb, “NATO Will Send Ships to Aegean Sea to Deter Human Trafficking,” New York Times, February 11, 2016, accessed March 23, 2016,

[13] The Dublin Regulation (No. 604/2013) is an E.U. law establishing a hierarchy of criteria for identifying the Member State responsible for an asylum claim.

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