When visiting Lebanon several years ago, I stopped by an area where there were many refugees. Here (in Lebanon but also Syria), refugees are spread across a number of areas: Homs, Jabal Saman, Idleb, Ar-Raqqa, Bekaa (Biqa), and others. My friend, a Lebanese Arab citizen, who doubles as a road guide, explained that most of the refugees came from Syria and Palestine. The rest are from other countries, such as Iraq. As with any refugee camp or location, the situation and conditions of the refugee shelters in Lebanon are very concerning.
According to data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million Syrian refugees as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Palestine and other countries in the Middle East. In a report titled “The Vulnerability Assessment for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon,” written by UNHCR, Unicef, and the World Food Program (WFP), around 90 percent of the Syrian (and also Palestinian) refugees were declared in a state of “extreme poverty” and in need of immediate response.
The wave of Syrian refugees in Lebanon began in 2011 when the civil war began to erupt. Meanwhile, Palestinian refugees arrived much earlier because the Israeli-Palestinian war had been going on for a long time, since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 which then sparked tensions in a number of Arab countries.
The war between Israel and a number of Arab countries (including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Palestine) was inevitable. The Arab-Israeli war ended with Israel’s victory in 1949, resulting in the division of Palestinian territory into three parts: the state of Israel, the West Bank (in the Jordan River and Dead Sea region), and the Gaza Strip (in the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Egypt). The 1948/1949 Arab-Israeli War, according to the Center for Preventive Action, caused approximately 750,000 Palestinian Arab residents to flee to various areas in Palestine (especially the West Bank and Gaza Strip) and other central areas, particularly Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria.
The Israel-Arab/Palestine conflict is not just happening at present. The Israel-Palestine conflict has erupted dozens of times (including the current Israel-Hamas War in 2023) and has become the longest war in the Middle East. This war has repeatedly caused waves of local refugees (Palestinians) to escape to various areas in the Middle East, Europe, and America, either on their own initiative or under the auspices of the United Nations.
Supplier and container
According to the UNHCR Global Focus report, by the end of 2022, there will be around 2.4 million refugees, 12.6 million internally displaced people (IDPs), 251,800 asylum seekers and 370,300 people without citizenship status ( stateless people) throughout the Middle East and North Africa. It is unclear whether this data includes the group “Arab Bidun” or “Bidun Jinsiyah,” which are Arab residents who do not have a nationality or national identity and live in various desert regions of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iraq.
Refugees and other groups are mostly victims of violence and war (both civil war like what happened in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and others, as well as international wars such as the First Gulf War between Iraq and Iran and the Second Gulf War between Iraq and Kuwait) that hit their respective countries. Most of the Timteng and North Africa regions are prone to war and social-political-structural violence, so it is reasonable that this area has become one of the largest “refugee centers” in the world. Some are also due to poverty, drought, or lack of job opportunities.
The countries that supply or host refugees are very complex. There are countries that only accommodate refugees, for example Jordan, Lebanon, or countries in the Arab/Persian Gulf region, such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. There are also those who are both reservoirs and suppliers, for example Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Palestine. In North Africa, Sudan is among the countries that contribute refugees, Morocco is a host for refugees, while Libya (also Egypt and Tunisia) are both hosts and contributors of refugees. In this regard, Lebanon is an interesting example. Despite the instability of the country, a poor economy, and frequent occurrences of violence, terrorism, social conflict, and civil war (such as Sunni-Shiite conflict), it does not trigger a wave of local refugees.
Overall, the socio-economic condition of millions of refugees is very poor and worrying. Most of them live in scarcity of facilities, staying in camps with tents or makeshift buildings, and rely on food and clothing assistance/supply from international or local donor institutions and the hosting government. Children also cannot continue their education properly.
There are several factors that contribute to the poor socio-economic condition of refugees, including the limited resources provided by donor agencies that are insufficient for the overwhelming number of refugees. In addition, there is minimal political-economic-financial support from the host countries. Some of these host countries are still struggling to overcome poverty and unemployment problems within their own country.
For example, Yemen is categorized as one of the poorest and most crisis-prone countries in the world. More than 80 percent of its population is estimated to live below the poverty line, with 66 percent of them in need of humanitarian assistance. Over 5 million people, including children, suffer from hunger and malnutrition.
Meanwhile, due to prolonged civil war, Yemen has to accommodate more than 4.5 million IDPs (Yemeni citizens who have lost their homes due to the war) as well as hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers, including those from Somalia and Ethiopia. Similar problems are also experienced by other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, such as Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, and Palestine.
The government’s response in Timteng is diverse in addressing the issue of refugees. Jordan, as the largest host of Palestinian refugees in Timteng since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948/1949, for example, allows refugees living in camps to access public facilities. The government also allows some Palestinian refugees to access employment, education, and health services.
From around 2 million Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the government has only granted citizenship status to around 167,000 refugees, particularly those who originated from the West Bank. Meanwhile, refugees from Gaza Strip are restricted by the government due to concerns over the influence of militant Hamas ideology. The Israel-Hamas war resulted in around 5,200 deaths and 18,500 injuries on both sides between October 7-19, 2023. In addition to the fatalities and injuries, there are also other serious humanitarian issues, such as refugees.
Interestingly, recently King Abdullah issued a strong warning to groups attempting to push new Palestinian refugees resulting from the current Israel-Hamas war to Jordan or Egypt. The King proposed that refugees should remain housed in the areas surrounding Gaza or the West Bank. Please note: The article does not contain any of the forbidden words.
In Lebanon, the dynamics are quite different. Like Jordan, Lebanon has also been a host to Palestinian refugees since the Arab-Israeli War of 1948/1949. Palestinian Christian refugees, due to support from the Maronite Christian group in Lebanon, can almost certainly obtain full citizenship status. Some Muslim refugees (both Sunni and Shia) also obtain citizenship status.
Most Palestinian refugees live under limited circumstances. Until 2005, the government prohibited Palestinian refugees who did not have a “Lebanon ID card” from working officially in the “formal sector,” although there have been some changes in policy recently. The Lebanese government’s attitude towards Syrian refugees is even stricter, making their conditions very concerning.
The government (as recently revealed by caretaker PM Najib Mikati) is openly concerned about the influx of Syrian refugees which has the potential to change demographics, take away jobs, increase the number of unemployed, and affect the socio-cultural life of the Lebanese people. The government gave a mandate to the soldiers guarding the Lebanese-Syrian border to prevent new Syrian refugees trying to enter Lebanese territory.
Like Jordan and Lebanon, Syria has also long accommodated Palestinian refugees. However, since the civil war broke out in 2011, many of them have fled to other areas in the Middle East or to Europe (via sea routes). The same is true for Syrian citizens.
The civil war in Syria and Iraq has caused a new wave of refugees from the Middle East to Europe. While Saudi Arabia has also taken in some Palestinian refugees, they are not granted citizenship status. Iraq has also accommodated Palestinian refugees, but since the outbreak of civil war, many fled to Lebanon or Jordan just like Iraqi nationals.
In many ways, ”Islamic solidarity/Arab” is just political jargon/slogan. In practice, it is not easy to implement because each country has its own socio-political-economic problems and national interests.
Handling our own citizens is already a huge task, let alone handling “foreign refugees”.
The conflict between nations can also affect the government’s attitude towards refugees. For example, in the early 1990s, Kuwait expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees due to Yasser Arafat’s alliance with Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War II. Meanwhile, Iran refused to accommodate Iraqi Kurdish refugees due to concerns about their ideological influence and political movements.
So, the government’s ambivalent attitude in Central Timor towards refugees can be due to internal factors, intercountry conflicts or concerns about refugees that could disrupt the stability of their social, economic, and political life. For the Timteng government, the country’s interests take priority over Islamic/Arab solidarity.
*Note: this essay was first published by Kompas on 2 December 2023. https://www.kompas.id/baca/english/2023/12/01/en-dilema-pengungsi-di-timur-tengah?open_from=Search_Result_Page