Refugee Week

My latest Fair Observer article: an insight into the plight of victims of war as refugee week commences on June 18.


The United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine (UNCCP) defines Palestinian refugees as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, [and] who lost their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict,” including both Arabs and Jews. Combined, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and Israel’s invasion and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 six-day-war prompted over 1 million Palestinian refugees to flee to neighbouring states.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) have since offered aid both to displaced Palestinians and their descendants. As of 2012, there are an estimated 5 million registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom struggle as second-class citizens in Arab states.

Following its liberation from a seven-month Iraqi occupation in March 1991, Kuwait expelled 450,000 Palestinian Arabs. The expulsion was in retaliation to the decision of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to align himself with Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait in August 1990. These refugees sought shelter in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and other Gulf states. The majority have not returned to Kuwait and have struggled to settle elsewhere.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq triggered widespread outbreaks of violence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 4.7 million Iraqis have since been displaced or have fled to Jordan, Syria and other Middle Eastern states to escape continued bloodshed. The volatile security situation prevents millions of expatriates and those internally displaced from returning home.

The Rwandan Civil War of 1990-1993 reflected decades of ethnic tension between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. After government-backed militias carried out the genocide of the Tutsi population in 1994, Tutsi rebels fought back and defeated the Hutu regime. This drove around two million Hutu refugees to flee to neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo in what is commonly known as the Great Lakes Refugee Crisis.

The international community responded with one of the largest ever humanitarian relief efforts. However, when Hutu troops infiltrated and militarised the camps to attack the Tutsi-led Rwandan Popular Front government, many aid organisations withdrew their support.

The Rwandan government continues to push for a UN-backed programme to repatriate Rwandan refugees.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo became embroiled in the Tutsi-Hutu conflict after thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees escaped to Congo following the genocide, allied themselves with Mobutu’s government, and began attacking Congo’s Tutsi population. Rwandan-sponsored Tutsi rebels then instigated attacks against the Congolese government and the Hutu population in the east. Recent reports indicate that several thousand Congolese refugees have crossed over to Rwanda and Uganda in the past two months alone to escape sustained conflict.

Why is Refugee Week Relevant?

Refugee Week is an annual celebration of the continued cultural, academic, and artistic contributions of refugees to the United Kingdom. It was established in 1998 to counter increasing hostility towards refugees and asylum seekers in Britain. Though a national event, the integration and treatment of refugees is of international relevance.

The 2011 Libyan civil war drove approximately 750,000 thousand refugees to Chad, Egypt, Tunisia, and Mediterranean countries – often to a hostile reception. Many have since returned willingly to Libya, despite continuing violence.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, meanwhile, drives tens of thousands of civilians each month into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. The International Committee of the Red Cross warns that 1.5 million displaced Syrians are still in desperate need of extensive humanitarian aid as thousands more stream across the border.

The commonality of the hostile reception received by refugees in host countries highlights the global need for greater understanding of the mutual benefits – cultural and economic – that integrating refugees can have for host countries.

Gaddafi gone: what next for Libya?

Here’s a very interesting video and some other interesting links regarding the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi, shot dead this afternoon by NTC forces.

There are also some interesting links elaborating on his political career, spanning over 40 years. I’ve only just seen this BBC biography, first posted in August – I’m surprised by just how unashamedly damning an account it is. Though perhaps it’s inevitable given Britain’s commitment to fighting against him; a skeptical mind would question the extent to which the BBC’s coverage here is designed to support government interests.

As I have previously mentioned in earlier posts, I remain apprehensive about the future of Libya. So many different groups and factions feel they have earnt a stake in Libya’s future governance; how easy will it be to appease such diverse and often conflicting interests?

What do you think? Does Gaddafi’s death represent the dawn of a wonderful new era for Libya? Please leave your responses below – all feedback appreciated.

The darkening Arab Spring

Today’s BBC headlines on the protests in Tunis turning nasty, as conservative Islamists fight to be heard prior to the elections for a constituent assembly next week, indicate a worrying potential parallel between the futures of Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. The prospect of a peaceful, unified future seems increasingly under threat across all three countries, as sectarian divisions and tensions with security forces grow stronger.

Syria, meanwhile, remains trapped in the throes of brutal government repression of the revolution, with new figures pronouncing the protest death toll at 3,000. The suggestion that Syria is heading towards full-scale civil war has already been made. What is more concerning in the long term is the fact that the Syrian National Council – Syria’s version of Libya’s National Transitional Council – includes within its many component groups a banned Islamic political party: the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The inclusion of an Islamist group in Syria’s post-revolution government could be very divisive and could jeopardise Syria’s external relationship with Europe and its internal peace. Also included within this fractured coalition is a bundle of Kurdish factions and tribal leaders; the parallels with Libya are clear, and the threat of total disunity in post-revolution Syria (assuming that the revolution does actually succeed, and President Bashar al-Assad is removed from power) is potentially very dangerous.

The Arab Spring has certainly turned ugly. Hopes of a brighter post-revolutionary future seem to be fading fast – but what do you think? Do you remain optimistic for the long-term consequences of the uprisings? Please leave your comments below.

P.S. Here’s an interesting, short video on the economic impact of the Arab Spring. It offers food for thought in terms of the outlook for Libya and Syria in particular.

What next for Libya?

So the Guardian are leading today with ‘Only 100 Loyalists left fighting as Libya war reaches its endgame’. But what happens next?

We all remember the elation of Egyptian civilians at the success of the revolution. Yet within months sectarian violence has shattered any image of a post-revolution utopia. Worse still is the fractured nature of the conflict. Not only is the Muslim majority clashing with the Coptic Christian minority, but Coptic Christians are blaming the security forces for provoking the bloody violence at last Sunday’s Coptic Christian protest against a Muslim attack on a Christian church, which led to 25 fatalities. Worryingly, then, sectarian divisions have already spilled over into ‘the worst violence since Mubarak was ousted’, which in turn has impacted badly upon relations between security forces and civilians. All this, of course, could well lead to further, dangerous escalation of conflict.

And so to Libya. The role of Islam in post-Gaddafi Libya remains uncertain, and tensions between secularists and Islamists are already surfacing within the NTC. On Monday, Libyan Muslim cleric Sheik Ali Al-Salabi called for moderate Islam to play a role in the governance of Libya. Yet his message was not met with whole-hearted support; some argued that Islam should have no role in politics. Katerina Nikolas, writing for the citizen journalism-sponsoring Digital Journal aptly summarises the dilemma:

The future political face of Libya will be determined by either secularism of Islamism. The NTC has said the new Libya will be based on sharia law. However Salabi’s calls for a moderate Islam may simply be a token gesture as leaders including Belhadj have long wanted a caliphate state. One of the two main aims of the LIFG have been achieved through civil war, the overthrow of Gaddafi. Their second aim of turning Libya into an Islamic caliphate may become the next reality, despite Salabi’s moderate words.

Click here to read the full article.

The trouble does not end with religion, however. Long-standing regional and tribal differences may endure in a post-Gaddafi Libya, and could threaten to exacerbate any outbreak of conflict between secularists and Islamists. Thomas Basille of Fox News argues (though not altogether convincingly) that Libya’s future hinges upon the provision of essential public services and facilities – clean water, electricity, food, security, etc – since, he claims ‘people want and need the same things’, whether in the US, Iraq, or Libya. Although this is perhaps a crude simplification of the distinct differences between the social, religious and political environment in the US, Iraq and Libya respectively, his point still stands: the National Transitional Council simply cannot afford to allow any ideological or religious differences to take priority in the earliest stages of post-Gaddafi Libya, since this will endanger the lives and livelihoods of all those who fought for the country’s revolution.

Whether or not Libya can dust itself off and march onwards to a united and peaceful future remains to be seen. It even remains unclear how the spoils of war will be shared between the NATO countries that have intervened in Libya, and what form the future relationship between Libya, Europe and the US will take. I just hope the Arab Spring does not darken as the winter draws in.