Support for refugees in the Middle East is not an immediate priority for US President Joe Biden. Yet Europeans should use the advent of his administration – which has renewed the US government’s interest in normative values and human rights – as an opening to rethink their policy on refugees.
In the past four years, cynicism about refugees from the Middle East has been a European trait as much as an American one. European policy has become ever more hawkish. It has gradually been geared towards simply keeping refugees out of Europe, despite the fact that most displaced persons from the Middle East remain in the region. In 2016 the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey in which it essentially paid Ankara to block refugee flows to Europe. And the EU and its member states struck deals with other countries that increased refugee detentions and deaths at sea – such as Italy’s 2017 agreement with the Libyan authorities (which it renewed in 2020). These measures violate key principles of international human rights law, such as the prohibition of non-refoulement.
Europe is not alone in this. The dignity of refugees has hardly been a priority for key actors in Middle Eastern conflicts, who have increasingly commodified what are, in effect, humanitarian obligations.
As US president, Donald Trump may not have triggered this increasingly transactional approach to refugees or the decline in their living conditions, but he certainly intensified these trends. His administration’s policy on Palestine is evidence of this. Trump’s defunding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) brought the agency to the verge of collapse, as the United States had been its largest donor. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were left without access to significant health, education, and shelter support – as were those in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria (as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees cannot support UNRWA refugees even when there is a funding deficit). The US provided some support for Palestinians in response to the pandemic, but nowhere near as much as it did under the previous administration.
Last week, the Biden administration announced that it was looking to reverse Trump’s cuts. This is in line with one of the focal points of Biden’s foreign policy: restoring the United States’ traditional norms and values, along with its partnership with Europe. Biden has pledged to “recommit the United States to lead on humanitarian issues”, looking to restore assistance to Palestinians, including those who have been displaced, and to help refugee communities in Lebanon. Therefore, while refugees from the Middle East will benefit from a renewed US commitment to providing them with financial support and political cover.
Europeans who are concerned about the EU’s security-focused refugee policies of recent years should use Biden’s election to push for a new approach. The White House’s intent to restore the global human rights agenda – which it has already signalled in the case of Saudi Arabia – should prompt the EU and its member states to rethink their refugee policies, at a time when displaced people face growing challenges.
Around 35 million of the 80 million refugees and other displaced people worldwide come from the Middle East – more of them from Syria than any other country. Multiplying political and economic crises are worsening the effects of conflicts such as those in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Even some countries that were once relative safe havens for refugees, such as Lebanon, are now experiencing their own humanitarian emergencies. Challenges such as terrorism and covid-19 create additional layers of complexity in efforts to assist refugees, while exacerbating poverty and insecurity across the region.
In 2019 the EU declared the end of the Mediterranean migration crisis. But the cost of lowering the numbers of displaced people who reach European shores has been an increase in the suffering they experience and the risks they face. At the core of this lies Europeans’ aim to centre their Middle East policy on the imperatives of controlling migration and fighting terrorism. But it is counterproductive to deal with these two issues alone. Any European policy that focuses solely on migration control and security issues – at the expense of humanitarian needs – intensifies the insecurity that prompts refugees to leave for Europe in the first place.
The EU recently acknowledged that the humanitarian situation in the Middle East has deteriorated, announcing a €40 million increase in funding to refugees in the region compared to 2020. Yet the bloc and its member states remain unwilling to shift their overall approach to tackling the long-term effects of forced migration and, accordingly, the incentives for refugees to try to reach Europe.
At a time when the Middle East is dominated by actors who do not embrace multilateral mechanisms, it is particularly important that Europe’s stabilisation efforts in the region protect the safety and rights of refugees and other displaced people. European governments should address core humanitarian needs in local and refugee communities in a direct way. They should talk to all actors on the ground, including non-state groups, to ensure that aid reaches those in need. And they should integrate such support into initiatives to protect civil society, including through bilateral diplomatic mediation in the face of government crackdowns on human rights and humanitarian organisations.
In the short term, Europeans should push for the inclusive distribution of coronavirus vaccines where the process is at the discretion of the government or – as in the case of Palestine – the occupying power. And they should cooperate with the Biden administration in restoring humanitarian funding beyond the UNRWA to its previous levels (or as close as possible).
Ultimately, the EU should rework its refugee policy to address the internal dynamics between its member states on issues such as burden sharing and the need to host more displaced people. This would significantly alleviate human suffering at a perilous time for civilians in the Middle East.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.