The Roots of the Current Refugee Crisis

Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.

by Shireen Hunter

Discussions surrounding Europe’s most recent migration crisis have been framed largely in ethical and humanitarian terms. The most frequently asked questions have been about how Europe can live up to its own humanitarian values and accept as many refugees as possible. Those European countries that have seemingly fallen short on this score have been scolded. Meanwhile, focusing on how to stem the tide of refugees, other commentators have argued that the solution lies in ending the conflict in Syria.

Clearly, these are legitimate issues and need to be addressed. However, they do not go to the root causes of the dramatic increase in the number of refugees coming to Europe—and the US and elsewhere, such as Australia—in the last four decades. Yet, without addressing these fundamental issues no long-term and effective way of dealing with the recurring crisis of sudden and unregulated migration can be found.

Meanwhile, migration is changing the face of Europe, creating new tensions within European societies and negatively affecting their politics. Other recipient countries are also affected by migration. It is no use to say that people should be welcoming, tolerant, and embrace multiculturalism. These are worthy sentiments and certainly should be encouraged. However, social and political realities tell a different story: excessive migration, especially of people with totally different cultural and religious characteristics from those of recipient countries, is neither good for the immigrants or for the local people. The immigrants feel shunned and find integration problematic, and the locals feel that too much is expected of them.

Underdevelopment and Poverty

Many immigrants to Europe have come for economic reasons from the Middle East, North Africa, Africa, and the Caribbean. Even some asylum seekers have partially been motivated by economic factors. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Europe largely welcomed these immigrants since it was undergoing rapid post-war economic reconstruction and expansion. By the 1980s, the Europeans had grown weary of immigrants and their descendants as well as the social tensions that had developed with the local people. Yet the less welcoming atmosphere did not lessen the desire of many to emigrate to Europe, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. This desire was reflected in the chants of “visa, visa” that greeted President Jaques Chirac during a visit to Algeria in March 2003. Later polls indicated that an overwhelming majority of Moroccan youths wanted to emigrate to France or other European countries if they could. The desire to reach Europe at times has been so intense that migrants have risked their lives by perilous sea voyage.

Behind this intense desire to reach Europe and other rich countries has been the failure of the development process in the majority of what used to be known as the Third World. The economic gap between the haves and the have nots has grown, both within the countries and between the rich and poor countries, or what was known as the North and the South, terms and concepts almost totally forgotten now. The failure of the development process had many and mostly domestic sources.

However, factors related to the international political and economic system, including the Cold War and the interventionist policies of the protagonists, also contributed to this failure. In some cases, these interventions took the form of proxy wars that not only arrested the development process but in some instances devastated the countries, Afghanistan being a prime example. In the 1980s, with the popularity of the belief in market forces as a panacea for everything from population control to agricultural production, development issues took a backseat not only in government policy circles but also in academia. In the 1990s, globalization became the buzzword and the purported solution to all global economic problems. However, globalization only accentuated economic disparities within and among states.

As a result, the urge among the poor of the world to reach rich countries remained and even increased. In short, immigration has been largely the outcome of this ever-growing economic gap. As long as this gap exists the pressure to migrate will remain. Meanwhile, many people in the receiving countries are growing weary of the cultural and social fallouts of immigration, presaging potential social disturbances. Thus, to solve the problem of immigration, development issues again need to be addressed as a global concern for all.

After the end of the Cold War, some naively hoped that large sums previously spent on armaments by both big powers and such rich small states as the oil producers of the Persian Gulf could be devoted instead to development across the globe. Sadly, these hopes were disappointed. Instead some argued that, with the Soviet Union gone, there was no need to fight “for the hearts and minds” of people in the developing world, and therefore no need to help them develop. Instead a new era of intervention and reordering of the world began.

Revolution, War, and Migration

There has always been a direct connection between war, revolution, and migration. Revolutions upset the existing social and political order, forcing those threatened by change to leave their homeland. For example, the Iranian revolution led to a massive migration of the Iranian middle classes to Europe, America, and Australia. The collapse of the Haile Selassie regime in Ethiopia and the dysfunctional policies of his successors started a wave of Ethiopian refugees, later followed by those from Somalia. Even less dramatic political changes often lead to migration. For example, Idi Amin’s policy of so-called Ugandanization of Uganda led the country’s South Asian population to leave the country, mostly in the direction of the UK. Something similar happened in Kenya.

Wars also lead to migration. In the 1980s, the Afghan war led to the first wave of Afghan immigrants to Europe and the US and even more so to the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan. The Iran-Iraq war caused many Iraqis to move to Iran and to other countries. The Bosnian war resulted in the influx of people from the Balkans into other parts of Europe, especially Germany. Subsequent wars in Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Syria have been a main cause of the rising wave of refugees and migrants. Soon we may witness a surge of refugees from Yemen and wherever the next war breaks out. Refugees, meanwhile, rarely return home and often become immigrants.

As economic migrants have been the consequence of the failure of the development process to narrow the global economic gap, revolutions and wars have been the consequence of the political shortcomings of both migrant-generating countries and those of the international system. A portion of immigrants and asylum seekers leave their countries because of political repression. Revolutions and civil wars also reflect the breakdown of political systems and the inability of governments to peacefully mediate differences. However, external intervention and the propensity of many international actors to manipulate internal divisions within weaker states and ignore international norms has always contributed to such developments. In the post-Cold War era, the arrogance of the great powers in their attempt to bend the outside world to their will without much concern for local realities, as well as their flouting of international law, has greatly contributed to the increase in war and violence, especially in the Middle East. Meanwhile, countries in the region have followed their example by embarking on aggressive actions against their neighbors. A good example is the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which has devastated an already fragile country.

Migration: The Revenge of the Neglected?

The British historian Arnold Toynbee is reputed to have said that migration is the punishment for the sin of colonialism. This observation may or may not be true. But it is certainly the case that the neglect of large parts of the globe and their peoples, along with the continuing practice of treating them as faceless pawns on the chessboard of world politics, has been largely responsible for the refugee and migration problems, including the latest crisis.

Recurring refugee problems and the continuing flow of migrants show that the rich and the powerful can no longer shield themselves from the consequences of their actions. The world has grown smaller and problems of one part affect conditions in other parts of the globe.

It is time for all world leaders to forget about their egos and their ambitions to dominate. It is time to dust off some old and forgotten concepts, such peace, development, cooperation, justice, and the rule of international law. The international community must start moving towards construction and not destruction in order to find global solutions to global problems. This may sound naïve. But can anyone come up with a better alternative?

Photo: Syrian refugees in the railway station in Budapest, Hungary

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. Dr. Hunter has made some very apt points. A renewed emphasis on sustainable development is what the planet and its disgruntled inhabitants need, including measures to control overpopulation.

  2. Dr. Hunter, I’m not sure if any other outcome from a civil unrest is expected! Don’t know if we should expect better results by doing the same thing over and over and …. The results are always going to be the same when fabric of a society or societies are broken down by the colonialists for having unlimited and unobstructed access to those affected society resources and/or to protect the interests of colonialists or to protect a “little shitty iligal state in the ME”, as it was called by the Bush senior. As you well described it, the net effect is that the innocents will get caught in the middle of cross fire and they’re forced to run away in order to protect the precious life of their own and families!
    The Syrian people are good and intelligent people and they knew that they can not migrate to the south for the following reasons:
    1. In the heat of summer they will not survive migration through the deserts of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi and most of them will die of heat exhaustion!
    2. They will not be accepted by the Sunnis and the few that had survived the deserts will be killed by the extremists such as Wahabies, ISIS and Al Qaida
    3. Assuming that a few wil survive they can not start all over again building their life amongst the NOMAD people
    So they have decided to migrate north through which they can survive and mostly TO MAKE AND FORCE THE COLONIALISTS TO PAY FOR THE MISERIES THEY HAVE CAUSED THEM! I do applaud the smart people of Syria for creating an international crisis! Job well done and let the bastard colonialists feel it!

  3. There is an aspect that the author is neglecting: The suffocating atmosphere of countries where religious, family and cultural traditions have not changed because of the lack of a modern economy and the resilience of an overpowering religion.
    Besides getting a good job, the youth who have been living with Iphones and Internet for the last decade can’t bear anymore the heaviness of the traditions. They are not even aware that these constraints are not due to their government but to the essence of their country religions and family traditions. They all dream of the freedom of expression and the sexual freedom of the West that they see on Internet. This dream for some will turn into a nightmare,
    Many of these refugees family structures may collapse at the shock of the Western way of life.
    The old generation will long to go back… That is called exile.

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