How do some Arab and Western countries turn the refugee crisis into political and financial gains?

Little Amal, a giant puppet depicting a young Syrian refugee girl searching for her mother on her journey to Europe- (Daily Sabah) 

How do some Arab and Western countries turn the refugee crisis into political and financial gains?

Little Amal, a giant puppet depicting a young Syrian refugee girl searching for her mother on her journey to Europe- (Daily Sabah) 

Little Amal, a giant puppet depicting a young Syrian refugee girl searching for her mother on her journey to Europe- (Daily Sabah) 


Jana al-Issa | Diana Rahima |Khalid Jar’atli

In early 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that Turkey opened its western borders for refugees and other migrants to cross into Europe freely. In addition, the Turkish police were asked to turn a blind eye to any possible influx of Syrian refugees towards the European Union (EU) via the Greek-Turkish border. The Turkish government also offered bus services from vital areas in Istanbul for those wishing to travel to the Turkish border city of Edirne. This motivated many people of diverse nationalities, reportedly Iraqis, Afghans, Syrians, Iranians and others, to take the buses to make their dream of reaching their desired destination, Europe, come true. 

Buses designated to transfer those who wanted to cross the border to Europe were quickly filled as many asylum-seekers came from all over Turkey to head to Edirne and then Europe.

Mahmoud al-Rasgwani is a 40-year-old man residing in the Turkish state of Malatya, 15 hours away from Istanbul. He said that he was among those who wanted to benefit from the offer made by the Turkish authorities to cross the borders that were suddenly opened.

Mahmoud al-Rashwani told Enab Baladi that he and two of his friends heard about opening the Turkish borders for refugees wishing to leave for Europe. They expected that they would cross the border easily, without facing any obstacles, just like what happened with the wave of refugees that hit Europe in 2015. So, they packed their essential properties and documents and travelled to Edirne, where they arrived in hopes of crossing over to Greece. 

These types of temporary border openings and other political maneuvers happen periodically in refugee-hosting countries around the world. This is because when refugees live in countries unable to host them as formal refugees, these countries use the refugees to obtain what they want from the international community. 

Some host countries, such as Turkey, resort to using refugees to exert political pressure on their neighbouring countries when they run out of other means of dialogue. 

 Then, the officials of these countries scramble to issue threatening statements to open their borders; they let refugees cross the border to the countries they have disputes with on a particular issue—which mostly has nothing to do with refugees. 

In this in-depth article, Enab Baladi discusses how some countries use refugees of different nationalities as a political tool to threaten other countries. It also examines how this political bargaining impacts the image of refugees in the host countries. 


Asylum seekers at the Turkish-Greek border (Reuters)

Asylum seekers at the Turkish-Greek border (Reuters)

Countries using refugees as weapons

Mahmoud al-Rashwani arrived with his friends at the Pazarkule border crossing in the Edirne border state with Greece in early March 2020, with hundreds of refugees waiting there to cross the Greek lands surreptitiously because the Greek border guards did not allow any refugees to cross.

 However, al-Rashwani could not cross the border; he stayed there about four days, desperate to make it into the EU in light of the Greek government’s tightening security measures and inhuman conditions. Refugees there had no food or water, and many refugees in the front lines were directly beaten. The security forces also threw stun grenades and tear gas to prevent them from entering Greece via the closed border crossing at Pazarkule. 

Al-Rashwani waited for days, but in vain, he returned via buses brought by the Turkish government to transport the refugees from the border crossing to Istanbul. He added that refugees and migrants there were threatened to withdraw their Kimliks (temporary protection identity cards) if they did not return to their states. 

Turkey uses refugees for political gains

The refugees in Turkey are one of the most problematic issues between the Turkish government and the opposition. The opposition parties have always held the refugee density—the largest number of whom are Syrians—the responsibility for the deterioration of the domestic situation. 

Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi/Justice and Development Party), supports the refugee presence in Turkey. Yet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan repeatedly threatened to allow millions of refugees into Europe. In other words, Turkey uses refugees as a pressure tool to achieve political or economic gains.  

The most recent statement was in March of 2020 when Erdoğan announced that Turkey could no longer enforce a 2016 deal with the EU to prevent migrants from entering Europe.

That is to say; Turkey will no longer prevent millions of migrants and refugees it hosts flood into Europe. 

 Erdogan’s sudden reversal of Turkey’s 2016 agreement with Europe is seen as a tool to pressure the EU and the US into supporting Ankara’s military involvement in the Syrian war to stop the military actions led by Russia in Syria, which Turkey considers to be the main reason that pushes more Syrian refugees towards its territory to escape the battles taking place near the Syrian-Turkish border.

After that, the Head of the Turkish Presidency’s Communication Department, Fakhruddin Altun, stated that “Turkey had no choice but to ease its efforts to contain the pressure of the influx of refugees, after the military escalation in the Syrian governorate of Idlib.”

According to the official statistics of the Turkish Immigration Department for the year 2021, during the past ten years, Turkey has been home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees who are still settled in Turkish territory so far, while more than one million refugees crossed Turkish territory towards Europe between 2011 and 2015.


Syrian refugees were beaten by the Greek border guards, before being returned to Turkey - March 2020 (TRT)

Syrian refugees were beaten by the Greek border guards, before being returned to Turkey – March 2020 (TRT)

Morocco floods the last Spanish colonies with refugees

Turkey is not the only country that uses refugees as a currency for political gains. Recently, Arab and Western countries have attempted to use refugees of different nationalities for political gains.   

Last May, the separatists of the Polisario Front, an anti-government movement seeking independence from Morocco, announced through the Saharawi News Agency that their leader, Brahim Ghali, was “recovering favorably” after having contracted the coronavirus(COVID-19). The separatists did not say where Ghali was being treated. 

However, an official from Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Ibrahim Ghali was taken to Spain “for strictly humanitarian reasons” to receive medical treatment. The official, who was not permitted to be quoted by name in media reports, said that no further details could be provided.  

This angered the Morrocan government, which drove thousands of refugees and migrants towards the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla, sited on the Moroccan coast. This consequently caused a refugee crisis in the two cities.  

Agence France-Presse quoted an unnamed Moroccan minister as saying that Morocco was right to ease restrictions on the border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in light of Madrid’s decision to receive a leader of the Western Sahara independence movement (the Polisario) in one of its hospitals.

On the other hand, Morocco’s Minister of State for Human Rights, El Mustapha Ramid, said in a Facebook post, “Morocco has the right to lean back and stretch its leg” after the admittance of Ghali, leader of the Polisario Front, at a Spanish hospital.

The minister asked on Facebook, “What was Spain expecting from Morocco when it hosted an official from a group that is taking up arms against the kingdom?” 

Ramid added, “It seems clear that Spain preferred its relationship with the Polisario group and its backer Algeria, at the expense of its relationship with Morocco, which sacrificed a lot for the sake of good neighborliness, which should be the subject of the care of each of the two neighboring countries, and their keenness to advance it.”

The conflict has been going on for decades over Western Sahara between the Polisario Front and Morocco, while prospects for a solution seem absent in the desert region, which the UN classifies as “Non-Self-Governing Territories.”

Tunisia seeking international support with waves of migrants 

Against the background of the recent tensions in Tunisia, last July, Tunisian President Kais Saied issued an order to dismiss Prime Minister Hicham Mechichi, National Defense Minister Ibrahim al-Bartajy, and acting Justice Hasnaa bin Suleiman.

On the other hand, the leader of the Islamic Ennahda party, and the speaker of the Tunisian Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, considered this move as a coup in the country. 

Ghannouchi told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera “We are all on the same boat. We Tunisians, Europe, especially you Italians.If democracy is not restored in Tunisia soon, we will quickly slip into chaos. Terrorism can grow, destabilization will push people to leave, in any way. Over 500,000 Tunisian migrants could try to reach the Italian coasts in a very short time.”

Illegal immigration is considered among the most pressing issues in Tunisia’s relations with Italy and its European partners. These countries seek greater cooperation in matters related to accelerating deportations and more coastal control in the face of the clandestine activities of migration boats.  

Lebanon’s attempt to use refugees for financial gains

Former Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, known for his hostile stance towards Syrian refugees in Lebanon, tried to exploit international sympathy, threatening to send about two million Syrian refugees to Europe.

This came in statements reported by OTV, in which he said, “We do not overlook the reality of the presence of two million refugees and displaced persons on our land as a result of unjust wars. Those whom we welcome generously may take the escape route towards you in case Lebanon collapses.”

Bassil’s statements came after the explosion of the Beirut port in August 2020, which exacerbated the existing economic deterioration suffered by Lebanon, in addition to the fact that Lebanon hosted hundreds of thousands of Syrians between 2011 and 2021.

However, France blamed the Lebanese government’s inaction and negligence for the blast. Besides, there was an upsurge in the rhetoric criticizing the government’s corruption. In return, Bassil tried to deal with the French by taking advantage of the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. 

Belarus took a lesson

The EU imposed sanctions on economic sectors in Belarus, on 24 June, in response to what it described as “the escalation of massive violations of human rights.”

The EU has gradually ratcheted up sanctions since the current Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, won a sixth term in August 2020, in elections described by the EU as “rigged.”

On the other hand, Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, denied the accusations of holding fraudulent elections.

 In response to sanctions imposed by Europe over disputed presidential elections, Lukashenko said, “If some think that we will close our borders with Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, and Ukraine and become a camp for people fleeing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Tunisia, they are mistaken. We won’t hold anyone. They are coming not to us but to enlightened, warm and cozy Europe.” In other words, he used migrants as a tool to ease sanctions imposed on the country.

This turned Belarus into a new destination for migrants from the Middle East wishing to enter Europe. 

Outside the law

Wissam Aldien al-Oklah, a professor of international law at the Turkish University of Mardin, said that many Western countries attempt to attract migrants from various foreign nationalities via a well-thought-out immigration system. This legal immigration system aims to draw only competent people that can serve their interests based on specific selection criteria. No country in the world would like to have irregular migrants because they could bring security, economic, social and political challenges.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, al-Oklah believes that the refugee file is humanitarian and, in principle, should not be politicized. Yet, that is precisely what is happening today; refugees have been used as a tool to obtain political or financial gains. This, consequently, negatively affects the refugee file, and the countries themselves pay the price of their political inducements and quarrels.

The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocols conform with the laws of the state parties because laws and their provisions have been amended to suit them. However, the real problem lies in the countries producing refugees. 

The Arab countries, in fact, do not have laws granting asylum. If they are confronted with a wave of refugees and asylum seekers, UNHCR, located in both Lebanon and Jordan, will be responsible for managing the asylum file. UNHCR is specialized and has long experience in this field, and it works impartially and objectively without politicizing the asylum file, but instead looks at it from a humanitarian aspect.

According to al-Oklah, many mutual, interim, or temporary agreements have emerged, but they are contrary to the international refugee law. These agreements stipulate the closure of crossings or borders in the face of refugees, and thus refugees are exposed to crises and are left to their unknown fate in war, such as killing or arrest.

Who is the refugee?

Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside their country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail themselves. 


States refusing to sign or ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention 

Many countries have not agreed to the obligations under both the Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. However, this does not absolve the non-signatory states from certain substantive obligations towards migrants and refugees. According to the international human rights norms, the non-contracting states cannot send people to a place where they could face various forms of persecution, torture and the like, to only evading their responsibilities towards them, Bassam al-Ahmad, a Syrian human rights defender and co-founder and executive director of Syrians for Truth and Justice told Enab Baladi.

In its charter, the Convention affirms that all states, including the non-signatory ones, are obligated to uphold the basic standards of protection that are part of general international law. And accordingly, they cannot return any refugees or migrants to territories where their freedom or life is threatened.

Some states, when they are exposed to a sudden mass influx of illegal migrants and refugees, implement a temporary protection regime, which grants beneficiaries a right of legal stay and access to fundamental rights and services.

The most compelling example of temporary protection mechanisms could be seen as the practices that EU states implemented at the beginning of the 1990s to protect the persons fleeing from the conflicts in Former Yugoslavia.

When their regular asylum systems are under tense pressure, then in such circumstances, people can admit to safe countries, but without a guarantee of permanent asylum. Therefore, “temporary protection” can be in the interest of both the host countries and asylum seekers alike.

Turkey also had to apply this mechanism via granting Syrian refugees this status of temporary protection. However, the temporary protection only complements and does not substitute for the wider protection measures, including refugee asylum, offered by the Convention.

Al-Ahmad pointed out that countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey exploit the refugee issue, pointing out that this is no longer a secret. 

Turkey has also weaponized refugees to wring concessions and support from Europe. For example, Turkey signed a landmark agreement with the EU in March 2016 to stem the flow of refugees and migrants from Turkey into Europe by implementing visa restrictions for Syrians entering the country by air or sea. Thus, Turkey would not become a transit bridge to Europe for irregular migrants.

Turkey, in return, has been provided with large sums of money from the EU under the pretext of helping refugees.

Some countries have used refugees as mercenaries in their wars. Refugees have also been used by the opposition parties with anti-refugee/anti-immigrant stances.

Amnesty International has issued several reports condemning Greece and Turkey’s handling of the refugee issue as Turkey plays a pivotal role in the issue as it is the main gateway to Europe, followed by Greece.

An injured person during a conflict between migrants and Greek police (Reuters)

An injured person during a conflict between migrants and Greek police (Reuters)

Does the Geneva Convention protect refugees?

UNHCR began its work in 1951 and has sought to provide protection and assistance to the refugees and help the authorities understand their challenging issues.

The 1951 Convention, as a post-Second World War instrument, was limited only to persons fleeing events taking place before 1 January 1951 and within Europe. Then, the 1967 Protocol was adopted to remove the geographic and temporal limits of the Convention. 

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee should receive from the host state their fundamental human rights such as freedom of religion, intellectual property, movement, access to education, travel documents, and work. The refugee, in return, has to fulfil his-her obligations towards the host state.    

Among the main provisions of the Convention are non-refoulment, that is, the prohibition of expulsion or return to a country where it is feared that the refugee will be subjected to persecution.

The host states are mainly obliged to protect refugees on their territory and treat them according to internationally recognized standards. 

Ensuring that refugees are granted asylum and are not forcibly returned to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened;

The Convention has been signed by 139 countries worldwide and intervenes as necessary to ensure that refugees are granted asylum and are not forcibly returned to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened. 

UNCHR works to help refugees rebuild their lives, either through a voluntary return to their home country if this is possible or through the process of resettling them in host countries or other “third” countries.

The Convention does not cover persons who have committed crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, or serious non-political crimes outside the country of refuge.

No country can be declared safe, even in countries with no risk profile claims must be heard through an expedited procedure, with asylum seekers allowed to contest the preponderance of the absence of a risk of persecution in the country of origin.

Fear of new waves of migrants and refugees

Bilal Salaymeh, a researcher at the Higher Institute of International Studies in Geneva, confirmed that migrants and refugees enrich the cultural diversity of the host country.

Salaymeh told Enab Baladi that the rise of the right-wing and populist parties globally and their role in the electoral process on the one hand, and the repercussions of the economic decline that accompanied the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), on the other hand, made many countries follow policies restricting the movement of refugees and limit their refugee admissions programs. 

Researcher Bilal Salaymeh pointed out that there is an apparent fear at the global level that the constant conflict in the region, and the compounding effects of climate change, may further increase the number of refugees in the future. Consequently, more pressure will be exerted on countries of asylum.

The regional director of the Munich-based European-Arab Human Rights Organization, Kazem Hindawi, told Enab Baladi that some countries fear receiving more refugees because they will be overloaded with obligations towards the refugees within the conditions of the 1951 Refugee Convention; they are forced to comply with by giving refugees their full rights.

Hindawi pointed out that this does not, it seems, apply to many states, most of which are regarded by refugees as a transit corridor. Many state members do not provide complete protection for refugees or any kind of stability. On the contrary, these countries use the presence of refugees within their territories to obtain political and economic gains.

The increasingly cold relations and ongoing disputes between neighboring countries lead to mutual blackmail. Thus, they use refugees as pawns to exert pressure on each other to serve their interests. In other words, the issue of refugees is just an additional point of contention on top of old disputes.

False Hope: How does the use of refugees by hosting countries affect the refugees?

In an opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its social media platforms, respondents were asked: Do you think that using refugees for political purposes perpetuates refugee stereotypes in host countries?

 Nearly 88 percent of users believed that the use of refugees for political gains perpetuated refugee stereotypes in the host countries, while 12 percent of respondents believed the opposite. 

Danny al-Baaj, Advocacy and Communication Officer at the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, said that countries hosting refugees, in general, are bound to respect all human rights and duties, according to the international law, whether they acceded to the Convention or not. 

No stability, no security

When some countries use their refugees as pawns to exert political pressure on other countries, this means these countries pull out of their commitments to protect their borders and other countries’ borders. And using this obligation as a tool for political pressure gives false hope to the refugees to improve their general conditions. They believe that they no longer see a future in these hosting countries, and therefore, they start to look for a more secure future in Europe mainly. Their safety and even their lives are often put at risk as they search for illegal immigrations methods and routes amidst extortion of human smuggling networks and gangs.    

In the same context, when the state uses refugees as a tool for settling scores or for political ends within its borders, it puts their presence in the country itself at risk, said Danny al-Baaj.

The policy of using refugees for political and financial benefits primarily affects refugees themselves. They do not feel stable or secure, and they become unable to integrate themselves into their existing hosting countries or build their future. They can hardly find a job, and if they have the chance to work, they raise money to leave the country.   

In states assuming obligations and duties under international law to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, refugees may not receive permanent residence or permanent protection, but as long as the conflict persists, they can stay there, enjoying protection, minimal income, and assistance. These states help them integrate into their territories, learn their language and enter the labor market formally.

The researcher Danny al-Baaj pointed out when the refugees feel stable in their new country; they can correctly build a new life. This category of refugees, in fact, is most able to return home when stability is achieved. On the other hand, the refugees who feel unstable and insecure in their hosting county will not make it back to their country of origin unless the situation improves. This is because instability in their home country includes economic, educational, cultural, political and social instability. Apparently, the refugees keep looking for at least some kind of financial stability before returning home. 

What can be done about it?

Unregistered refugees must first regularize their legal status and thereby remove the fear of deportation. For example, they register their application for asylum at the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), or local organizations. However, these options are available to all refugees because each country has a different policy in this regard, according to Danny al-Baaj.

By taking this step, the refugees prove their legal presence in the hosting country and obtain access to the minimal level of possible assistance, thereby removing the fear of deportation. Besides, they could benefit from employment and education opportunities.  

Irregular migrants or refugees cannot get legal status, and this will cause them multiple problems and risks. 

The researcher said that civil society organizations (SCOs) play an essential role in changing the policies of the host countries to resolve the refugee situations. Furthermore, they turn to international organizations to resettle some refugees or provide education and job opportunities in the hosting countries to ensure refugees’ stability. The SCOs also offer psychological and social support to war-traumatized people.  

Syria in the lead

Most refugee-producing countries

Syria topped the list of refugee-exporting countries around the world, according to the latest statistics of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees(UNHCR).

The report issued by the Commission in 2019 indicates that the number of Syrian refugees around the world has reached around six million and 600 thousand refugees.

According to the report, since 2014, Syrian refugees have represented the vast majority of the world’s refugees. It is noteworthy that conflict is the main reason for the high number of refugees, going on since 2011.

Afghanistan is the second largest refugee-exporting country. However, this statistic was recorded before the refugee crisis hit Afghanistan in the past months, primarily after the Taliban took control of the country.

UNHCR has registered 2.7 million Afghans seeking refuge outside their country since the beginning of this decade.

Accordion to UNHCR has documented the asylum of 2.2 million people from South Sudan, the newest country in the world.

The report pointed out that South Sudan has not known peace since its independence, except for short periods in the midst of the conflict.

In 2017, UNHCR documented that 1.1 million refugees were forced to flee violence in Myanmar, noting that the refugee crisis in Myanmar is one of the largest refugee crises in the past decade.

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