The next refugee crisis will be different

Nasser bin Nasser
Afghan refugees in Lesbos, Greece after being displaced from the fire that burned Moria camp, Sept. 14, 2020. “For multilateralism to be able to manage one or two refugee crises simultaneously during a pandemic would be a major test and financial resources are overstretched to begin with,” writes columnist Nasser bin Nasser. (Photo: NY Times)
The exodus of Afghans from their country following the Taliban takeover has not yet taken place and its magnitude will only become apparent once evacuation flights come to an end and once Afghans assess what life under the Taliban will be like. The situation in Lebanon is becoming increasingly impossible for the people of Lebanon who have little-to-no access to basic services and are losing hope that a political solution can be reached to avert further disaster. اضافة اعلان

Regrettably, these are two refugee crises in the making and will have significant repercussions for both the Middle East and Europe, let alone the people of Afghanistan and Lebanon. What would make these crises markedly different than previous ones is COVID-19. It would be unprecedented for the international community to manage a refugee crisis during a pandemic as it will simultaneously complicate both humanitarian relief efforts and national and global efforts combat the pandemic.

On the former, multilateral cooperation is still struggling and recovering from the impact of populism and nationalism and years of neglect. While the pandemic has underscored that national solutions alone are insufficient to address global problems, international cooperation is far from where it was during its golden age, largely due to dwindling funding and lack of modernization. For multilateralism to be able to manage one or two refugee crises simultaneously during a pandemic, and to coordinate between relief and pandemic efforts, would be a major test and financial resources are overstretched to begin with.

On the latter, to be effective, national and global efforts to combat the pandemic require restrictions on the movement of individuals across borders that would be difficult to impose during a refugee crisis. The movement of refugees with unverifiable vaccination statuses across national borders will unnerve transit and destination countries alike. Many countries are already panicked by spikes in the number of their cases, the emergence of new strains of the virus and the overall uncertainty regarding the virus’ future trajectory. The movement of refugees across national borders during a pandemic will also likely cause a populist backlash further stoking anti-refugee sentiment. One can only imagine the reaction: Not only are refugees coming to steal jobs and change our demographics and norms but they are also carrying disease and taking up hospital beds!

The media are often rightly accused of being both sensationalist and overstating, and in turn, compounding existing problems. In fact, part of the multilateral malaise is the growing perception, promulgated by the media, that international cooperation is dysfunctional. There is still hope for Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Taliban may have learned the lessons of their previous rule and will be more inclusive going forward. Likewise, a political solution in Lebanon is not as elusive as one would imagine, if only Lebanese politicians place their country’s national interests ahead of their own. In both cases, we may be clutching at straws. Host or transit countries of these potential outflow of refugees — including, but not limited to, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Pakistan — need to consider the impact of such a disaster on their countries. They should also start a conversation with European countries like Greece as well as the European Union and international organizations to assess what such a response would look like.

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