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UPDATED: September 14, 2015 NO. 38 SEPTEMBER 17, 2015
A Painful Lesson
The migrant crisis has a deep root in Western intervention in the Middle East
By Ma Xiaolin

Migrants from the Middle East wait for trains heading to Germany and Austria at a railway station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 2 (XINHUA)

The picture of a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a beach in Turkey has shocked the world. Aylan Kurdi died, along with his mother and 5-year-old brother, in a failed attempt earlier this month to smuggle Syrian asylum seekers to Greece by a raft.

Since 2014, Europe has faced a huge influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. In response, the EU is trying to coordinate policies of member states to resettle them but has made slow progress due to internal differences.

An outcome of war

The majority of the recent migrants to Europe come from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Eritrea. All these countries have been ravaged by war and conflict.

Afghanistan is second in the world in terms of the number of refugee applicants due to decades of war. At least 4 million Syrian people have left their war-torn country. Since the expansion of the extremist group Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq, around 3 million Iraqis have fled their homes. In east Africa, conflicts and poverty in Somalia and Eritrea leave thousands of people homeless every month and force them to seek refuge in Europe.

Most of the armed conflicts involved in the current migrant crisis should be attributed to the neo-interventionism policy of the United States and major European powers during the past years.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, the George W. Bush administration launched a war on terrorism in Afghanistan. More than 40 countries joined the U.S.-led multinational force to fight against Al-Qaeda and its ally the Taliban. While the Taliban regime was overthrown, the military group was not eliminated. Despite support of the international community, the current Afghan Government has remained weak. After 14 years of war, many people in Afghanistan have been forced to leave their homeland.

In 2003, U.S. and British troops invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. The consequent power vacuum in Baghdad triggered clashes between tribes, religious factions and ethnic groups in the country. The U.S.-backed Iraqi Government has failed to execute effective governance. As a result, some terrorist groups have established bases in the country. Their atrocities have shocked the world and resulted in a massive exodus.

In 2010, a wave of political upheaval, known as Arab Spring, swept across North Africa to the Middle East as a result of deeply rooted political, economic, and social problems in regional countries. But the intervention of the United States and Europe fueled the turbulence. The U.S.-led NATO even offered military support to the opposition in battles against Muammar Gaddafi's government forces in Libya.

The West's intervention has intensified the divisions in the countries affected by the Arab Spring, including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria, trapping them in irreconcilable conflicts. Today, most of these countries are unable to end the turmoil. Some have plunged into civil wars and teetered on the edge of becoming dysfunctional states. Under such circumstances, a large number of their residents have left their countries and tried to flee to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea.

Syrian President Basher Assad's regime has always been regarded as a threat by the United States and Arab Gulf States who have supported various factions in Syria, including some extremist groups, in a bid to overthrow Assad. However, ISIS has also made use of this opportunity to grow their strength and occupied a large area from east Syria to north Iraq. So far, the four-year war in Syria has killed nearly 250,000 people and left 4 million homeless.

In view of the potent threat posed by ISIS, U.S. President Barack Obama announced an air campaign against the group in September 2014. Meanwhile, the United States has built an anti-ISIS alliance. However, Obama has refused to deploy ground troops in the fight against ISIS. The military action has involved many countries but achieved little progress on the ground. As the United States and its allies continue to focus on fighting against ISIS and isolating Assad, it seems an end to the civil war in Syria will be difficult to achieve in the short term. War refugees will continue to flee the country and head to Europe.

Europe's trouble

So far, Jordan has reached its limit and accepted 629,000 refugees from neighboring war-torn countries. The Lebanon has also resettled 1.1 million foreign refugees. In Turkey, refugees from Syria and Iraq—most of them Kurdish people—number more than 2 million. These countries are unable to absorb more displaced people. Besides, Europe is the preferred destination for many refugees.

But the route to Europe, particularly across the Mediterranean Sea, is fraught with danger and many migrants have died. The large number of refugees seeking asylum in Europe has also led to rampant human trafficking organized by criminal gangs. Refugees pay these gangs, but their lives are at risk because their safety cannot be guaranteed during the trip.

The waters from Libya to Italy have become a death zone. According to the EU's border agency Frontex, as of August, the EU had rescued 188,000 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea. In the first seven months of this year, more than 2,000 stowaways died because of boats sinking or the lack of food and water. Last year, the death toll reached 3,279.

EU member states have different attitudes toward the migrant crisis. Some members oppose a compulsory quota scheme outlined by the EU Commission. The death of Kurdi has captured the attention of the world, and some EU leaders have expressed a willingness to accept more migrants. But what will they do to solve the crisis when the warm welcome cools down?

In fact, the migrant issue has brought a series of political, social and security problems in EU countries. Earlier this year, the deadly shooting at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris by two Algerian migrants aroused widespread concern over the problem of migrants. It is reasonable to fear that terrorists may use the cover of migrants fleeing to Europe to launch attacks.

Furthermore, the EU's economy has not fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2008. Europeans worry that migrants will take their jobs. Against this backdrop, far-right political parties and groups have become more active in their opposition to migrants.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and a commentator of international affairs

Copyedited by Calvin Palmer 

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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