A demographic time bomb is clicking away in the Middle East with the creation of a new refugee problem as the continuing civil war in Syria is seeing the numbers of Syrians fleeing their country rise to a staggering 600,000. For a country with a population of only 22 million those are frightening numbers, indeed.
To put things in perspective this means that one out of every 25 Syrian has become a refugee. Compared to the population of the United States it would mean that more than 12 million Americans would have been affected. To the outsider numbers are sanitized and don’t portray the human sufferings. It is hard to relate to numbers be it 600 or 600,000. Those are just cold statistics. Unless we know someone who is among those 600,000, then of course the issue becomes a personal one. As Josef Stalin, the former Soviet dictator used to say, a single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.
But the problem here is not purely one of numbers alone or of statistics, but one of planting future seeds of discord in an already troubled area. As history – and here I refer to recent history -- has taught us time and again it is not the quantity of people who can create problems, start revolutionary movements, (sometimes called terrorist groups) plant explosive devises and create political havoc, but rather the quality involved. It takes only a few dedicated individuals to create mayhem if they are dedicated enough. And nothing serves as a perfect breeding ground for future “revolutionary movements” than these camps of sorrow.
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The Palestinian Revolution has shown us just that. It began with “temporary” makeshift camps in Jordan, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon after two waves of Palestinian Arabs fled their homes in the wake of two wars: 1948 and 1967. Several hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left their homes for exile, either voluntarily or at times forcefully. Today, 65, years later, they are still in those very “temporary refugee camps.”
The wave of violent terror attacks, airline hijackings, political assassinations, indiscriminate bombings at places of social gatherings such as clubs, bars, cafés, and restaurants that came in the mid-1960s and 1970s was partially as a result of the international community continued failure to acknowledge and act upon the problem of Palestine.
And granted, the root cause behind the creation of the two refugee problems, the Palestinian and the Syrian, are vastly different and cannot honestly be compared. The Palestinians lost their land as the result of the creation of a new entity in the region, one which took their lands and denied them the right to return thus extending the refugee problem. The Syrians on the other hand should, in principle at least be able to return to their homes, assuming they will still have one once the fighting subsides and the politicians pick up where the fighters leave off.
For many however, there may be no going back to Syria once the war is over for a number of reasons; they may not have a home to return to; depending on the outcome of the war they may not be able to return to their homes for political reasons, and sadly, many may indeed end up staying in refugee camps. Now look at a map of the Middle East and see where a segment of those refugees are positioned; the majority are in camps within reach of the Syrian borders.
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In Turkey, for example, many refugees are camped within a few miles of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, once upon a time bringing oil from Iraqi-Kurdistan to the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline, in fact consisting of two pipes measuring 46 and 404 inches in diameters and capable of bringing up to 500,000 barrels p/d, (though some say the pipes can carry only 300,000 barrels p/d.
This pipeline has been a target of sabotage since 2003 and has become inoperable since 2009. Eventually the pipeline will be repaired and peace will return to Iraq, but that will be just in time for the next wave of discontent in the Middle East to start taking root in the aftermath of the Syrian conflict and any potential remaining unresolved population question. And if not this pipeline there are always other potential targets for a discontented population who feel they have nothing left to lose.
Is the world ready for another round of major discontent? If not, it is time to act.
By. Claude Salhani
Claude Salhani, a specialist in conflict resolution, is an independent journalist, political analyst and author of several books on the region. His latest book, 'Islam Without a Veil,' is published by Potomac Books. He tweets @claudesalhani.