THE  WORLD  IN  2016 - The ECONOMIST magazine

Middle East

Wave after wave

Anton La Guardia

Why the migrants will keep coming

Never in the post-war era has the world seen so many people forced out of their homes by conflict and oppression. Ten years ago the UN refugee agency counted some 38m displaced people; now there are about 60m. For that grim record, blame, above all, the wars of the Middle East. The number will keep rising in 2016; and rivers of humanity will keep flowing towards Europe from the Middle East, Africa and beyond. This mass migration is the result of complex factors: push, pull and all the obstacles in between. Start with the biggest push factor. Russia's military intervention in Syria will turn a nasty war even nastier. Vbdirnir Putin, the Russian president, says he wants to defeat the jihadists of Islamic State (IS), who have established a "caliphate" in large parts of Syria and Iraq. But his priority has been to save his Syrian ally, Basilar al-Assad; most Russian attacks have been aimed not at IS, but at other Sunni rebel groups (some supported by America) that have ground down the Syrian army.

The support of Russia (and Iran) should help Mr Assad regain some or all of the territory he lost in 2015. But Mr Assad's much-depleted troops are in no position to regain control of the whole country. Russia will neither commit ground forces nor, despite talk of apolitical deal, dump Mr Assad as long as he has a chance of surviving. So the war will drag on miserably. About half of Syria's people have already been displaced, and more will flee: to avoid the fighting, to escape conscription or because they have lost hope of the war ever ending.

Some 4m registered Syrian refugees—and perhaps lm more unregistered—are already in the countries surrounding Syria. None of those neighbours has granted Syrians the right to work, and the UN has cut the amount of food aid it distributes to them, for lack of funds. Some pledges of more money, and a promise to resettle slightly more refugees in America, Britain and elsewhere, will make only a marginal difference, given the scale of the crisis. And most of the refugees arriving in Europe are single men; many will try to bring their families next.

Other people will be on the move. The war in Iraq shows no sign of abating. Fighting between Turkey and Kurdish militants has restarted. Great uncertainty hangs over Afghanistan even though America has given up on the promise of withdrawing almost all of its forces by the end of 2016. The war in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, has displaced lm people.

In Africa, meanwhile, conflicts in the Sahel, Somalia and the Great Lakes, burn on. And the end of the commodities boom will increase pressure for economic migrants to try their luck crossing the Mediterranean.

What about the pull factors? Willkommenskultur has faded, as Germany grapples with absorbing hundreds of thousands of people. Anti-immigrant parties will be strengthened. The temporary border controls within the Schengen free-travel zone may become semi-permanent. European leaders plan to build new reception facilities to sort the asylum-seekers, share them out more equitably, speed up the repatriation of those who are rejected and fight the people-smugglers.

Even so, European countries will have to continue processing asylum claims in one place or another: to do otherwise would be a breach of the 1951 UN refugee convention, and of European law. The convention almost invites illegal migration: it grants protection to those with a "well-founded fear of persecution", but only if they have left their country. So the rich, daring, or lucky, have the best chance of getting to Europe. Calls for the convention to be revised will be resisted.

High tide

Thus the flow will be determined in part by the vagaries of the sea, the desert and the people-smugglers—and by political conditions in transit countries. The number of migrants arriving in Italy will fall during the winter months. But unless a semblance of government is restored in Libya (a slim prospect) there will be another human wave in the spring. Moreover, the main route has shifted to Greece, particularly the narrow stretches of water between its outlying islands and Turkey. The European Union is negotiating an ambitious "action plan" to help Turkey keep more migrants. It envisages new refugee camps, more money, the right for Syrians to work there and a deal under which Turkey would take back rejected asylum-seekers. But Turkey will not act as Europe's gatekeeper without concessions: at a minimum, the promise of visa-free travel for Turks to the EU. 

Details of this deal will take much bargaining. And the prospect of an agreement being finalized may well provoke a new rush of refugees seeking to get to Europe before the Turkish gateway narrows.