In Context: Syrian Migration Crisis

In Context

Syrian Migration: in Context

As the Syrian Migration Crisis continues to prompt heated discussion and debate throughout Europe, we’ve put together a short guide to the Historical Context in which the crisis is set. 

First, the situation as it is now.

This image, taken from Wikipedia, illustrates the main routes of asylum seeking migrants into Europe in the period to December of last year. As you can see there are people seeking to enter Europe from a number of sources. These, in simple terms, are centered around the Syrian Civil War, migrants from Afghanistan and those from Northern Africa.

In each of these three situations there are people wanting to move because of the negative impact of warfare on their homelands. In many cases, though not all, these people can seek to claim asylum – or safety – in other countries.

Different countries and politicians have very different views about who is and isn’t a legitimate asylum seeker; how best to cater for the needs of asylum seekers and how to manage any financial implications relating to the acceptance of asylum seekers. Those matters are politically interesting but are not the focus of this post.

Why is there a Migration Crisis?

In March, 2011, the movement known as the Arab Spring reached Syria. This was a series of protests across the Arab World by people wanting to change the way in which their countries were being ruled.

In Syria the ruler was – and remains – President Bashar al-Assad. his government has been known for it’s firm style of rule, with a State of Emergency having been in place since the rule of al-Assad’s father. When the Arab Spring arrived in Syria it was initially in the form of protests over the lack of democracy. The protests were dealt with through use of force. Rather than quashing any rebellion, this acted as a prompt to the governments opponents who escalated the protests into other parts of Syria, including the Capital, Damascus, and the largest city, Aleppo.

With the protest growing in size, matters became more complex. Thousands of troops deserted the army and chose to side with the rebels. The Assad regime was also faced by ethnic and political factions who saw an opportunity to change the balance of power in the country.

The Assad government faced heavy criticism from the United Nations and some major powers. However, the international community was – and remains – divided on how to approach the Assad regime, which is supported by Russia.

The use of force against rebels led in turn to those rebels using force themselves.They have armed themselves and fought back. Into this conflict then came separatist groups, wanting to have their own enclaves, and most worryingly to the International community, organisations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Consequently a protest about democratic rights has escalated into a highly complicated and bloody Civil War. It involves several coalitions who are loosely bound only by a joint enemy; foreign involvement through funding and the use of air strikes and bloody fighting between forces loyal to the government and the rebel groups.

The Civil War has become radicalised, complex and fractious. The map below illustrates one snapshot of the different groups involved in the Syrian Civil War, their relative locations and the complicated nature of the division of the country on military lines in this conflict:

Syrian Civil War

The consequences of a war on this scale, over a period of five years is that there is a massive Humanitarian Crisis within Syria. The United Nations organisation, UNHCR, estimates that 6.9 million people have been displaced. All of these people need to be found adequate shelter, food, medical supplies etc. However, it is not as simple as moving them into refugee camps either in Syria or across the border into neighbouring states.

The fractious nature of the war zone means that in many cases it is not safe for displaced people to seek refuge in neighbouring areas. They would suffer even more hardship and be in greater risk. So, they are forced to look elsewhere for refuge. The problem is, there aren’t many places that they can go to safely.


Iraq is also suffering from issues with insurgency and civil unrest. There are extremist groups there and an influx of refugees from Afghanistan, to the east of this map, also adds to the problem.

Lebanon is a small country that has it’s own economic and political problems. Nonetheless, many Syrian migrants have entered Lebanon in search of refuge. Some estimates suggest that over a quarter of the population of Lebanon is now made up of Syrian refugees.

This map is quite old. Where it shows Palestine is in fact modern day Israel. While Israel is one of the regions wealthier nations, it’s relationship with any of the factions in Syria is poor at best.

Turkey and Russia control the northern borders. However it is these regions of Syria in which extremist and separatist groups operate so movement of aid or refugees along this border is extremely hard to manage or politically justify by these two countries.

For Syrian refugees, that leaves a choice of: stay and hope for the best; flee through another war zone and desert to the south or; attempt to access the safety of Europe via the Mediterranean.

What is the current Humanitarian situation?

According to the UN:
Women and children make up 3/4 of the refugee population.
By the end of 2014, over 50% of the Syrian population will be in need of aid.
Refugees have little more than the clothes on their backs when arriving at refugee camps.
6.5 million internally displaced within Syria as of 2015.
An estimated 9 million total persons have fled their homes as of 2015.
Over 1 million people have registered from 2012 to 2013.

What has all of this got to do with History?

Many of the problems within the Middle East are, in part at least, due to decisions made by politicians in the past.

One large issue in the region – not just in Syria – is that there are large ethnic groups, such as the Kurds, who do not have their own country or right to self determination. These groups often participate in rebellions in order to try and achieve their goal of independence. This is due to decisions made in the past. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was drawn up during the First World War by British and French diplomats. It redrew the map of the Middle East based on British and French spheres of influence in the event of the Ottoman Empire being on the losing side. This map effectively created countries or states that had never previously existed as political entities. Syria, for example, was created by these foreign diplomats, as were several other states.

Later developments politicise the area in other ways, both regionally and within the International Community. The formation of Israel after the Second World War contributed to numerous issues in the region but also led to different states being supported financially and militarily by the superpowers of the day.

The more recent war in Iraq and the War on Terror have again hardened the views of other nations. The US, for example, will fight extremism and oppose regimes it sees as being repressive. Russia, on the other hand, will support a regime such as that of Assad as it was economically prudent to do so and a firm, albeit harsh, regime, ensured a safe border in a potentially volatile region.

The consequence of those historical decisions is that many global powers feel that they now have no choice but to intervene in Syria in one way or another.

What has it got to do with Europe?

A very large number of Syrian refugees have sought entry into Europe.  Making arrangements for their well-being, distribution throughout the continent and ongoing welfare is extremely important and politically quite hard for parties to manage.

The humanitarian crisis is costing billions of pounds. It has to be paid for by someone and at least part of that cost will be borne by European nations .

The Northern section of the Middle East is geographically, politically and economically significant to Europe. For eastern European nations it is important as a trade route and is an area in which many raw materials have been extracted and exported to Europe and other parts of the world.

Further Reading:

I Am Syria – introduction to the conflict and humanitarian crisis that is supported by Teaching Resources.

The Map that ruined the Middle East – article about the way in which the post war settlement has contributed to the current situation in the region.

Syria: The Story of the Conflict – BBC overview of the conflict from it’s origins in Deraa to the current situation.

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