THE DESTRUCTION OF ALEPPO has been a heartbreaking reminder of the human cost of instability in the Middle East. Vulnerable civilians who lived in what was once one of the most diverse and prosperous cities in the region find themselves on the frontline of an intractable civil war with no place to go. With anti-immigrant populism on the rise, the current refugee crisis has revealed a callous unwillingness on the part of the United States and Europe to help mitigate the crisis, even before President Trump’s executive order to ban Syrian refugees indefinitely.
But who are these unwanted immigrants who have become symbols of a broken international system of refugee relief? In this moment when world attention is focused on the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo that’s been made even more hopeless by Trump, it is worth considering how this population ended up in Syria in the first place and why it is so hard for so many to find safe haven. It all started with another brutal, devastating war. World War I (1914–1918), whose 100-year anniversary is currently being commemorated and reconsidered in a host of new books (like those referenced below), witnessed what was then the largest refugee emergency to date.
The very worst of the crisis happened in the Middle East. After the Allies won the war against Germany and the Central Powers, which included the Ottoman Empire, the Ottomans — with the tacit consent of its former US and European adversaries — began removing all remaining minority Christians who had survived the world war and genocide. This population included mainly Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian communities that had lived in the Middle East for thousands of years. During the war, they were the victims of state-sponsored terror on the part of the Ottoman Empire, which culminated in a policy of mass extermination known today as the Armenian Genocide.
As a result, millions of stateless peoples were on the move in and around the Middle East, with few options and even fewer places to go. Many of the refugee survivors of genocide who did not flee to Europe or the United States ended up in the French-controlled territory of Syria created by the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in 1919. Syria itself had its borders drawn by World War I’s Allied victors as part of the Versailles Treaty’s so-called Mandate System. Syria was created, in part, to provide a place for this newly homeless population to settle. The United States and Europe took in relatively few of these displaced peoples.
The carving up of the Middle East after World War I had important implications for refugees. A combination of postwar treaty agreements and Allied shortsightedness paved the way for the expulsion from Turkey of the majority of the few remaining Christian minorities in subsequent years. In 1923, four years after Europe celebrated the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war with Germany on the Western Front, the Allies signed the Treaty of Lausanne with Germany’s erstwhile Ottoman ally to bring an end to fighting in the Middle East. Lausanne was a disaster of a treaty as far as refugees were concerned. A bizarre provision in the treaty sanctioned the forced exchange of the remaining Christians living in Turkey with Muslims living in Greece. Today, only a small community of Christian minorities remain in Istanbul, due to a provision in Lausanne that allowed them to stay.
Greece, then as now, was tasked with the responsibility of taking in those who were forced to leave former Ottoman lands for Europe. The Allies offered Greece a loan but little else to deal with the crisis. By the mid-1920s, almost a quarter of the Greek population held refugee status, which strained the country’s meager resources and fueled anti-immigrant sentiments throughout the region. Some Christian minorities did manage to stay in cities and towns outside of Istanbul, despite post–World War I dictates. That population was subjected to further persecution in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Remaining minorities during this period were turned into internal refugees and systematically rounded up by the Turkish government and expelled, with the words “no right of return” stamped on their travel documents.
It is the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of many of those people, along with countless others caught in the middle of the civil war — Muslim and Christian alike — who are escaping Syria right now. Now, thanks to Trump’s executive order, well over a thousand of these refugees are stuck in limbo after having been vetted in processing centers located in far-off places, including Australia, unsure if they will be able to complete their promised migration to the United States.
Europe has taken a less dramatic approach but with equally dire consequences. The European Union is paying Turkey, the successor state of the Ottoman Empire, to take back refugees stuck in Europe. Turkey has not improved its record on minority civil rights and protections in recent times. Now the target is not Christian minorities but the large Muslim Kurdish minority living within its borders and in the adjoining territories. The abysmal human rights record of Turkey, made worse after the recent failed coup, suggests that it is doubtful that the new immigrants Europe has sent back from Greece to Turkey will receive a warm welcome. History cautions against attempting to reverse the sins of Lausanne with another ill-conceived population transfer that has only functioned to further exacerbate resentment toward refugees in the region.
And so it goes. Current attempts to avoid the kind of refugee crisis that the Allies ultimately helped create — when it divided the Middle East into a chain of weak client states after World War I — mirror those of the past. The United States and Europe have a historic responsibility to work as partners to solve the refugee crisis that resulted from the war in Syria and helped fuel a wave of anti-immigrant populism that reaches beyond the Middle East. The distinction between economic migrants (those seeking better financial opportunities) and refugees (those in need of refuge and safe places to call home) is a difficult one to sort out, but one that needs to be dealt with in a systematic and humane way. The United States has the global presence and the resources to provide leadership through its embassies and diplomatic service personnel. It can be part of the solution by engaging the warring parties and Russia in meaningful diplomacy and dialogue.
There are other possibilities. Raising, not eliminating, immigration quotas for families and individuals who have vetted at processing centers is one solution. Providing refuge for the most vulnerable who have not is another. But more than that, there has to be a shared willingness to seek a solution. In the case of Europe, it cannot rely on a solution that puts more pressure on Greece and pays Turkey to take unwanted refugees. The United States, conversely, should not retreat in fear to an anti-refugee policy that only fuels panic and hatred. Nor should it eliminate refugee resettlement efforts. However, as a result of the current wave of homegrown anti-immigrant populism, this is exactly what the United States has decided to do.
Books and film considered and referenced:
Christopher Clark, Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Harper, 2013).
Susan Pedersen, The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire (Oxford, 2015).
Eugene Rogan, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East (Basic Books, 2015).
Michelle Tusan, The British Empire and the Armenian Genocide: Humanitarianism and Imperial Politics from Gladstone to Churchill (forthcoming from I.B. Tauris, 2017).
Keith David Watenpaugh, Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (University of California, 2015).
Liwaa Yazji, Haunted (Syria, 2014)
Michelle Tusan is professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she teaches and writes about human rights and humanitarianism.