A Comparative Analysis of a Social Problem: The Refugee Crisis in Syria and Iraq

The ongoing global refugee crisis is one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the 21st century. Most countries throughout the globe are directly or indirectly affected by the refugee catastrophe. In fact, the refugee problem and the related issue of immigration have become central to political discourses of the Arabic peninsula, the African region, and the United States. Syria and Iraq are some of the most severely hit countries and, collectively, are considered to be the epicenter of the refugee crisis. This paper analyzes the refugee predicament in Syria and Iraq. It will interrogate the pervasiveness of the crisis in the two countries, structural factors that account for the problem, steps that are being taken to address the crisis, effectiveness of these interventions, and the outlook on the social problem a decade from today.

The Magnitude of the Refugee Crisis

The Pervasiveness of the Problem

The refugee crisis is dire in both Syria and Iraq. The countries are considered to be the epicenter of the refugee problem the world is currently experiencing. Statistics from the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows that over 13.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes (Abramowitz, 2015). Of these, around 4.8 million are refugees in other countries, while about 6.1 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs) (Akbarzadeh & Conduit, 2016). Further, the UNHCR asserts that one person becomes a refugee every 15 seconds in Syria (Abramowitz, 2015). The majority of Syrian refugees reside in countries neighboring Syria and some other countries in the Middle East, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Turkey is the single largest host of Syrian refugees followed by Iraq (Dahi, 2014). Only about 10% of the Syrian refugees have fled to Europe and other parts of the world such as Australia and the US.

The refugee crisis in Iraq, though being dire, is not as calamitous as it is in Syria. This is in spite of the fact that the refugee crisis in Iraq has subsisted for longer than it has in Syria. Unlike Syria’s crisis, which started in 2011, Iraq’s refugee problem has been ongoing for upwards of three decades. In 2007, it was estimated that there were around 4 million Iraqi refugees around the world. Of these, around 1.9 million were internally displaced, while the rest 2 million resided in neighboring countries such as Syria and Iran (Leenders, 2008). Only around 200,000 Iraqi refugees fled to Europe or the other parts of the world. Before that, the number of Iraqi refugees reduced between 2003 and 2007 when the US had assumed control of the country after toppling Saddam Hussein. The refugee problem reduced momentarily as many felt safe enough to return home. However, as the US started disengaging in 2007, fighting commenced and the refugee crisis has been worsening since then (Cockburn, 2015). While there are no credible recent figures, humanitarian organizations such as World Vision and the Red Cross estimate that currently, the number of refugees has exponentially increased due to the ongoing fighting between ISIS and the Iraqi government forces.

Structural Factors

The primary structural factors accounting for the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq are unstable political and economic climates. Political instability in these two countries has created a vacuum, which has invited anarchy and violence (Akbarzadeh & Conduit, 2016). Syria, for instance, was under an authoritarian regime for a long time. Common ideologies espoused by the dictatorial regime kept the country intact. When these ideologies and policies started getting challenged, the whole country fell apart as different sides pushed to assume control of the country. The conflict between the various mercenary and sectarian forces and the government forces has caused the displacement of civilians to other parts of the country and even outside Syria. The origin of the Syrian refugee crisis is violence perpetrated by the warring factions. It started with President Al Assad’s dictatorial regime, which stifled the freedom of expression. The youth that was protesting against perceived oppressive state policies were jailed or otherwise suppressed (Dahi, 2014). To further compound the situation, there were sectarian conflicts, especially in the Syrian North where the Kurdish minority was campaigning for its independence. The Kurds were oppressed by violent extremist organizations such as ISIL, the al-Nusra Front, the Turkish forces, and even the Syrian forces. All these different conflicts blew into a multifaceted civil war.

The situation is similar in Iraq. Even though there are less warring parties and dynamics involved in the Iraqi conflict is different as compared with Syria, it is violence that has exacerbated the already existent refugee crisis in Iraq. Before the conflicts started, Iraq, just like Syria, had a relatively stable political environment albeit under an authoritarian regime (Harding & Libal, 2012). The prevailing ideologies provided the glue that held people together. However, the Western imperialism, starvation sanctions, and planned destabilization created a vacuum that provided an opportunity for violent extremists and sectarian separationists to instill the reign of terror in Iraq, necessitating the fleeing of Iraqi civilians to other countries as refugees.

Apart from internal reasons, the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria has also been aggravated by imperialism and a global fight for domination. As the civil war raged in Syria, for instance, several countries intruded into the conflict purporting to stop it. However, these countries have only managed to fan the conflict and blow it out of proportion (Khan, 2015). The efforts by the international community have not only been un-coordinated but have also been divisive (Zetter & Ruaudel, 2014). Different countries have different interests and, therefore, support different warring factions in Syria. The US, for instance, supports the rebel forces that are fighting against ISIS and the illegitimate Syrian government forces (Dahi, 2014). It provides them with military tools and equipment or otherwise enhances the fighters’ competencies through training. Turkey, in turn, has entered Syria to fight ISIS and the rebel forces that are supported by the United States. Russia does not support either Turkish or American interventions; instead, Moscow has aligned itself with the Syrian government since Al-Assad has been its close ally (Akbarzadeh & Conduit, 2016). The ensuing violence has forced Syrians to scamper for safety in other parts of the world.

Just like in Syria, the Western imperialism epitomized by the US-led military invasion of Iraq is perceived by many as the major cause of the Iraqi refugee crisis. The only difference between Iraq’s and Syria’s forms of imperialism is that participants in Iraq were mainly the Western forces, while those in Syria are largely its neighbors. Besides, the motive of venturing into Syria seems to be more informed by the ideas of global domination unlike in Iraq’s case where the global community thought they were intervening to save lives and avert a global war.

Some foreign policy commentators reckon that there would be no ISIS if the US and its allies had not militarily intervened in Iraq. However, many scholars had disputed the assertion, contesting that even before the US intervention many Iraqis had fled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime (Millsap, 2016). The US occupation, however, exacerbated the crisis. It destabilized the balance of power in Iraq. Before the invasion, the Sunni majority was ruled by the Shiite minority, maintaining the balance. However, the US toppled the Shiite government, allowing the Sunni majority to regain control of the region. Soon after the US forces started leaving Iraq, the Sunni government started retaliating against the former government and the resultant conflict and chaos created a power vacuum, inviting ISIS and other extremist groups into Iraq (Khan, 2015). After the failure of the socialist regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis became divided. There were no uniting ideologies to bind them together. Even the Iraqi governmental army started disintegrating because soldiers were not willing to fight for the cause anymore.

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Violence notwithstanding, the deteriorating economic climate both in Iraq and Syria has also prompted the natives to immigrate to other countries. Before the civil war started in 2011, Syria has been experiencing an average economic growth of 5% (Dahi, 2014). It had a needed relatively stable political climate, the enterprising citizenry, and a booming tourism sector. After the war started, there has been a massive collapse of the infrastructure. In Aleppo, for instance, 95% of people do not have access to adequate health care, 70% lack regular access to clean water, while over 50% of children cannot go to school (Abramowitz, 2015). The economy has been shattered and over 80% of people currently live in abject poverty (Krumm, 2015). Deteriorating economic conditions have forced some people, even those in relatively calm areas, to flee Syria.

Efforts to Eliminate the Problem

Steps Taken

There are various interventions, both governmental and non-governmental, that have been instituted to address the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq. In both countries, the government in place is depleted and is barely expected to do much to address the respective refugee crisis. In fact, it is a common perception in Syria and Iraq that the government is apathetic and allows the refugee disaster to fester unabated (Krumm, 2015). However, that is not the case. The Syrian government’s primary intervention so far has been to militarily engage ISIS and other extremist groups in the rebel-held cities such as Aleppo to free those who have been trapped by fighting. On that front, the governmental forces are making progress. Just like in Syria, the Iraqi government also appropriates military intervention to address the refugee crisis. The Iraqi government has been fighting ISIS and other militant groups, recapturing one rebel-held town at a time (Millsap, 2016). Just recently, the Iraqi government forces have liberated Mosul and are advancing further into the adversary’s territory to emancipate its citizens who have been trapped.

Apart from actively fighting resistance groups to restore peace, both governments also lobby other countries to accept and host refugees from their respective countries. For instance, Syria has been engaging its neighbors and other Middle Eastern countries to allow and host the Syrians who have been fleeing the conflict. There was a time when the Turkish government contemplated closing its borders, especially after the backlash from the Turkish citizens (Zetter & Ruaudel, 2014). However, President Recep Erdogan has heeded the call from the international community and specifically from Syria and is keen to host even more Syrian refugees in the future (Krumm, 2015). The Iraqi government also persuades foreign governments to help its refugees and help the country financially to deal with the crisis. The US, for instance, contributed more than $4.5 billion in aid to Iraq in 2015 (Millsap, 2016). Through the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the US has taken in 1,500 Iraqi refugees and is prepared to take in even more as it has increased the total number of refugees it plans to host during the next fiscal year to 10,000 (Millsap, 2016). Other countries such as Australia and Norway have also been major contributors both financially and in the form of taking in a fair share of refugees.

Additionally, both Syrian and Iraqi governments have created a task force that resettles internally-displaced people. In Syria, the task force has been busy resettling the IDPs to other parts of the country that are relatively peaceful. The Iraqi government has also made an effort to reduce the number of IDPs mainly by resettling them in the Kurdish region and assisting them by providing for their health and nutrition needs.

Non-governmental organizations have been the main players in mitigating the refugee crisis both in Syria and Iraq. In both countries, organizations such as the UN, the Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and World Vision have been instrumental in facilitating peace negotiations and ceasefires to allow the IDPs to flee the conflict zones (Abramowitz, 2015). Through organizations and agencies such as the WHO, the UNICEF, the Red Crescent, the WFP, and the UNFPA, these international bodies provide humanitarian aid in the form of food, tents, clean water, medical supplies, and services, as well as security among others (Dahi, 2014; Harding & Libal, 2012). Other agencies like the UNHCR have been busy resettling Syrian and Iraqi refugees in other countries such as Germany, Sweden, the UK, and Australia among many others.

Effectiveness of the Interventions

Even though the two countries face the same problems and mostly use similar interventions to deal with the refugee problem, the effectiveness of the interventions differs. At the moment, they appear to be more effective in Iraq than in Syria. The interventions rolled out by the Iraqi government are increasingly perceived as successful largely because the conflict is fast coming to an end with the fizzling of the inter-ethnic conflict and the retreat of ISIS. The Iraqi government’s primary intervention to reduce the refugee crisis by ending the fight is progressively coming to fruition. The governmental forces have already recaptured many towns that were held by rebels and soon it will drive ISIS and other extremist groups out of Iraq. The efforts of the international community have also been successful. More than 1.9 million Iraqi refugees and IDPs have been resettled inside Iraq and in other countries in the Middle East (Cockburn, 2015). However, the resettling of refugees is merely a temporary solution and the civil war in Iraq has to stop for the refugee crisis to be contained.

Assessing the level of effectiveness of the interventions in Syria is rather complicated as compared to Iraq. There are no straightforward signs and the verdict depends on the level of analysis. At the macro level, the interventions have barely worked as the refugee crisis persists five years after its launch. Despite the efforts of the government, the conflict still rages on and, in fact, it gets worse as days go by. The Syrian civil war has mutated into a multifaceted international conflict, resulting in an increase in the number of refugees and deaths of civilians (Akbarzadeh & Conduit, 2016). At a micro level, however, the interventions have been moderately effective and incredibly helpful. The resettling of IDPs has especially helped people to continue with their lives and fend for themselves. Food, water, and health care aid have saved millions of lives. The majority of refugees are vulnerable and could not have survived for months, let alone years in such a desolate state.

Future Outlook

The future outlook on the refugee crisis both in Iraq and Syria is dim. There is no substantial evidence pointing to the attainment of political and economic stability in these two countries. However, Iraq’s future looks more promising as compared with Syria’s one. In 10 years, Iraq’s refugee crisis will have long ended and the situation should return to normal. The Iraqi population is incredibly resilient. Iraq experienced the crisis before, for instance, during the US invasion in 2003 (Leenders, 2008). Many people fled, but soon after Saddam Hussein fell, many returned to Iraq. The current situation will not last for long. Unlike in Syria, fighting in Iraq has not been that intensive and widespread (Krumm, 2015). Furthermore, the Iraqi government has been making progress and recapturing vast areas that were under ISIS control. In fact, at the rate at which it has been disbanding ISIS, the Iraqi forces should be able to defeat ISIS and restore peace in less than one year.

Syria’s future outlook relating to the refugee crisis is particularly bleak. The refugee crisis as a social problem will most likely still be an issue even in 10 years. This is primarily because there is no indication that the prevailing war is set to end anytime soon. The international community has been reluctant to intervene. Those countries that have intervened have done so subjectively often in order to support one of the warring factions (Akbarzadeh & Conduit, 2016). Even if the fighting stops, which is currently unlikely, the economic and infrastructural damage that has already been done will deter some of the Syrian refugees from returning to their home country.


It is evident that the refugee crisis is a prominent social problem in Iraq and Syria. In fact, these two countries are now considered to be the epicenter of the contemporary refugee catastrophe experienced throughout the globe. In both countries, millions of people have been displaced and are being hosted by fellow Middle Eastern nations. The main structural factors that have contributed to the problem include political instability, Western imperialism, and economic deterioration. Many interventions are being rolled out to address the refugee crisis. The governmental interventions include resettling of IDPs, lobbying of other countries to host refugees, and militarily engagement of rebels and ISIS. The non-governmental organizations are the ones that are concerned with providing humanitarian assistance. Despite all these interventions, the pervasiveness of the crisis has been barely reducing and the future outlook seems to be relatively bleak for both countries.

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