A Conversation with Najwa Al-Qattan

Which Middle East countries are migrants leaving?

Syria is No. 1, although people are also leaving Iraq. Some Syrians are leaving Syria to go to Iraq. That tells you how bad things are in Syria. Some people also are leaving Libya, although the numbers are not as great as those leaving Syria and Iraq.

Which countries are they going to?
The first waves went to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. I’ve seen [estimates of] 1 million and 1.5 million mostly Syrian refugees in Turkey. There are at least a million in Jordan and another million in Lebanon. In the past year or so, people have been leaving Turkey to go to Greece and then on to Europe, mostly Germany. Some say there are 7 million internal refugees in Syria who probably will try to leave.

Why are people leaving Syria in particular?
Most of the [Syrian] people arriving in Europe today started leaving in late 2014 and early 2015. Once populations found themselves caught between the Islamic State and other Islamist groups and the government, it made the conflict much, much worse. I also think time [is a reason]. A lot of people waited for four years, but by now, they realize that their children’s lives and education are getting lost, businesses are not going to come back, so there is hopelessness, fear, hunger and desperation.

There is a widely held perception that most refugees have a clear destination in mind: Western Europe and Germany in particular. Is that true?
People are not leaving because they see this as an opportunity to get to Germany. Certainly there has been more attention paid [to migrants entering Europe] than when people were going to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Unfortunately, the neighboring countries are already saturated. If other Arab and Middle Eastern states were more welcoming, my guess is that most would go to familiar places, just as happened with the Palestinians. This is one of the biggest tragedies, and I would say crimes. Not only are countries not opening their borders, but they are really doing so little to help Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan carry the burden.

What are the ethical responsibilities of European countries and the United States in this crisis?
I can imagine that some argue that European colonialism is at the heart of so many issues in the Middle East and that the United States should continue to pay the price. I do not subscribe to that, which is not to say that colonialism hasn’t been very disruptive and destructive. But I also think that the Saddam Husseins, the Bashar al-Assads and the groups like the Islamic State are the real criminals, and they are homegrown. I’m not trying to absolve the West. But, as someone from the Middle East, I have become increasingly impatient with Middle Easterners who seem to want to absolve themselves from any responsibilities, especially in the second half of the 20th century, and blame everything on the West and the United States. Even though I know the extent of the damage done in the region by the United States — and a lot of it is irreparable — what makes me angrier are those Arabs who say it’s all the fault of the West. The West is not dropping barrel bombs and using chemical weapons against their own populations.

View a diagram about Middle East migration.