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From KPCC's Madeleine Brand Show: Will the U.S. see more Middle East refugees?

A refugee camp on the Libya-Tunisia border, March 2011. Photo by Internews Network/Flickr (Creative Commons)
A refugee camp on the Libya-Tunisia border, March 2011. Photo by Internews Network/Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo by Internews Network/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A post last week examined the potential for refugees coming to the United States from the Middle East and North Africa, where ongoing political upheaval has turned violent in some countries, especially in Libya.

Officials from both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations agency that handles refugees said they had not seen a notable increase in nationals of the countries affected by what has become known as the “Arab Spring” seeking to come to the U.S. However, they have been seeing demand among displaced people who had already taken refuge in a second country, particularly Libya, where conflict is displacing these refugees yet again.

A few hundred foreign nationals in Libya, among them Eritreans, Sudanese and some Iraqis who took shelter there during the U.S.-led war, have already been referred to the State Department for resettlement, with more referrals expected in the coming weeks and months.

In a segment this morning on KPCC's Madeleine Brand Show, I discussed this development and the challenges involved, exemplified by the continuing resettlement of refugees from Iraq. Audio can be downloaded on the show's website.

A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute described how the unrest in the Middle East is and isn’t affecting migration at this point:

What immediate impact the revolts have had on emigration from migrant-sending states is unclear but, at the time of writing, a scenario of mass migration in response to political unrest seems unlikely.

So far, only Tunisia has experienced a surge of emigration, with some 25,000 irregular migrants having landed on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in the first three months of 2011. In Egypt, Syria, and Yemen, no similar movement has occurred, and the topic of emigration has simply disappeared from the mainstream media.

What makes Tunisia special is the proximity of Europe (giving would-be migrants the impression — the wrong impression, as it happens — that the Italian shore is within reach); a common border with Libya from where waves of migrants are currently fleeing the war; and a dramatic wish to emigrate that predated the revolt.

What refugee agencies have noticed In predominantly migrant-receiving states, it is not the outcomes of the revolts that will most impact migration, but instead the immediate reality of the protests themselves and their repression by states.

When the revolt first broke out in Libya in mid-February 2011, the country was host to 1 million or more migrants mainly from Egypt, Tunisia, and sub-Saharan Africa. As of May 5, a recorded 720,609 migrants have fled insecurity in the country as a result of the revolt, the vast majority crossing Libya’s land borders with Tunisia and Egypt.

The scenario of the First Gulf War between 1990 and 1991, during which time 3 million migrant workers and their families were suddenly driven into exile, is being repeated in Libya.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has made a special global appeal for 8,000 resettlement places in anticipation of demand, a UNHCR spokesman confirmed last week.