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Will the U.S. see more refugees from unrest in the Middle East?

Protesters in Damascus, Syria, April 2011
Protesters in Damascus, Syria, April 2011
Photo by syriana2011/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A video series on Multi-American this week is featuring the stories of Southern California immigrants from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, all of them coping in their own way with the political upheaval taking place in their native countries.

But what about their loved ones and others back home, those directly affected by violence and instability, especially in conflict zones like Libya? Will more of them be coming to the United States as refugees?

Officials from both the U.S. State Department and the United Nations agency that handles refugees have said that they have not seen a notable increase in nationals of those countries affected by what has become known as the "Arab Spring" seeking to come to the U.S. as refugees. However, the agencies are seeing resettlement demand among people who were already refugees, particularly in Libya, who are being displaced once more by the conflict there.

A report from the Migration Policy Institute this week 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.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Schlachter confirmed earlier this week that some of these foreign nationals in Libya, among them Eritreans, Sudanese and some Iraqis who took shelter in Libya during the U.S.-led war, have been referred to the State Department for resettlement.

So far the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has referred only around 300 of these refugees to the U.S., she wrote in an e-mail, but "we expect additional referrals in coming weeks/months."

A UNHCR spokesman confirmed that in anticipation of more demand, the agency has made a special global appeal for 8,000 resettlement places for these refugees.

The most recent large-scale resettlement of Middle East refugees has been the ongoing resettlement of refugees from Iraq, a process that continues to be complicated, as large numbers of Iraqis took refuge from the war in Syria, now destabilized by its own internal conflict.

More than 58,000 Iraqi refugees have been resettled in the U.S. since 2007, according to the State Department. There have been several challenges, however, some of these documented in a report last year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.