As the prospect of great numbers of Afghans fleeing their country — five million have been mentioned — comes into focus, a near-universal assumption exists that the West — meaning here Western and Central Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — should be their ultimate destination. But does this make sense?
From the Afghan perspective, living in Christian-heritage, secular societies offends many of their mores and creates severe stresses. Their general lack of skills appropriate to modern economies holds them back, and finding host populations prejudiced against them, they complain tearfully about structural racism, xenophobia, and “Islamophobia.” They point to hate incidents and even murderous attacks, such as those in New York City, North Carolina, Quebec, New Zealand, and beyond.
From the Western perspective, the open invitation of 2015-16 by the leaders of Germany and Sweden, allowing into their countries an estimated 1 million and 100,000 unvetted migrants, respectively, from Syria and elsewhere, turned out badly. Westerners watched helplessly as Middle Easterners arrived by plane, boat, train, bus, car, and foot through the beaches, fields, and railroad stations of Europe. They then witnessed those large numbers bring disease, resist assimilation, impose Islamic laws, engage in a crime wave, perpetrate the Cologne taharrush (mass sexual assault), and execute jihadi attacks in Paris and Brussels. They uneasily accepted that their societies turned into quasi-surveillance states.
These problems point to the need radically to rethink what is best for both migrants in distress and Westerners. I shall argue that the former generally should remain within their own cultural zone. That is where they most readily fit in, where they can stay truest to their traditions, best find economic roles, most easily can return home, and least disrupt the host society. Thus, East Asians refugees, asylum seekers, and illegals should be directed to resettle in East Asia, South Asians in South Asia, Middle Easterners in the Middle East, Africans in Africa, Latin Americans in Latin America, and Westerners in the West. This can mean internal migration, as in Syria, or moving to nearby countries.
Focusing on the Middle East, this pattern, to be sure, already does exist: most notably, some 2.2 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan and Iran, victims of the last Taliban takeover in 1996; and some 5.6 million Syrian refugees live in five nearby countries.
But, with the slight exception of Turkey, where some 4 percent of Syrian refugees are estimated to have received Turkish citizenship, these are emergency situations, where refugees are maintained in misery, either in holding pens or urban squalor, not allowed to get too comfortable but urged either to return home or move on to the West. This attitude prevails even in Turkey, as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan revealed when he asserted that “Turkey has no duty, responsibility or obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
This reluctance is nothing new; most Arab states (and Lebanon especially) have for over seventy years done their best to make Palestinians feel unwelcome, hoping thereby to encourage them eventually to leave.
Such brutal and negligent attitudes are unacceptable. A fundamental shift must take place. International organizations must ramp up expectations and Western governments must apply pressure. Middle Easterners need to take responsibility for their brethren.
Once they do, finding suitable destinations will be particularly easy in the Middle Eastern case. The six Gulf Cooperation Council states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are nearby and wealthy, they have a nearly insatiable need for labor, and they dispose of vast empty expanses; indeed, so attractive are they as a destination, foreigners already constitute half their population.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the largest of them in land size, population, and economy, in particular offers many attractions for Sunni Muslims. For starters, the KSA has 100,000 high-quality, empty fiberglass tents that can house about 3 million people on an emergency basis in Mina, just east of Mecca. Fireproof and air-conditioned, complete with toilets and kitchens, this unique resource is occupied a mere five days a year by pilgrims on the hajj.
Living in Saudi Arabia means not enduring frozen climes (as in Sweden) or learning difficult languages spoken by few (such as Hungarian). It is obviously much more convenient to repatriate from the KSA to Afghanistan than from, say, California.
Sharing deep cultural ties with their Saudi brothers and sisters, many Afghans will find KSA’s severe strictures culturally more congenial than the West. They can rejoice in a law code that (unlike Ireland) permits polygamy, that (unlike Britain) allows child marriages, that (unlike France) permits burkinis and allows the advocacy of wife-beating, that (unlike the United States) permits slaveholding and female genital mutilation, while going easy on honor killing, and that (unlike all Western countries) engages in official beheadings.
Conversely, consider some of the haram (forbidden) elements in the West that Afghan migrants avoid by living in Saudi Arabia:
Wealthy and sparsely populated Arab states can most easily settle migrants but other Middle Eastern states, such as Egypt and Algeria, also have this capacity. Accordingly, governments, international organizations, and refugee organizations should stop focusing exclusively on the West as a destination and turn instead to nearby countries to take in, house, employ, and enfranchise their brethren in need.
This listing of cultural features has another implication: Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, Baha’is, et al. find themselves increasingly unwelcome in the Middle East and should be welcomed in the West.
Focusing on Christians, the region’s largest religious minority: European colonialism elevated the status of regional Christians but in the long term created an anger against them that turned into a policy of eliminationism, of pushing them out of their homes and off to the West. This and other religious minorities should be welcomed.
Some Western governments have begun to take notice. As the Syrian crisis worsened in 2015, Poland’s Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz announced that her government would accept just 60 Christian Syrian refugee families, explaining that “Christians who are being persecuted in a barbaric fashion in Syria deserve Christian countries like Poland to act fast to help them,” implying Muslims do not deserve this help. Similarly, the Slovak government accepted 200 Christian Syrian refugees, explaining that “In Slovakia, we don’t have mosques.” Therefore, he went on, Muslim migrants would not feel at home there. Hungarian authorities quietly gave sanctuary to about 1,000 Egyptian Christians over a two-year period even as they excluded Muslims.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (Republican of Texas) also favors taking in Christian but not Muslim refugees. CNN reports that he “thinks that Muslims fleeing the Syrian civil war should be repopulated to other Muslim countries. But the Christian population, he believes, has nowhere else to go, and Cruz batted away concerns by telling reporters … that Christians posed ‘no meaningful risk’ to national security.”
Europeans are increasingly thinking in terms of culture zones.
In 2014, Denmark’s largest opposition party, Venstre, called for a distinction between “a Christian American or Swede” on the one hand and “a Muslim Somali or Pakistani” on the other due to the “big difference in the[ir] ability and will to integrate.” It went on:
Too many non-Western immigrants with Muslim backgrounds do not want our freedom-orientated society model.… In the future we should make it easier for those who traditionally can and will integrate to come to Denmark, while we make it more difficult for those who don’t have the ability or the will.
On coming to power in 2019, Denmark’s Social Democratic party instituted a policy whereby non-Western applicants stay outside Europe during their application process. A government spokesman explained: “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe.”
In 2015, the ruling VVD party in the Netherlands came out against accepting non-European refugees. Also in early 2015, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party responded to the Charlie Hebdo jihadi attack by calling for strict policies to restrict immigration from outside Europe and noting that, compared to other European countries, there are few “people with cultural backgrounds different from ours” in Hungary. Austria’s then-foreign minister and now chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, in 2017 suggested the country of Georgia as a possible location for refugee camps, causing a stir there and in the Kremlin.
Donald Trump in September 2017 endorsed refugees staying in their own region:
For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region. Out of the goodness of our hearts, we offer financial assistance to hosting countries in the region, and we support recent agreements of the G20 nations that will seek to host refugees as close to their home countries as possible. This is the safe, responsible, and humanitarian approach.
The European Union took a giant first step toward a culture-zone policy in 2016 with “The EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey”; this provided €6 billion to Turkey for “humanitarian assistance, education, migration management, health, municipal infrastructure, and socio-economic support.” The real purpose of this aid was to keep Syrian migrants in Turkey and not have them move on to Europe. In parallel, the Emirati government funded a camp in Pakistan for ten thousand refugees.
The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan on Aug. 15 prompted many calls from European politicians, especially in Germany, for Afghan migrants staying in their region. Germans seemed to remember 2015-16 with a shudder, according to quotes collected by Frederik Schindler in Die Welt:
In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders called for Afghans to be kept “in the region. Why don’t other Muslim countries provide safe shelter?” An official Dutch government document asks “Why are asylum seekers not kept in the region?” and replies “That is what the Dutch government and the European Union (EU) want. But it takes time to organize that. … Reinforcing reception facilities in the region must be combined with the possibility of resettling refugees to Europe.”
The Austrian government called for an EU plan to deport illegal immigrants to future “deportation centers in the region around Afghanistan.” Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer added that “Those who need protection must receive it as close as possible to their country of origin.” Santiago Abascal of the Vox party in Spain stated that “Afghans fleeing Taliban terror must be welcomed into neighboring Muslim countries.” The Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, stated that he considers Turkey is a safe place for Afghans to remain. President Emmanuel Macron of France insisted that “Europe alone cannot shoulder the consequences” of developments in Afghanistan.
Six EU governments jointly called for increased cooperation with Pakistan and Iran so that Afghans remain in those countries. More broadly, EU interior ministers commissioned the EU Commission to draw up a plan by which neighboring and transit states receive EU funding on condition that they agree not just to accept Afghan refugees but, Turkish style, institute steps to prevent them from leaving the region. According to Christoph B. Schiltz in Die Welt, those neighbors include Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
The trouble is, not one of Afghanistan’s six neighbors shows any willingness to take in Afghan refugees. From an article in the Dutch newspaper Trouw:
Pakistan keeps its borders with Afghanistan largely closed, and the small number of Afghan refugees admitted by Pakistan are taken in by their relatives. Pakistan has not granted any Afghan refugee status since the last crisis began. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi [said] that his country does not see any possibilities for taking in refugees.
Afghanistan’s northern neighbors are even stricter: they don’t want Afghans at all. Although Uzbekistan has taken in some 400 Afghans in recent weeks, it is now mainly looking for ways to send them away — last month 150 refugees were returned to Afghanistan after negotiations with the Taliban. The admission of more refugees therefore seems out of the question.
Tajikistan also does not want to hear anything about receiving more refugees and on last month a deal with the Americans to further increase border security. Neighboring Turkmenistan also refuses refugees, citing health reasons: the country does not want to bring in new corona cases. Another country Afghans could go to is Iran, but that country is also unwilling to accommodate a new influx of refugees.
The West remains the destination of choice for much of the world’s refugee and economic migrant populations alike; yet this facile assumption needs to be questioned.
From the migrant point of view, more familiar linguistic, climatic, economic, social, and religious circumstances will permit them to flourish. The unthinking drive to reach the most advanced Christian-majority countries makes especially little sense for Muslim migrants, who should head instead to countries geographically closer and culturally more akin, where they can better find employment and begin new lives.
From the host country point of view, the queue of difficult immigrants has no visible end: Syrians yesterday; Afghans today; Iranians, Yemenis, Tunisians tomorrow; and sub-Saharan Africans the day after. In all, the numbers looking to emigrate to the West could potentially surpass the 1,150 million population of the West. If Western civilization is to survive, migrants must mainly remain in their culture zones.
For the good of all, directing distressed migrants to their own culture zones needs urgently to start.
Mr. Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is president of the Middle East Forum.