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1915-2015: 1 in 5 displaced people come from the Arab world

According to Al Arabiya News calculations – based on U.N. figures – the Arab world has produced nearly 12.3 million refugees during the past 100 years

Rajia Aboulkheir

Published: Updated:

A photograph of a dead Syrian Kurdish boy who drowned in the Mediterranean and washed ashore on the Turkish coast shook the world earlier this month - and personalized the collective tragedy of many Middle Eastern refugees.

Aylan Kurdi, whose death has become the central image of the ongoing refugee crisis, was trying to flee Syria but instead became the latest example showing how the Arab world has been an important producer of the world’s 59.5 million forcibly displaced people over the past 100 years.

According to calculations by Al Arabiya News – based on U.N. figures – the Arab world has produced nearly 12.3 million refugees during the past 100 years.

The number remained of refugees around the world remained unclear until 1951 and the creation of the Geneva Convention hosted by the UNHCR, making the precise figure of Arab immigrants during the first and second World Wars sharply disputed.

Arab-Israeli war

However, a few years later, when the Arab-Israeli war erupted, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) estimated that 750,000 Palestinians had been forced to flee their homes.

In 1967, the hostilities caused by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pushed another 200,000 Palestinians to flee their homes.

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Since then the flow of migration has been relatively steady until the end the 20th century which was marked by a new boost of migration across the Middle East.

From Maliki to ISIS

In 2003, the toppling of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's regime and the ascension to power of a new government led by Nouri al-Maliki forced many Iraqis to leave. This was due Maliki's removal of the Sunni social and military elites from positions of power, which many believe has fuelled sectarianism in the war-torn country.

Divisions were amplified in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprising, with Maliki laying the blame for rising sectarian violence in Iraq on the civil war in Syria.

Maliki’s government was not the only reason behind the exodus of Iraqis as ISIS – just like in Syria - has pushed many to flee the country after seizing large parts of the country and expanding its domination.

Violence and divisions in Iraq have pushed over 3.3 million people to leave the country with the number rising considerably in recent months.

Commenting on the rise of ethnic divisions in Iraq, Salim said: “Whether it is Iraq or Syria, it is clear that sectarian cleansing is a policy. It is not just a random act of violence committed by some military factions.”

“It is part of an agenda,” he added.

Salim also said that ethnic cleaning fueled by some countries in the area was “dangerous for the region” and urged “Arab countries to act.”

“We need a clear Arab political will to counter the sectarian cleansing policy,” he said.

Assad atrocities

In Syria, thousands of Syrian Kurds were forced to flee their country after facing the atrocities of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which is backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran, that intensified in 2011 following the Arab Spring.

“Syria is one of the countries that Iran wants to put under its influence so in this sense Iran is a main actor that is helping Assad in the displacement of Syrians,” Lebanese political analyst Luqman Salim told Al Arabiya News.

“When it comes to the Syrian conflict, it is very clear that the Iranian policy … is to operate a kind of sectarian cleansing and reshape the demographic landscape” Salim said adding that it has happened in different parts of the country such as the western cities of Homs and al-Qusayr.

Salim said that Iran is attempting to change the demographics in areas close to the Syrian capital with the aim of partitioning the country.

According to the UNHCR, around 4,088,000 Syrians have left the war-torn country since March 2011.

In 2013, ISIS’s rise to prominence has also played an important role in displacing more Syrians.

The exodus of Syrians reflects the violence of the 4-year conflict that has killed tens of thousands and injured many more.

Iranian-backed Houthis

A bit more to the south, militias backed by Iran have also forced thousands of Arabs flee Yemen in 2015 in search of a safe haven.

The Iranian-backed Houthis and loyalists of deposed leader Ali Abdullah Saleh led more than 545,000 people to leave Yemen since March after killing civilians and blocking the arrival of humanitarian aid.

“From the beginning of the war, a lot of people have left Yemen looking for safer places in neighboring countries after being persecuted by the Houthis,” Mohammed al-Qubati, a former ambassador for Yemen to Lebanon, told Al Arabiya News.

“A large number of Yemenis left the country from the Gulf of Aden to reach close African countries such as Djibouti and Somalia,” he said.

Qubati also spoke about “internal displacement” saying that “many Yemenis had to leave areas dominated by the Shiite rebels like Sanaa and Taez.”

According to the UNHCR, if the ongoing violence does not end soon, the number of Yemeni refugees is expected to increase in the coming period and push many more to flee the war-torn country.

Lawless Libya

In contrast with Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the main reason behind the exodus of Arabs in Libya is the division between political parties.

Since strongman Muammar Gaddafi's four-decade rule ended in 2011, Libya's factions have been fiercely divided.

The oil-producing nation is now effectively split in two, with the internationally recognized Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni confined to the east since losing control of Tripoli and a rival administration controlling the capital and its surroundings.

The division in the country has led many Arabs to flee to neighboring countries but also to take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean.