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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Europe's Immigration Crisis

Over the past several weeks, migration to the European Union has been a topic dominating headlines as the countries of the eurozone remain bitterly divided over the next course of action. Due to unprecedented humanitarian crises in the Middle East and Africa, it is no surprise that Europe is facing an influx of refugees that they simply do not have the bandwidth to manage. However, as the death toll from failed migration attempts rises and E.U. members continue to bicker and avoid taking action, the crisis is going to worsen substantially. From a humanitarian standpoint, finding a solution that benefits these refugees is desired, but from a political standpoint, it is imperative.

The pace at which refugees are coming to European shores is indeed frightening--Germany claims it will be processing up to 800,000 this year, or four times the number it processed in 2014. This is a long-anticipated overspill from the Syrian civil war: countries that have supported refugees for years such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, are now finding themselves at capacity and unable to provide safety and shelter to any more refugees (as my colleague Vicky has written, the conditions in these refugee camps are themselves not at all desirable or livable). Europe should have seen this coming for quite some time, but somehow, here we are, with the continent seemingly completely caught off guard.

Migrants on the Mediterranean 

And as record numbers of refugees come to Europe, they are dying in record numbers. The death toll is in the thousands so far this year, with specific events capturing the world's attention with their horrific details (ships sinking, suffocated bodies found in trucks, the list goes on...) This is now a very serious crisis that will make the E.U. look inhumane and embarrass them until steps are reached to resolve it.

What makes the situation even more dire is the fact that it is the countries with the most unstable economies and the weakest governments that bear the brunt of this influx. It is estimated that Greece has already taken in roughly 160,000 this year; meanwhile, this summer the country narrowly avoided bankruptcy by securing a last-minute bailout deal, just before Prime Minister Tsipras of the once-popular Syriza party resigned and called for new elections. Greece's own population remains destitute, with a staggering 25 percent unemployment rate (around 50 percent for young adults), unprecedented homelessness and a dearth of government services. In Italy, itself a struggling economy, there has been the arrival of more than 83,000 migrants.

Instead of support these countries inundated with refugees and simply unable to support their domestic populations as well as the newcomers, many European countries have simply turned their back in defiance. In the meantime, frightening anti-immigration nationalist political parties, predominantly in the nordic states and parts of Eastern Europe, are growing in popularity--a serious threat to the E.U.'s political stability. Germany has stepped up, as they are wont to do in these types of situations, bravely announcing that they will offer asylum to all refugees who make it to their borders. However, in response, Hungary shut down its train stations earlier this week, barring migrants from leaving without "proper paperwork."

Migrants waiting for a train in Hungary. Courtesy of Getty Images

The situation is rapidly turning into a nightmare, and something needs to be done about it. Germany has proposed a quota system that is spread out among states based on their ability to accommodate, but this has been met with a fierce backlash from anti-immigration countries who feel that being in the Schengen region does not require them to welcome anyone they don't want across their borders. The E.U. executives claim to have a new proposal ready to present later this week, but it is unlikely that any compromise will be agreed upon by the stanch opponents. The longer it takes to reach a deal, however, the worse the situation will be for not just Germany, Italy, and Greece, but for the entire E.U., and a very serious threat to the concept of the Schengen region.

But besides developing framework on how to handle sudden influxes in refugees (which should have been developed a decade ago, at least), the E.U. must begin to commit to better supporting the countries where these refugees are coming from. Humanitarian assistance and financial support would go a long way in Jordan, Lebanon, and other similarly situated countries. And with even slightly better living conditions and increased capacity for accommodation there, the number of refugees crossing into Europe each year might decrease to a more sustainable level. It is incumbent upon the members of the E.U. to work towards this type of collaboration.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

On the Anniversary of Hiroshima, a New Nuclear Crossroads

Today marks a somber anniversary, the 70th anniversary since the United States dropped the first of two nuclear weapons on Japan. Seven decades ago today, the US, ostensibly to end WWII in the Pacific, dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, followed three days later by a nuclear attack on Nagasaki. In the aftermath, hundreds of thousands of people died in the two cities, and over one hundred thousand were killed in the initial blasts alone. The nuclear weapons used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were comparatively small compared to the destructive power of nuclear weapons today, and they still devastated two large cities. Japan marked the occasion with speeches by the few remaining survivors, a national moment of silence, and the tolling of a bell.

Pres. Obama speaks on the nuclear deal at American University
The anniversary comes at a moment when the United States faces yet another nuclear crossroads: whether or not to enact a nuclear deal reached with Iranian negotiators on July 14. On one side stands the Obama administration, which negotiated the deal and hopes to pass it through a Congressional vote, despite significant, somewhat bipartisan opposition. On the other stand politicians from both sides of the aisle, although largely Republican, who say the deal will not stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and argue that the US should continue the current sanctions regime in the hopes of obtaining a better deal. If such a deal never materializes, then armed intervention in Iran becomes an option.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

No place to call home: Government of Jordan blocks shelter projects for Syrian refugees

This post was originally published on The Huffington Post and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

Mohammed's* house is falling down around him. Dampness and mold have invaded his walls, his roof is crumbling over his family's heads, and he desperately needs to fix it before winter arrives. The dampness is caused by improper insulation, as well as a bathroom built into the corner of his kitchen. A small window provides the joint toilet/shower's only source of ventilation, and it opens directly over the kitchen area, leaking not only moisture, but also the odor from an open squat toilet shared by nine people. The roof can be fixed with a concrete casing, the bathroom requires a door and outside vents, and the broken windows and doors must be sealed against the elements to stop the home's deterioration.

Mohammed cannot afford the necessary upgrades to his home because he is one of the nearly 630,000 Syrian refugees currently residing in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Of these refugees, 85 percent live outside of the country's refugee camps, and 99 percent lack a permit to work legally. Known as urban refugees, the greatest challenge they face when they arrive in Jordan's cities and towns is securing access to adequate and affordable shelter, especially without a legal source of income. Mohammed's troubles with his rented home are not unique, and tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Jordan's urban refugees currently reside in substandard or inadequate shelters.

Sections of Mohammed's roof are falling away due to dampness and mold.

Urban refugees in Jordan consistently cite housing as their primary concern, and cash-for-rent and construction assistance from both domestic and international organizations provides a vital support system as refugees seek to reestablish their lives. But in Jordan, the government has suspended all urban shelter projects since early 2015, and organizations attempting to house Syrian refugees cannot even provide cash assistance, let alone make upgrades such as those Mohammed's home requires. As urban refugees struggle to pay rent, they are forced into substandard housing that threatens their families' health, access to education, security, and overall wellbeing.

I visited Mohammed's home in June 2015 with an NGO** that provides shelter assistance, among other areas of humanitarian aid. Due to the government suspension, NGOs in Jordan can only work within narrow confines to improve the shelter situation: they can continue education programs about housing and property rights, and they can perform home assessments like this one, in the hope that the suspension will soon be lifted and projects will resume. In total, between the repairs to the roof and broken windows and upgrades to the bathroom, Mohammed's house requires 900 Jordanian Dinars in funds (about 1,200 USD) to be considered habitable, albeit at a very minimal level. Ordinarily, the NGO would move forward to pay these upgrading funds in installments to refugee families or their landlords, to ensure that the money is spent on approved construction projects. Instead, due to the suspension, we leave Mohammed and his family of nine without promises, and without any idea of when or if the aid would materialize.

A combined kitchen and shower in a refugee home, where family members must bathe fully clothed because they do not have a shower curtain or separating wall.

The various Jordanian ministries reviewing the projects under suspension have not given a coherent reason for the sudden work stoppage. The suspension was imposed in early 2015 despite the fact that the same ministries approved all shelter interventions a few months prior, during the 2014-2015 government-led Jordan Response Plan (JRP) initiative. Some of the aid workers I spoke with think that the suspension continues due to disorganization within the ministries; others believe it is the result of a lack of political will to support shelter projects, or an unwillingness to suggest refugees may be long-term or even permanent residents of Jordan. All agreed that it is unlikely if not impossible that in a few months' time, the government had found such significant issues with shelter projects that they merited a full suspension.

Meanwhile, planning meetings for the next round of policy documents, JRP 2016-2018, have continued, and Jordanian ministries have yet to put forward any additional or alternative shelter strategies. Drafting documents is, of course, a much simpler and less politically fraught task than actually carrying policy through to completed projects, but the government has not even given a timeline of when or if organizations can continue their work this year.  As a result, donors have begun pulling funding for shelter projects, and a year of work has already likely been lost.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and NGOs have been implementing and revising several approaches to shelter provision in Jordan since the refugee crisis began in 2011. The UNHCR provides funding to NGOs to implement projects, and cash-for-rent assistance to the refugees themselves. NGOs have various levels of focus on cash-for-rent aid, upgrading substandard shelters, completing unfinished construction projects, distributing sealing-off kits, and raising awareness about housing and property rights. For populations of urban refugees, shelter is the cornerstone of aid provision and wellbeing. A refugee's work, education, familial relations, water, food, hygiene, health, and personal security are all inextricably linked to shelter conditions. Without an adequate place to call home, other interventions can only act as stopgap measures, while the physical and psychological health of entire families suffers.

Shelter provision is politically contentious in a way that food, water, and other areas of emergency aid are not. Shelter and construction imply permanence, while domestic as well as international actors typically treat refugee populations as temporary, despite the fact that the average refugee crisis now lasts 17 years. Constructing or improving housing for refugees creates tensions with the host community as well as the host government, whose low-income citizens often live side-by-side with refugees but do not receive similar levels of aid. It is a complex situation, but by no means an unsolvable one, and the benefits of increasing the housing stock to Jordan's housing market far outweigh the costs of negative perceptions of aid and refugees.

There is currently a shortage of over 48,000 housing units in Jordan, and rising rent prices caused by the inadequate supply of homes negatively affect refugees as well as Jordanian nationals. Organizations responding to the refugee crisis in Jordan also work to increase the resilience of the host community, whether by educating Jordanians about housing and property rights, upgrading substandard Jordanian homes, or completing unfinished construction projects for Jordanian landlords. The suspension of urban shelter projects harms not only Syrians, but native Jordanians as well. As one aid worker put it, "The government is not shooting themselves in the foot, they are shooting themselves in the heart."

If the suspension is not lifted soon, the construction season will give way to winter, when priorities shift to sealing-off kits and winterization of homes. Mohammed is only one of hundreds of thousands of refugees and vulnerable members of the host community in need in Jordan, and under the shelter project suspension, homes like his will continue to deteriorate, leaving his family and others like it to suffer the consequences. The (insufficient) funds the UN and NGOs have received are not being spent, sending the message to donors not to fund shelter projects for fear of wasting precious aid dollars. NGOs whose primary focus is shelter may be forced to leave Jordan altogether, to move on to a country where their assistance is welcomed.

Vacant lots and unfinished construction projects are ubiquitous in Jordan, visible reminders of the housing crisis.

In Mohammed's house, the need to fix the roof, upgrade the bathroom, and seal the broken windows and doors before winter arrives is palpable. Even in the summer heat, the house is cool and damp, which will only grow worse as the cold and wet weather arrives. Without relatively minor improvements to the home, his entire family's health and security will be compromised, and the problems assessed during our visit will only grow worse. The roof itself could collapse at any moment from deterioration, and one of Mohammed's six children might be underneath it when that happens.

Mohammed's daughter Amena, seven or eight years old, follows us as we conduct the assessment. She peeks around her father's legs as he explains the problems in the home, shy around a group of strangers, but curious nonetheless. She and her siblings have been learning English, and a Playhouse Kids textbook lies open on the kitchen counter. The fridge is covered with flashcard magnets that give the English and Arabic words for different kinds of food, so that even when they eat, the children are studying. Amena's purple, sparkly t-shirt reads: "Smart Girl with Big Dreams." I can't help but wonder, growing up in such conditions, what will happen to those dreams if her family's home remains uninhabitable. Without an end to the government's suspension of shelter projects, children like Amena will need to find their own way to keep dreams alive in dark, damp, and dangerous homes.

Vicky Kelberer conducted research in Jordan in June 2015 with the support of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies, a Carnegie Corporation project, and the Boston University Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations.

*The names of the refugees mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

**NGOs and aid workers requested anonymity, given the sensitivity of these issues.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Greek Dilemma

After a lengthy negotiation period, it appears that Greece and its creditors may be close to reaching a deal on extending economic relief in the form of more short-term bailout packages to the struggling country. In the next two weeks alone, Greece owes billions of dollars to the IMF and other creditors--an amount it is nowhere near capable of paying on its own. The risk of a potential default is very serious, and creditors know that. All that is left now is for the terms of new bailout money to be finalized, and taken to the Greek government for a vote.

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras has lobbied hard for fairer terms in an effort to make good on the anti-austerity promises that swept him into office months ago, yet his success has been mixed as he confronts a reality in which Greece's unstable level of debt leaves it holding very few cards at the negotiating table. Any new deal will include cuts to Greek pensions, reforms to labor laws, and possibly reforms to Greece's tax system, notorious for its ineffectiveness at collecting taxes. However, PM Tsipras' left-wing Syriza party must accept these compromises with the understanding that such a deal may be the only thing preventing Greece from running out of money entirely.

PM Tsipras. Courtesy of Financial Times

The problem is that this is only a short-term solution to a much larger issue--and that it may not be the right solution at all. It has become generally accepted that austerity is not the right way to help a struggling economy. Drastically cutting government spending during a period of high unemployment is only going to perpetuate unemployment, not help consumers get back on their feet and spend more. And with Greece's unemployment rate hovering around 25 percent - and much higher for youth - more austerity measures are going to hit the public hard.

Further, this isn't to say that there won't be a Greek exit from the Eurozone farther down the road. Greece's debt-to-GDP remains around 175 percent (compared to Germany's, which is less than 80 percent). Between paying back its creditors and paying bills at home, Greece is just barely staying afloat. Short-term loans will help stabilize the Greek economy temporarily, but what's to say that Greece needs another bailout months later?

A Greek exit would be catastrophic not just for Greece, which would have to revert to its (now extremely devalued) drachma currency, but would pose an existential threat to the Eurozone itself. If Greece exits, Italy may see an opening and exit as well. Spain is struggling nearly as badly as Greece and Italy, and would perhaps consider the same decision. Ultimately, Greece could set the stage for an exodus of damaged economies and a potential collapse of the euro as the currency for the EU.

Courtesy of WSJ

This crisis has been years in the making. The thought that countries with as much diversity in culture and financial stability as those that make up the EU could come together and operate under one set of financial guidelines is absurd. Sure, the U.S. dollar works well for all 50 states in America, but that is because they report to one federal government--not more than a dozen, as is the case in the EU. What a country like Germany and a country like Greece need in terms of economic policy are far too varied--yet they lack the flexibility to adopt policies that will benefit them. It is hard to see how the Eurozone can rebound when this is the case.

Yet at the end of the day, what is Greece to do? Unfortunately, there are simply no other options left than to take the money it is offered and pay what it owes. Whether it is the solution Greece needs is not the point--it is the solution Greece has, and the solution it must use. However, as loans are repaid, towns and cities all over Greece will likely look the same: scores of working-age citizens sitting in cafes without work, shuttered storefronts, and an ever-increasing disillusionment with the economic union and currency Greece adopted more than a decade ago.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Iranian Nuclear Agreement: What Does it Mean for US Diplomacy and International Trade in the Middle East?

Photo by United States Department of State (Public Domain)
On April 2nd, the members of the P5+1, the European Union, and Iran reached an agreement on the framework for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, outlining a set of parameters for a final agreement to be drafted by June 30th. Although a final comprehensive deal palatable to all parties will prove to be difficult, this framework agreement marks a milestone achievement in negotiations that have spanned over a decade. The nuclear accord faces resistance, however, by lawmakers in both the US and Iran, as it would require a broad leap of faith between two countries that have been at odds for over thirty years and have competing national interests in the region. An agreement with Iran would also call into question existing US alliances in the Middle East and lead to increased Russian influence in the region.

News of the agreement evoked mixed reactions from US lawmakers, with the Senate drafting a bipartisan bill that would allow Congressional oversight on the final deal. President Obama agreed to sign the existing bill, allowing a hold on lifting sanctions during a 30-day congressional review of the final accord. Nevertheless, both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry stated that they would not allow Congress to stand in the way of the best deal possible.

Many US lawmakers are hesitant to believe that the Iranian government will abide by its obligations under any agreement regarding the nuclear program, and their mistrust was exacerbated by the discrepancies between the fact sheets issued by the US and Iranian governments regarding the framework agreement.

The US fact sheet states that Iran will reduce the number of installed centrifuges to 6,104 IR-1s (Iran’s first-generation centrifuge) to lengthen Iran’s breakout time to one year (versus 2-3 months). Furthermore, IAEA inspections would be conducted on all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and access would be provided for UN inspectors to examine suspicious sites and investigate any allegations of covert facilities. Should the IAEA confirm that Iran has held up its end of the final comprehensive deal, US and EU nuclear-related sanctions would be suspended. The framework also references a restructuring of UN Security Council resolutions in order to lift the past resolutions regarding the nuclear issue. Yet, other US sanctions and UN resolutions related to terrorism, ballistic missiles, human rights violations, and cargo inspections would remain in force.

Contrary to the US fact sheet, Iran’s fact sheet states that sanctions will be lifted at the time of the agreement, Iran will keep operating 10,000 centrifuges and not allow inspections of military sites, the Fordow site will continue enrichment activities, and the limits on the nuclear program will remain in effect for only 5 years.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged that drafting the final deal would prove to be the true hurdle of the negotiations, but highlighted that the advancement of negotiations to this late stage reflected an international commitment to the process. Meanwhile, other Iranian politicians expressed their frustration with the reaction from Congress and Iran’s lack of recourse should the P5+1 fail to meet their obligations under the deal. Analysts in the US remain optimistic that all parties will come to a deal through “creative negotiations” and speculated that the Iranian fact sheet was prepared by Iranian hardliners in response to the proposed US Congressional review of the agreement.

The framework agreement currently enjoys broad support from Iranian civil society as it promises the possibility of sanctions relief and economic growth. Sanctions relief should stabilize the foreign exchange rate and inflation, boost foreign private sector investments and domestic job creation, and increase foreign trade as businesses anticipate a sharp rise in economic and financial activity. Resuming oil production and exports will increase Iran’s hard currency revenues and should theoretically also revitalize its economy. This will ideally entrench the power of Iran’s moderates upon whom rest any hope of positive US-Iran relations in the coming years.

The prospect of a nuclear deal seemingly threatens Saudi Arabia, who believes that positive US-Iranian diplomatic relations and sanctions relief will lead to Iranian crude exports driving down oil prices and revenues, and fears that its long-standing alliance with the US will be in jeopardy. A change in oil prices is unlikely, however, as analysts believe that, while Iran should be able to export up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day by early 2016, the steady increase in global demand for oil should prevent this influx from impacting prices.

Despite Saudi fears and the fact that improved US-Iranian diplomatic relations will allow for cooperation against certain regional threats like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the US is not likely to drop its alliance with Saudi Arabia. Iran’s aid to Houthi rebels in Yemen has been detrimental to both the United States and Saudi Arabia, which has led to the US providing logistics and intelligence support to the Saudis.

The current Saudi campaign in Yemen is more than likely a show of force, intended to both distract from the nuclear deal negotiations and to remind the US of its existing alliance in the region. As a result, Saudi Arabia will likely scale back its campaign in Yemen once the nuclear deal is finalized. The current situation, however, exemplifies the contradictory interests the US will have to consider in the region for years to come should the nuclear deal come to fruition.

A nuclear deal also promises greater direct Russian influence in the Middle East through resumed trade relations between Russia and Iran. Naturally, US and Israeli lawmakers are suspicious of this relationship, as it brings the competing interests of another major world power into the region. The framework agreement has already prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to lift a five-year ban on the delivery of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran by the end of the year. Russia and Iran had agreed to the $800-million contract in 2007, but the delivery had been suspended in 2010 under strong objections from the United States and Israel. Iran hopes to receive the S-300s by the end of the year, but Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, noted that manufacturers needed at least half a year to complete production. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov expressed his country’s interest in the success of this nuclear agreement with Iran and the lifting of all sanctions, stating that “[Russia is] confident that de-escalation of tension around Iran will improve bilateral trade-and-economic ties and, correspondingly, will be beneficial for Russia.”

Thawing the icy relationship between the US and Iran that has persisted for the past 36 years has vast implications for future diplomatic and trade efforts. Whether or not the nuclear deal could bring stability to this historically turbulent region remains to be seen, but at the very least, the opportunity to negotiate with Iran as a legitimate state actor instead of dismissing it as a rogue state opens the door to diplomatic approaches to the bigger issues in the region: the sectarian fighting between the Sunni and Shia populations in Syria and Iraq, the Houthi uprising in Yemen, and the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The real challenge will be bringing to the negotiating table competing regional interests and finding diplomatic solutions to these problems.

This article originally appeared on Ramen IR, an international affairs blog.