The conflict in Syria is often described as the greatest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. Half of Syria's population of 24 million has been displaced either internally or externally, and unprecedented numbers of refugees are frantically seeking safety in Europe. These include Muslims and Christians alike.

Many are professional people with transferable skills and some knowledge of English or French, but there are also tens of thousands of rural poor, who will find adapting to life on a different continent very difficult.

Syrian refugees continue flowing into Europe

Their push at the European door shows that they, too, want the life that Europeans lead: with freedom, democracy, and a chance to make their own way in an economic environment that is not strangled by corruption.

Ramifications of Sykes-Picot

Nevertheless, by drawing attention to the scale of this tragedy, commentators risk depriving it of context. It is but the latest - if the largest - in a series of refugee crises arising from the events that followed on from the arbitrary partition of the Arabic-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France after World War I.

That partition led to injustices intertwined with instability, which have played their part in incubating the Syrian tragedy. Before Syria descended into chaos in 2011, it had been forced - as had Jordan and Lebanon - to accommodate successive waves of destitute people fleeing their homes.

Syria gave refuge to Iraqis escaping the effects of sanctions after 1990, and then from the organised crime and sectarian strife which have been hallmarks of the new Iraq since 2003. It did what it could with its limited resources, although the influx put strains on its economy and society.

When the father of Alan al Kurdi, the three year old who drowned in the surf near Bodrum, rebuked wealthy Arab states for not offering hospitality to Syrian refugees, many will have heard an echo of the plea of the Palestinians for justice.

 

The poorest refugees became very noticeable in the cities, where they almost drove the local shoe-shine boys out of business. Overcrowded schools were faced with a deluge of additional pupils for which there was little funding. At the same time, Iraqis with money started buying homes. This exacerbated a severe housing shortage and even led to a change in laws to restrict house purchases by foreigners.

Yet, this wasn't the only refugee crisis in the area at that time. During Israel's pulverisation of Lebanon in the summer of 2006, nearly one million Lebanese - perhaps over a quarter of the country's population - were displaced internally or turned into refugees who fled the country.

Around 180,000 entered Syria and were frequently welcomed by hospitable local families, even in the poorest areas of the country. These refugees were lucky since most were eventually able to return home.

Before that, during Lebanon's 15 years of civil war from 1975 to 1990, Lebanese were routinely forced to take refuge with their kith and kin in the heartland of their sect-tribe. Many of them, too, would finally be able to return to their homes.

Never-ending plight

But the earliest refugee crisis was that of Palestine at the end of the British Mandate. Even before the unilateral proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, much dispossession of Palestinians had already been carried out by the Zionist militias that would become the Israeli army.

As the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi has succinctly put it, those who set up the Jewish state, "understood the well-established demographic calculus of Palestine, which meant that without such ethnic cleansing, the new state would have had nearly as many Arabs as Jews".


Also read: Lost your compassion? Watch this film


Some of these refugees still live under Israeli occupation for the purposes of international law, such as the 70 percent of the population of Gaza who were driven into the enclave by Israeli forces. Although some of them live virtually in sight of their ancestral homes, they have little prospect of return.

Other Palestinians have made new lives abroad, but many have been unable to do so. With the exception of Jordan, Arab countries have been unwilling to give them full citizenship.

Their despair at their abandonment by the international community caused some to turn to armed resistance, something which led to the bloody crushing of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Jordan during "Black September" in 1970, the eventual destabilisation of Lebanon in the 1970s, the Israeli invasion of 1982, in which thousands of civilians were killed, and, more recently, the suicide bombings and untargeted rockets fired at Israeli civilians by Hamas and other Islamist resistance groups.

When the father of Alan al Kurdi, the three year old who drowned in the surf near Bodrum, rebuked wealthy Arab states for not offering hospitality to Syrian refugees, many will have heard an echo of the plea of the Palestinians for justice.

With the future of Syria so uncertain, will many Syrians, too, now find themselves deprived of the right to return to their homes? If so, the long-term consequences on the stability of the area are unbearable to think about. 

John McHugo is the author of "A Concise History of the Arabs" and "Syria: A Recent History".

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera