Syrian refugee children playing football near the Azraq camp in northern Jordan. Russell Watkins/DFID

Europe’s externalization policies have turned the Middle East into a regional buffer zone and a new continent of containment.

The Middle East has long been a refugee-producing and hosting region. It was the site of the first refugee camps as well as humanitarian interventions catering to displaced and persecuted groups from the late Ottoman period and onwards. The region’s historical legacy and post-World War two Arab-Israeli conflicts have made the region synonymous with protracted displacement and long-term encampment.

Following the onset of the Syrian displacement crisis in 2011, the Middle East became one of the world’s premier refugee-hosting regions. This extended the region’s hosting role by instituting a series of measures that can be labeled containment, and outgrowth of the EU’s externalization policies whose main function is to prevent migrants from reaching mainland Europe.

Recent research on camps has highlighted their global proliferation, regional expansion, and bio-political functions. We propose to extend this analysis by positing regional containment as a novel type of encampment, one that turns regions, continents, and archipelagos into permanent hosting zones. In this brief overview, we recapitulate these measures and explain how externalization created a Middle East Supercamp with dire consequences for the region and those retained there.

Mass migration

The Syrian displacement disaster is a multi-dimensional crisis that was followed by mass migration within the region and towards Europe. The rapid status transition from refugee to migrant that typifies current displacement crises, demonstrates that refugees patiently waiting out crises in neighboring host states is a thing of the past. The Syria crisis represents a new migration dynamic, with more refugees and migrants destined for Europe enabled by new resources (capital, credit), providers (smugglers, firms), and networks (mobiles, internet), allowing more people to migrate than when relying only on familial ties and social networks.

By 2015, mass migration placed new and unforeseen pressures on Europe’s internal and external border controls (Schengen zone) and prompted a new series of migration management measures; policies, agendas, and systems.[i] The aim was to create impenetrable border defenses that can best be described as a containment strategy, which seeks to stem the flow of refugees and asylum seekers while increasing the hosting capacities of third countries combining economic incentives (international aid) and concessions (visa and trade) to incentivize Middle East host states to carry the burden.  

The unwillingness to host refugees in Europe and the high costs of keeping them out have led countries and policymakers to search for low-cost alternatives. Aiding refugees in middle-income countries is costly, yet still much cheaper than resettling them in Europe. This is one reason why both EU member and non-member states seek to contain refugees in proximate, that is, neighboring countries termed “host states”. The Syrian displacement crisis has demonstrated the fallacy of the host-state paradigm which lacks grounding in international- and refugee law.

Rebordering Europe

The Syrian displacement crisis vastly expanded the Middle East’s role as a refugee-hosting region and was followed by a range of measures to prevent onwards migration to Europe, including bilateral treaties to return those who succeeded. Despite more than one million people reaching Europe in 2014–15, border closures, naval missions, and off-shore processing have since reduced the number of entrants and deterred many from trying.

The post-2015 period has seen a re-bordering of Europe and collapse of the internal asylum procedures enshrined in the Dublin Agreement. Member states have violated their responsibilities under the EU’s common asylum system, turning away migrants and refugees at the borders, as well using ʻpush backsʼ and ʻhot returnsʼ in combination with fortified borders to stop migrants in their tracks. There has also been a growth of a militarized border management in the form of a global border and migration industry of professional actors – companies, firms, and agencies – that build and operate detention centers, exercise border control and carry out deportations.

The EU also entered into several new agreements, so-called ʻcompactsʼ, which provide financial support to host countries to limit secondary migration to Europe, which has been claimed as a win-win solution for both parties. This is strongly linked to the role of the EU in managing migration, taking steps to secure cooperation from sending and host states as part of externalizing Europe’s border management. This made the countries in the Middle East an integral part of the EU’s migration management policy and turned host countries into buffer states. By 2016 the Middle East refugee ʻcrisisʼ had been contained, migration routes closed, informal shelters removed, and border controls reinstated.

Continental containment

At the same time, there has been a massive increase in European centers, shelters, and (informal) camps, both in capitals and border areas. In this way, unwanted populations are contained, immobilized, and kept in check by an institutionalized landscape of camps that has been referred to as ʻcampizationʼ. In this way, Europe’s camps and border zones function as an outer perimeter delimiting migration from the Middle East.

Refugee camps minimally involve entry and exit controls (walls, fences), ID verification (biometrics), and humanitarian aid to sustain livelihoods. The rapid growth of refugee camps in Middle East host states,[ii] both formal and informal, has been coupled with the many more living in urban areas and cities who likewise face restrictions on labor, mobility, and residency. Both groups depend on parallel systems for food, housing, and healthcare under the auspices of the UN system and are funded by a large number of donors supporting the Syrian response plan, an aid architecture that underwrites humanitarian containment in the Middle East buffer states.

The measures put in place to prevent refugees and migrants, both in and out of camps, from leaving the region and returning those that do, mean that the Middle East region has become a zone of containment, where millions are to a large degree prevented from leaving and remaining displacement indefinitely. Continental containment represents a new response to mass migration, one that differs from earlier forms of crises responses in its geographic reach, the magnitude people interred and the range of measures – economic (humanitarian), political, and legal – used to effect it. The policy implications of regional containment are dire, with the Middle East turned Europe’s refugee and migrant hosting zone, thereby preventing many from accessing legitimate asylum procedures or being pushed back or returned without due process.

Policy implications

Containment places an unfair burden on Middle East ʻhost countriesʼ, neighbouring countries turned permanent holding zones and buffer states, with the EU evading its responsibilities under international law by paying third countries to serve as long-term hosting solutions. The multi- and bilateral donors not only use aid to sustain refugee livelihoods but compensates ʻhost statesʼ for serving as ʻsinksʼ, a strategy that is miscast as strengthening resilience but is primarily a containment strategy that could endanger the stability of host states.

The UN’s humanitarian appeal for the Syria crisis (3RP) the largest in the organization’s history for a single crisis. The UNHCR and aid agencies manage huge aid portfolios that sustain refugee livelihoods but also serve to immobilize them, a process compounded by donor fatigue as time passes.[iii] With more funds to return migrants and less to ʻhost countriesʼ, the result is a well-known scenario: indefinite containment and impoverishment.

This gives the Middle East camp-like features, where mixed groups of refugees and migrants subsist on humanitarian aid, with restrictions on mobility in “host states” and internationally, across regions and divides. This represents a move from Africa termed a ʻcontinent of campsʼ, to the Middle East region as a new ʻcontinent as campʼ. In this way, continental encampment is an inevitable result of preventing refugees and migrants from reaching Europe and makes humanitarian containment a new type of ʻdurable solutionʼ to mass migration in the form of a regional Supercamp.


[i] The EU’s migration policies, global agendas and common asylum system (CEAS) have been overhauled several times and in 2020 adopted a New Pact on Migration and Asylum.

[ii]Despite Lebanon’s ʻnon-camp policyʼ camp-like settlements exist both in urban and rural areas.

[iii] UK slashes aid to Syria despite direct appeals from UN,