• Omar Imady

Exploring the Syrian Refugee Crisis

The humanitarian crisis affecting Syria is now at the forefront of policy-planning and revision at governmental and non-governmental levels, and within international organisations. The British government is expected to make some significant revisions to its position regarding the relocation of refugees from Syria over the coming days.

The debate in UK political circles focuses on several issues, including:

• The impact of the short-term approach to the immediate crisis affecting Syrians who have already arrived in Europe, versus the longer-term approach of improving conditions, services and protection in camps bordering Syria, (i.e. Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon).

• The question of whether Arab states can do/should do more to respond to the humanitarian crisis, beyond its current approach of financial aid to refugee camps and related emergency aid.

• Whether at a political level action needs to move beyond the debates on the geo-strategic reasons behind this crisis (e.g. Russia and Iran’s support/actions in Syria), and enable/encourage the beginnings of a broader humanitarian collaboration which may lead to the longer-term goals of an end to the conflict.

• Whether the debate as regards the position of migrants in Europe needs to focus less on the legal status, and more on humanitarian principles of protection and urgent relief of suffering.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have also been engaging in these debates, and as we see on the news, the national societies in the UK, Austria, Italy, Germany, Greece etc. are at the forefront of much of the emergency humanitarian response in Europe. I quote a recent opinion piece by IFRC:

“The migration issue is rooted in conflict, poverty and persecution, yet people on the move are victims of smugglers, traffickers and governments who fail to prioritise their basic need. They are often treated like criminals. We urge for a humanitarian approach to tackling the vulnerabilities of migrants, rather than focusing on their legal status” (IFRC Opinion Piece, June 2015).

Against this background, we asked our scholars for their thoughts and insights on the Syrian refugee crisis.


September 13, 2015

Alasdair Gordon-Gibson -

From Sympathy to Empathy: a call for changed discourse

There needs to be two fundamental shifts in response to the growing number of desperate migrants fleeing suffering, fear and persecution in Syria. Firstly, a shift in the nature of public and political discourse on the understandings of what is meant by asylum-seekers and refugees. Some senior politicians have declaimed the ‘political cowardice’ and lamentable leadership shown to date by the governments of many countries in Europe, including that of the UK, which granted asylum to just 14,000 people in 2014, compared to the 47,500 taken by Germany. But the solution is not to ‘name and shame’ countries for failing to do more, in the hope that there will be a uniform expression of remorse that allows for a short-term solution to shelter the thousands fleeing conflict. A measured approach, which places compassion rather than fear at the heart of the discourse, needs to be carefully balanced with a plan of action which recognises that not all countries in Europe have equal resources and historical narratives to open doors in a uniform pledge of support to quotas. The richer countries of Western Europe must take the lead in agreeing prompt and decisive action according to their own capacities, but we must not expect the same shared responsibility to be welcomed or to be achievable by some of the newer members of the EU, emerging from a very different historical and political environment. Furthermore, it is important that this changed discourse is not restricted to Europe. Figures compiled by UNHCR show the global disparities in the numbers of refugees being granted asylum in countries across the world calculated on a per capita basis of its population, and the variations between rich countries in both the southern and northern hemispheres is striking. Key to enabling this shift towards a more enlightened discourse is to move away from a focus on the ‘legality’ of people seeking asylum, towards a less fearful discussion on the principles of common humanity. In a recent opinion piece written by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) it observed that “the migration issue is rooted in conflict, poverty and persecution, yet people on the move are victims of smugglers, traffickers and governments who fail to prioritize their basic needs. They are often treated like criminals.” We need to support its call to prevent their exploitation and exposure, and focus on the need to meet the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants seeking protection.

Secondly, there is need for better-defined and achievable strategies to enable prompt action in support of those seeking asylum and protection to accompany an empathetic change in discourse. These must not ignore reaching agreement on questions around legal status, though this should not be its primary focus. Structures and mechanisms must be put in place to allow a coherent response that will enable the refugees to have agency over their own recovery of dignity and the reconstruction of their livelihoods. Most have sought shelter in neighbouring countries. The hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have risked everything to reach shelter in Europe and across the world have done so as a last-resort, driven by despair and loss of opportunity to find protection nearer to home. Once peace returns, and some tolerable level of stability is re-established in Syria, then many – perhaps most – of these families will return to rebuild their lives there. Until then, the world needs to show its humanity.


September 23, 2015

Josepha Ivanka Wessels -

Expect a lot more refugees coming from Syria …

Over 500.000 videoclips uploaded on YouTube to document the Syrian war could not achieve what one single picture of a Syrian boy on a Turkish beach did; to create collective global sympathy for the Syrian civilians who are fleeing war and destruction. The images and video recordings of volunteers receiving refugees at train stations in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe, definitely restored some of my faith in humanity. Despite the indefensible attitude of countries like Macedonia and Hungary, so much people-to-people solidarity crossing borders, has outpoured on-line, in the streets and on the news, that it warms the heart. But with Putin now heavily involved in Syria coordinating his moves with the Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, it does not seem that the stream of refugees from Syria will stop any time soon. In fact, I think there will be a lot more Syrian refugees. Once the new Russian weapons are going to be used to bomb in opposition areas, a true renewed exodus of people can be expected.

With his most recent visit to Moscow, Netanyahu has secured a promise that Russia will make sure there will be no consequences for Israel. Putin has always been a fan of Israeli politicians such as rightwing extremist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and he shares Lieberman’s Islamophobia. Israeli officials have never made it a secret that they prefer Bashar al-Assad at Syria's helm above everything else, so there is no disagreement between Netanyahu and Putin on that subject. Putin will do everything in his power to keep Netanyahu and Israel happy and coordinate to prevent Hizbollah from getting more military power which could be turned to Israel. Assad has not retaliated against any Israeli bombings inside Syria despite his propaganda that he will do this "at the right moment". With Assad stripped of his strategic chemical weapons, which were originally meant for Israel, the Israeli strategy is mainly to keep Putin on their side with regard to preventing Hizbollah gaining military power. The question is how the Americans will react on the increased involvement of Russia in the Syrian war and Putin’s unconditional support for Bashar al-Assad. It is a bleak and worrying outlook for an already damaged, quartered and suffocated country and for the world’s security. With so many different international actors having appeared on the Syrian stage, are we at the brink of a major armed conflict akin to a World War ? I really hope not. But at the moment, I am not very optimistic.

Almost five years into the Syrian war and the world is faced with the largest humanitarian disaster affecting Europe since World War II. With tears in our eyes, we watched the iconic picture of the Syrian boy on the beach, we hear the stories of the march of refugees, we watched the appalling treatment of refugees in Hungary. I write this blogpost from Sweden, where we take Syrians up, we talk to them, we receive them at the trainstations, give them food, offer our houses, give our clothes. This is history unfolding and it will become a major shift in Swedish society, for the better. Syrians are in general great people to have as your friends and those who arrive in Sweden bring with them skills, fresh minds, creativity and talent. A good example of this is the story of Abdallah Musa, a 19-year old Syrian judoka from Yarmouk who arrived in Sweden less than a year ago, has taught himself Swedish in 6 months and has already won a gold medal at Swedish national level. Or the father from Deir Ezzor with his son who got tripped by a Hungarian camera woman and now lives in Spain after he got offered a job as a coach at a soccer academy. The Syrian refugees want to learn, to contribute and to work. But most of all, they want safety.

But who is ultimately responsible for the Syrian refugee crisis? Why do Syrians flee their country? Two major factors are important to realise why Syrians are fleeing their country; Assad and ISIS. The Assad regime kills seven times more civilians that ISIS though, and the regime barrelbombs are among the major factors why Syrians are forced to leave their homes.

In 2012, I realised the situation was becoming dire for many of my friends in Syria who were working in media or art. Regular arrests, threats and also aerial bombardments had forced some of them to already flee to countries like Egypt or Lebanon. So when the opportunity arose, I gave information to apply for scholarships to Sweden. Some wanted to come, others stayed behind in Syria, believing the revolution would be successful, even inviting me back to Syria to celebrate in Damascus after the uprisings. Now, as my Syrian friends, know I live in Sweden, I get requests from Syrian friends, from all walks of life who want to get out of the country. Some are on the road, stuck in Hungary, some are contemplating their travel route in Turkey or Lebanon. We all do what we can, giving information, inviting for scholarships, raising funds, donating clothes, receiving them at our house once they arrived in Sweden. The Syrian community in Sweden has grown steadily with an influx of young academics, talented writers, journalist, chemical biologists, graphic designers. They are all among my Syrian friends now in Sweden.

When I travelled to Syria in the summer of 2014, I arrived at the Bab al Hawa border crossing where I had to wait for several hours. In the meantime, large groups of refugees arrived to cross the border as well. They came from all over Syria; Homs, Deir Ezzor, Hama, Aleppo, Raqqa even as far as Hasakah. All of the refugees wanted to leave their homeland for a place of safety. It was overwhelming, so many people and I felt I was observing history. I visited Atmeh camp, where those who have no passports wait to be smuggled out but many have stayed in the olive groves and in four years time, Atmeh is now a camp that has mushroomed into a small city close to the border with Turkey.

Figure 1 Atmeh Refugee camp in Syria, near the Turkish border in 2014 photo:J.Wessels

Figure 2 Syrian refugees waiting to cross to Turkey at the Bab Al Hawa border in 2014 photo: J.Wessels

Figure 3 A lady from Hama bringing her own homemade food into Turkey, “in case the Turkish food was not tasty”, she said. photo:J.Wessels

The recent involvement of Russia is not the only reason why I think that the Syrian stream of refugees will not stop any time soon. The involvement of the USA in Syria is likewise not very promising.

Indirectly and covertly, Obama has given Assad impunity to use every means possible to kill civilians except not with chemicals. When the US agreed on the chemical weapons deal with the Assad regime, the world should also have rejoiced, like the Tehran deal. Rejoice that Assad doesn’t have the ability to use the strategic weapons (meant for Israel) anymore. But that deal was not meant to protect the Syrian people either. It was solely out of strategic interest for the US, read; to protect the borders of Israel. Israel is keen to consolidate its illegal 1981 annexation of the occupied Golan Heights into becoming entirely under Israeli sovereignty, the backdoor “Peace-for-Golan” with the added advantage that oil reserves are to be exploited. Therefore keeping Assad at his seat whilst the rest of Syria is being destroyed is entirely in Israel’s interest. Removing the strategic chemical weapons meant for Israel, was part of that interest back in 2013.

After the chemical deal, Assad continued to kill Syrian civilians with other means; barrelbombs, scuds, aerial bombardments, snipers, torture jails. You name it and Assad knows how to order his army to kill his enemies. With the rise of ISIS, who capture the limelight with their brutal beheadings of Western journalists, implementing a vicious dictatorship called “Islamic State” and leaving a trail of destruction of cultural heritage, the world’s media is focused on them but they do not kill as many as Assad. My Syrian contacts from Raqqa say they fled because of both ISIS and Assad; Assad uses Baathist ideology, ISIS Islamic ideology but they both use the same jails, they told me.

To no apparent avail, the international coalition started bombing ISIS strongholds inside Syria a year ago, in seeming coordination with the Assad regime’s airforce as the Western and Gulf airplaines are now daily penetrating Syrian sovereign airspace, but they run no risk of being shot down by the Assad regime. In fact, Assad does nothing to stop the airplanes and for Syrians on the ground, the direct or indirect coordination between the two airforces is kind of obvious.

It seems in Syria there is only an emerging choice between “Pax Putin”or “Pax Obama” and it is brought by aerial bombardments focused on the eradication of ISIS as a main condition for peace in Syria. Assad is of a second concern for both super powers and the United States is careful not to upset Iran too much by demanding the removal of Assad as a condition for “Pax Obama”. The White House has won support for passage of the Iran deal through congress. If the deal is done Iran will be blocked from ever getting a nuclear bomb, the world should rejoice. Well, at least the USA and their allies should rejoice. Indeed Iran cannot kill and threaten anymore with a nuclear bomb. In fact, Iran never really did threaten the West with a nuclear bomb. It was always Netanyahu who threatened the West with his whimsy cartoons that the Iranian nuclear bomb was around the corner and ready to obliterate Israel and thus also the West. But what value does this deal have for Iran?

First of all, the deal is set to relieve sanctions and can potentially open up Iran to the global oil and energy market. Western and American oil companies are already standing in line to invest and produce oil and gas from Iran. This will generate a major boost to the Iranian economy which has been under stress of years of sanctions. So for Iran, this is in fact an extremely good deal. Despite the resistance of hardline Iranian Mollahs, who see any deal with the “Big Satan” as bad, the Iranian government should be very happy with the deal. Secondly, the Iranian people will be happy as finally the sanctions that are due to be lifted, had been restraining their lives for many years. They will have more room to maneuver for investments and buy nice things. More room for economic development. So all fine, Americans happy, Iranians happy. We will all have peace and stability as long as ISIS can be eradicated. I would not be surprised if the US will contemplate coordinating with Putin how to get rid of ISIS, which is now conveniently constructed as the world biggest security threat at the existential level.

Thus goes the narrative, ISIS is the biggest existential threat to the world, causing the major flow of Syrian refugees and therefore the US and its allies should bomb ISIS, if need be with Assad’s help, as so-called British “Syria Expert” Patrick Cockburn advised last week in front of the UK parliamentary commission. However, the West and the US consistently ignore Assad’s genocidal massacres going on in Syria, that it is not ISIS but Assad who kills most Syrians, the Assad-regime kills seven times more people with barrelbombs and other means than ISIS. But what we see now emerging in Syria is a seeming convergence of Assad propaganda, Putin’s Islamophobia and US security narratives justifiying the killing of Syrians out of self-defense against ISIS, which could mean even more devastating for Syrian civilians. So they will go on the move to safer havens.

Therefore, with the success of the Iran deal and the unwavering support of Tehran and Moscow to the Butcher of Damascus, we can expect a LOT more Syrian refugees to come to Europe. On top of that the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia will not waver and continue their bombing campaigns against ISIS strongholds with the dreaded collateral damage of Syrian civilian casualties. Turkey’s airforce has started new bombing campaigns against ISIS and PKK. France, UK and others will soon join. Israel does its occasional pinpointed bit of the emerging international trend to bomb Syria. Therefore this refugee stream is indeed not going to stop any time soon. What is needed yesterday is to stop the violence from all sides and first of all to stop the death and destruction that comes from above, the barrelbombs and other kinds of aerial bombardments. As soon as there are no bombs thrown in any part of Syria anymore, the flow of refugees will stifle.


September 24, 2015

Ola Rifai -

The refugee crisis and the huge sinking boat

The devastating images of Aylan Kurdi’s little body washed up on the Turkish shore triggered waves of fury around the globe and deepened the division among European nations over the approaches to address the increasing influx of refugees. Aylan Kurdi was a three year old Syrian boy from Kurdish origin whose family, like many other families decided to flee the violence and believed that the sea might be safer than the Sky which rains barrel bombs in war-torn Syria. Yet their journey in search for life ended in death. As a result, Ayaln died alongside his older brother and mother after their boat sunk in the Mediterranean. Aylan’s pictures occupied the headlines for weeks and became the icon for the Syrian refugee crisis which is ranked as the worst since World War II.

According to the UNHCR some four million refugees live in Syria’s neighbouring countries; Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Unsurprisingly, many of them seek to reach Europe illegally for better living conditions. Indeed, the Syrian exodus into Europe was growing rapidly during the last couple of months and reached a peak in September when Germany recorded 100,000 refugees, and Austria received 20,000 just for the last weekend. In this situation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended the Dublin Regulation allowing Syrians who reach Germany to apply for asylum regardless of their first point of entry in the EU. This step by Merkel provoked heated debates across Europe where some observe it as heroic and a moral step that recovers the European role in the Syrian crisis. While others, mainly, in Central Europe, criticised it and accused Merkel of challenging the ‘Christian face’ of Europe. Furthermore, Merkel called on the EU to establish a quota system to relocate some 120,000 asylum seekers in Europe arguing that the refugee crisis is a collective responsibility.

And here, questions of who holds the responsibility for this catastrophic crisis arise. Simply enough, the refugee crisis is one implication of the Syrian war and hence the responsiblity for it lies with who is responsible for the Syrian crisis in general, and this is a very thorny issue. The truth of the matter is, violence is the main reason which drives Syrians out of their homeland. During the early stage of the conflict, the Syrian regime was the solely responsible for this violence. Yet, later on, armed groups mushroomed and took part in violence. As we all are aware of, the Assad regime and the various armed groups are supported by international and regional powers (such as Russia and Iran on the regime side, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey on the opposition side), and hence all of these actors share the responsibility as regards the Syrian refugee crisis. More to the point, the International Community holds responsibility as it should have designed long-term strategies to tackle the refugee dilemma, and more importantly, it should have worked effectively to address the Syrian conflict from its very beginning. Therefore, the axiomatic lesson that one should learn from this crisis is that fatal consequences of war could be avoided by deescalating the conflict and seeking to limit its effects before they go beyond the border and beyond control. A political approach combined with limited military action toward the Syrian war would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and prevented the collapse of a nation. A strategic plan for refugees, which exceeds sending food baskets and blankets to refugee camps, would have kept thousands of refugees out of Western shores. Here it should be stressed that the key for the refugee crisis is not in Europe, it is back home in Syria. As a 13 year old Syrian refugee eloquently told reporters in Budapest; “stop the war in Syria and we do not go to Europe”. Certainly, the ideal solution for the refugee crisis is to end the violence in Syria. Yet, since no one has the magic stick to abolish ISIS, unite the various armed groups, create a reliable political opposition, and implant national unity among all Syrians, the violence will not stop overnight.

Nevertheless, in the meantime crucial steps toward decreasing the violence and curing the refugee crisis could be taken and could pave the way to end the Syrian war. First and foremost, is enforcing a no-fly zone over the whole of Syria which would stop the barrel bombs and scud missiles and thus, it would render a relative safety. Second, is to establish buffer zones for refuges inside Syria. Indeed, talks about creating buffer zones in the north and in the south were taking place throughout the conflict and were enhanced this summer but it seems that this is yet to be approved among regional and international players. Besides, the dozens of Russian jets that were deployed in Latakia earlier this month handicap the possibility of a no-fly zone. However, arguably this deployment does not denote an acceleration on the ground since all actors are adhered to the rules of the game. So it could be perceived as twisting mussels ahead of Putin 's arrival in New York this week, and also an assurance for all actors including the Syrian regime and Iran that any negotiations should first be approved by the Russians. Hence, the possibility of a no-fly zone is still on the table and it would significantly decrease the influx of refugees, aside from changing the balance of power in this bloody conflict. Although, the tragic influx of refugees might pressure the international community to find a political solution for a resolution in Syria, the realpolitik of actors involved in this war is based on self-interest and the four year old conflict proved that their policy would not be changed by any humanitarian cause, neither the chemical weapons nor the refugees’ sinking boats. The, truth is that Syria itself is turning into a huge sinking boat while regional and international players are struggling to rebalance their power.


September 27, 2015

Hanlie Booysen -

The refugee crisis and its global implications

The Syrian refugee crisis brought the Syrian conflict to Europe. Large numbers of Syrian refugees were no longer only a feature of the Bakaa valley in Lebanon or border towns in Jordan and Turkey, but became a reality in Stockholm, Sofia and Munich. Next, the refugee issue was placed on the agenda of the European Union (EU) and became a policy issue in countries as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The challenges facing policy makers on this issue are not all new, but might offer a new opportunity to deal with some previously unresolved matters:

First, the refugee crisis highlights the need to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The international inaction on the Syrian conflict might not be the cause of the refugee crisis, but the stalemate that developed very early on in the Security Council on the conflict in Syria certainly contributed thereto. The international community’s failure to effectively deal with the rapid militarisation of the Syrian conflict is reflected in the absence of any UNSC resolution in the first 12 months of the Syrian uprising. A failure both in terms of the UNSC mandate and the systematic destruction of Syria.

Second, the move by European governments to the political right and the fear of “the other” amongst its citizens have undermined the leadership that the European Union can and should provide to deal with the refugee crisis. The distinction between “good refugees” in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and “bad refugees” i.e. those refugees who are making their own way to ‘a new life’ in Europe is a thin disguise for self-interest and Islamophobia.

Third, at least 18 Million Syrians remain in Syria and are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The interests of external parties in the Syrian conflict and the militarisation thereof have blurred a clear line between a political and a military solution to the conflict. The recent military build-up by Russia demonstrates the linkage between political interests and the military capacity of the various groups fighting in Syria. The ongoing destruction of infrastructure and the ever-increasing threat to civilians demand more effective humanitarian assistance. However, if the official response to the refugee crisis is anything to go by, then those Syrians still inside the country have little hope but to survive by their own wits.

Fourth, the approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with UNWRA serve as an indictment against the international community’s inability to find a just and sustainable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over 67 years, an average lifetime. Failing the more than 4 million Syrian refugees now will not only influence the Syria of tomorrow, but the world.


September 29, 2015

Jasmine Gani -

Can the EU be hospitable?

The recent refugee crisis in Europe has been an embarrassing and damaging episode for the EU, which prides itself on its humanitarian credentials. The awful and tragic image of the little boy Alan Kurdi that went viral across social media initially jolted European consciences and spurred a host of action and U-turns on the part of some countries. Most notable of these was Germany, which took in 100,000 refugees in August and pledged to increase its spending by €6bn to handle an expected total of 800,000. German citizens complemented their government’s policy by standing in stations, ports and football stadia, holding up signs of “Refugees welcome”; some families offered refugees a place to stay in their homes. France pledged to receive 24,000 refugees over the next two years. The UK, meanwhile, having previously refused to receive any refugees from Syria, agreed to receive 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years.

This change in heart by some European states, such as the UK, was only prompted by public outrage, particularly after the photograph of young Alan was published. Prior to that, however, the refugee crisis was no less urgent or desperate. For weeks, the anger and frustration had been spilling over into confrontation between migrants and border police at Calais in France. French and British citizens attempted to show solidarity with the migrants, most of whom were refugees and asylum seekers, by providing food, clothing and tents, often to be stopped by the authorities on the pretext that such activities would only ‘encourage’ greater flows of migration. In Hungary, Keleti train station has become a makeshift camp for hundreds of beleaguered refugees; on several occasions they were duped into boarding a train that they thought would take them to Austria, only to be transported to a remote Hungarian detention centre.

Despite the rise in interest and generosity displayed by Europe’s governments and public, the refugees’ plight remains dire. Just this week disturbing footage emerged of refugees, including children, being beaten by riot police stationed on the Hungarian border. Similar stories of border police overwhelmed by the crisis have been mirrored elsewhere in Europe. Even Germany now appears to be taking a step back from its initial generosity, closing its borders in the face of increasing political pressure, and triggering similar responses by Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands in contradiction of the Schengen agreement allowing freedom of movement.

In the midst of the crisis, families have been split up; lack of food, shelter, clean clothes, or safety, blights those who have already had to flee from conflict and torture; many have been forced to turn back. The father of Alan and Galip Kurdi, for example, had already escaped Assad’s torture cells in Damascus, then driven out again by ISIS in the North, before he tried to make the disastrous boat-trip with his family across the Aegean to Greece. The young boys and their mother were just three of many hundreds who have perished attempting to make the sea-crossing. 200 are estimated to have died in a boat that capsized in August this year; a boat carrying 700 people and another carrying 400 people capsized in April; the UN refugee agency has estimated 2500 people have died this year alone trying to make the crossing. The cases mentioned here only made the headlines because the numbers were so large – but many smaller boats disappear without any media attention.

Evidently the large numbers of refugees attempting to enter Europe, as well as the number of fatalities, is not a new phenomenon despite the flurry of public and media attention in recent weeks; rather it has been the somber backdrop to the Mediterranean for the past 18 months. The reasons for this trend are to some extent outside the EU’s control. The push factors are apparent: devastating conflict in Syria, whose civilians constitute the overwhelming majority of the refugees, but also war and political instability in Eritrea, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, and North and South Sudan have led to a global rise in displaced people, the worst on record since the Second World War. Most of these refugees have already sought refuge in neighbouring countries: Lebanon, for example, a fifth of the UK’s size, has already taken in over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, in addition to the existing Palestinian refugee population in the country. Refugees now make up a fifth of the population in Lebanon. It is a similar story in Turkey, which has received more refugees than any other country (over 1.9 million refugees), Jordan (over 628,000 refugees) and Iraq (248,503). Gulf States have come in for scrutiny and criticism for not doing more, most are not signatories to the UN convention on refugees – although in the past week Saudi Arabia has claimed in its defence that it has provided shelter to 100,000 Syrians and provided millions of dollars in aid. It should be noted that almost all these countries have deep socio-economic and political problems of their own – the basic hospitality of neighbouring countries, though strained, has in most cases not been in short supply.

The spotlight then falls on Europe. It is notable that the EU is one of the largest donors of refugee aid in the world; however, with refugee resettlement it has fared poorly. European countries collectively have taken in far fewer refugees in comparison with those listed above, particularly in proportion to their size and relative wealth. This despite the EU’s commitment to support the Middle East and North Africa in ‘soft security’ issues, as laid out in its European Neighbourhood Policy and the renewed Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Support for refugees would typically fall under its humanitarian remit, and yet most EU member-states have been slow to come forward with substantial aid or to open up borders to receive refugees. A wide discrepancy has emerged between member state contributions in aid and resettlement, with some member-states like Germany and Sweden volunteering to receive thousands of refugees, while others such as Denmark and Slovakia are resistant to taking any (although Slovakia stated it would be willing to make an exception for Syria’s Christian refugees). This has highlighted a structural incongruence at the EU when it comes to issues such as refugee resettlement. The EU might agree on policies and norms at the institutional level, but when it comes to implementation it is almost impossible for Brussels to impose those norms in the face of national resistance, or unequal resources and capacity across member states.

What then stands in the way of a more harmonised and constructive European strategy towards the global increase in refugees? Since the financial crisis, Europe’s economic resources have of course been depleted. Welfare, defence and overseas budgets have been substantially cut as governments across Europe have put in place austerity programmes. This in turn has had a knock-on effect in humanitarian provision for refugees. However, there has also been a political and cultural shift towards a more exclusive, hostile brand of nationalism across Europe. Right wing groups of varying extremes, old and newly formed, have seen a rise in public support: UKIP in the UK, Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the NPD in Germany and the Danish People’s Party are just a few of those gaining attention in elections. Mutual trust and consensus between member states has also broken down as states look inward and blame one another for exploiting collective resources and ‘not pulling their weight’. Europeans have been in no mood to show hospitality towards each other, let alone to those further ashore.

In the midst of such trends there has been a concurrent rise in the ‘politics of fear’, chiefly targeting racial and cultural diversity. Even prior to the deadly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris, various commentators and even ‘mainstream’ politicians denounced multiculturalism, while laws have been passed to inhibit the visibility of religious difference. The discourse has become more and more polarised, less restrained, and in some cases reflected a dereliction of responsibility in the pursuit of free speech. An unavoidable connection exists between the increased intolerance towards difference within European society, and a lack of hospitality towards refugees.

The fervent political and public opposition towards any form of immigration has produced one of the most controversial policies to be adopted by the EU: since October 2014, Europe ended its ‘Mare Nostrum’ search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, which saved around 100,000 lives. The stark logic of this policy is to allow a few, or as it happens many, hundreds of migrants and refugees to perish in order to deter other would-be migrants from attempting entry. The fallacy of such a policy is that it assumes the migrants are leaving their home countries out of choice, and underestimates their desperation; tragically it has not stopped people from making the hazardous journey, and the numbers of people drowning has only increased. To treat the thousands of migrant deaths at sea as ‘ accidents’, as is often the case in political and media discourse, overlooks the political agency of the EU that enables this crisis to exist in the first place, but which also has the capacity to alter policy and possibly save thousands of lives.

The refugee crisis is not only a material and logistical one, but reflects the need for a deeper discussion about the EU’s ethical responsibilities and indeed Europe’s identity. Does Europe have a moral duty to open its borders to those in desperate need of safe haven? Moreover, can Europe offer long-term meaningful hospitality to those they receive, beyond just opening their borders? To do so political leaders and governments must have the courage to challenge the prevailing hostile discourse on refugees and migrants, which in some cases they helped to create; ordinary citizens too, would need to produce a momentum of public opinion – such as the recent solidarity protests in London and across the UK– to convince their governments, that refugees are indeed welcome.

This article was originally published on Euro Crisis in the Press: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/eurocrisispress/2015/09/21/can-the-eu-be-hospitable/


September 30, 2015

The Syria Crisis and The Refugee Disaster

Stéphane Valter (Senior Lecturer, University of Le Havre – France)

The West must respond to the refugee disaster with humanity. Aren’t we a rich continent? And don’t we pretend to possess a superior state of mind, with a global vision and a charitable Christian creed? Moreover, the number of refugees is not really huge compared to the total number of European people. One question remains: where will all these refugees settle? Probably not in Romania (although it is a nice country). If they are free to move where they want to, they will all end up in northern Europe. As a French citizen, finally, I do not mind if they all migrate to Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the like. But were they to come to France, this could pause a threat, because the economy is not that strong (unemployment, etc.) and because France already hosts the biggest Muslim community. Considering that the majority of refugees are Muslim, I suppose that Islam would be reinforced, and this may bring about negative consequences.

I have nothing against Islam since I’m in a way a Muslim myself. But it is obvious that many Muslims living in France do not adapt, neither to the political system nor to the customs, even if the majority of them have totally integrated and therefore given France a new blood that we desperately needed. Accepting vast contingents of Muslims without the required conditions may lead to dangerous results in the future. Opinion polls do show a reluctance to open our borders too much. And we are tired of Islamist attacks, not to mention suburbs or ghettos where native French people are not welcome. It’s a hard reality, but should we be blind? Our problems with immigration are due to many causes: economic slowdown essentially, but also to the proselytizing and even aggressive nature of Islam. Sad to say. Who has forgotten the recent story of Christian African refugees thrown into the sea by Muslim African migrants, only because they were dubbed infidels? Should we accept this kind of people? Europe needs strict laws and a lower level of tolerance (plus an economic boom) in order to integrate people who are obviously different, even if the next generation will certainly integrate smoothly.

I find it shameful that Saudi Arabia spends enormous sums of money to destroy Yemen, with no clear strategy, instead of spending this fortune on human development (through providing refugees with basic needs, and then education, work, etc.). But Syrians do not want to go to Saudi Arabia, because they know it is a corrupt and fascist country. The same can be said for the Gulf countries (which have financed dubious armed groups): why not accept refugees instead of spending lavishly on stupid projects and buying arms they can seldom operate? Because they are selfish. Turkey bears an important responsibility as well, since it has fuelled the conflict by letting in international terrorists. And now it gets rid of refugees to show Europe its discontent at not having been integrated into the European union!

Europe’s superiority lies in its broad-mindedness, in Christianity (or let’s call it the Christian heritage), in its humanism, contrary to many Muslim countries that are controlled by dictators who just want to preserve their own interests, as well as by very intolerant Islamic trends (which despise Christians, Jews, Alawites, Druses, Yazidis, etc., per se). Europe must control its borders while at the same time accept people who are threatened. But if they are just economic refugees, can we take them all? Concerning Syria, the best way would be to stop the conflict and reconstruct the infrastructure. Will Russia play a positive role? Certainly not, since it has started to hit targets which are not linked to the Islamic State. And the mayhem will probably continue.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies