Millions have fled civil war and radical insurgency in Syria, and hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in Western Europe, walking across half a continent and risking life and limb to get there. Why are they traveling so far, and how can Europe manage the influx when they arrive? Professor Emek Uçarer explains.
October 01, 2015, BY Matt Hughes
Bucknell University Professor Emek Uçarer, international relations, studies governance of immigration and asylum in the European Union (EU). She's been closely following the Syrian refugee crisis, the greatest test of those policies since the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. She explains the origins of the flood of refugees arriving at Western Europe's doorstep, what the EU is doing to manage the tide, and what might happen next.
Q: Civil war has been raging in Syria for nearly five years. Why did Europe begin seeing massive waves of refugees only in the last few months?
A: This is not just a European crisis; it's a refugee crisis of massive proportions. But part of the reason we're hearing about it is that there is a lot of media coverage of the events in Europe. People have been pouring out of Syria for some time. Four million have already left, and that hasn't just happened over the past summer. What we're seeing is that some of them are reaching Europe, which gets a lot more attention than, say, refugee camps in Lebanon.The conflict in Syria also has been getting worse. Fighting has intensified in almost all regions. This leads people to take risks to bring themselves and their families to safety. The economy is not doing well: There is massive unemployment and inflation, and the Syrian lira has lost 90 percent of its purchasing value. Syrians have to deal with many difficulties in their daily lives in addition to the violence: They might have power for two hours a day, four if they're lucky, and they have a serious shortage of access to clean water.
Most people have actually moved within Syria, and some have moved into neighboring states. Most of the internationally displaced Syrian people are currently in neighboring countries, not Europe, and there has been destabilization in some of those receiving countries, which prompts further migration. For example, a ceasefire between Kurdish separatist groups and the Turkish state has broken down. Life in Jordan and Lebanon isn't much better. A lot of refugees hosted in neighboring countries don't have much of a legal status to speak of. As a result, most of the arrivals into Europe are people trying to leave places where they had some kind of refuge and move elsewhere.
Q: How many refugees have left Syria for Western Europe so far? How many more might there be?
A: It's really difficult to tell with accuracy. About 2 million people have reached Turkey, but who knows how many have left to try to reach Europe? The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that about 8,000 are arriving daily. We know that Syria had about 22 million people, and roughly half have been displaced, both internally and internationally. About 4 million, by the U.N.'s numbers, are displaced internationally. Roughly 1.9 million are in Turkey; 1.1 million in Lebanon; 630,000 in Jordan; 130,000 in Egypt; and Iraq, which has its own problems, is hosting about 250,000 Syrians.
Somewhere between 6.5 and 8 million are displaced internally in Syria. They could be the next wave of people who feel they must leave the country altogether to seek protection elsewhere. There could be another several million if circumstances don't stabilize or improve in Syria.
Q: Many of these refugees seem to be heading for Germany. What makes Germany an attractive destination?
A: Germany is one of the preferred destinations for asylum-seekers, not just from Syria but overall. Asylum seekers might already have family there. The asylum review system is much more established in Germany than in Central and Eastern European countries, where administrative and legal capacities are lacking. The perception is that you'll get a better hearing in Germany than elsewhere.
Greece and Italy, which have been longtime participants in the global refugee protection regime too, have been receiving quite a few asylum seekers, but austerity measures have made it difficult for them to respond to spikes in asylum seekers. Central and Eastern European countries have capacity and legal infrastructure shortfalls. That leaves Scandinavia and Western Europe. Germany has a history in this area. When Yugoslavia broke apart, Germany took in most of the refugees from Bosnia.
Q: What do you make of Hungary's response to the crisis?
A: Refugees are protected populations under the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. Under this regime, arrivals from Syria and other conflict zones would qualify as asylum seekers: people who are seeking protection against their country of origin or residence because they claim a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) upholds the right to seek asylum, as does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The ECHR prohibits mass expulsions.
So the country in which these refugees seek asylum has to review each claim on the grounds allowed for under international law. But the trick is, in order to make that claim, the asylum seeker has to be outside the territory where they have a well-founded fear of persecution. If they can't make it into the territory of another state, they will generally be unable to lodge an asylum claim. Countries might seek to reduce this influx in various ways. For example, in Hungary, we are now seeing pushbacks: Razor-wire fences are being built on its borders with its neighbors, and border guards are sometimes forcibly pushing people back with water cannons and have been authorized to use rubber bullets.
Pushback strategies can also run afoul of another founding principal of the refugee protection regime, the prohibition against sending individuals back to places where their lives might be in danger. Pushback may result in chain deportations where people end up right back where they started, something that the Geneva Convention wants to avoid. Hungary has even gone as far as to say it will only take Christians. That can't be supported or justified under international law, either. So Hungary's conduct is problematic on a number of levels.
Q: Is the EU prepared to handle this volume of immigrants?
A: So far, the volume of arrivals has been relatively modest in comparison to what Syria's neighbors have taken in. Turkey, for example, has taken in almost 2 million Syrians. Lebanon, a country 1/100 the size the European Union with a population of 4.2 million, has taken on 1.1 million Syrians. Lebanon taking in 1.1 million is roughly equivalent to Germany taking 20 million, in terms of comparative numbers. But it seems Europe is not adequately prepared for the current arrivals. Nor is it clear that it has a workable and equitable burden-sharing mechanism to assist those who have arrived.
A lot of countries in Europe need help, especially Greece, Hungary and Italy. There is overcrowding in the reception centers in these countries. Very recently the EU decided to relocate a total of 160,000 asylum seekers from those countries to other European states based on a mandatory quota system. The conversation on this has been very difficult in the European Union, and has laid bare some important differences of opinion. But other countries need help too, including European countries who aren't EU members such as Serbia and the countries neighboring Syria who bear the immediate responsibility for caring for arrivals. Some of the conditions in camps and reception centers even in Europe are rather unfortunate. Amnesty International published a report in June saying there are overflowing toilets, power cuts and lack of hot water, pointing out that these fall well below acceptable standards.
We are also seeing a serious increase in deaths among those who arrive by sea. The death toll is approaching 3,000 as of September, whereas it was 3,500 for the whole of last year. Mare Nostrum, the search and rescue mission in the Mediterranean, which Italy was bearing the brunt of, was discontinued last year because of its cost and replaced by another operation, Triton. Triton has much more modest resources and narrower mandate than Mare Nostrum, making it essentially a maritime border-patrol project as opposed to a search-and-rescue one. Triton assets are not allowed to be more than 30 miles from the European coastline, which means that people perishing way out at sea are not really covered. It's certainly cheaper, but you also get what you pay for: The International Organization for Migration says that deaths at sea have risen nine times since the end of Mare Nostrum.
Q: What is the best path forward for the international community to handle this crisis?
A: Europe needs to allocate more resources immediately. It's time to recognize this summer's developments for what they are, a humanitarian crisis, and it's time for Europe to effectively lend a hand.
Where should these resources go? They could provide financial assistance to countries that are "first-responders." They should figure out an orderly identification and registration process so that people can lay some claim to refugee status later on. It's also important, albeit not politically attractive, to create safe and legal entry options into the EU. The lack of safe and legal routes plays into the hands of traffickers. Europe should consider temporary protection or temporary family reunification programs or issuing humanitarian visas.
The international community can also offer both financial resources and places for resettlement. And of course we need to attend to the immediate needs of people who are stranded. International organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, can aid with that, but they don't have an endless pot of gold, and they need financial assistance.
The international community should also step up efforts to de-escalate the situation in Syria and other places where there is massive displacement as a result of conflict. I'm not terribly optimistic about solving the Syrian problem soon, but every day the situation stays the same or gets worse is one more day when people are getting desperate enough to move, and frankly who can blame them?
Winter is upon us and the writing is on the wall. Sea crossings are going to become even more treacherous. We haven't seen a lot of deaths on the land routes, but with the coming of winter there is greater risk of exposure and illness. Europe needs to be prepared to deal with it. That requires resources, but also good will, and a political resolve.
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