Syrian refugees arrive at a beach on the Greek island of Kos after crossing a part of the Aegean sea / FreedomHouse / flickr
You would have to be utterly heartless not to feel pity for the thousands of people pouring out of the conflict in Syria each week. It is the saddest part of the current mass migration of people into Europe which is a—if not the—moral challenge of our lifetimes, and the biggest movement of people in Europe since World War II.
The Ba’athist state, which for decades kept a lid on internecine violence in an artificial country born of the Franco-British carve-up of the Levant, has come apart at its seams. The security apparatus of the Al Assads and their Alawite clan has been trounced, firstly by moderate rebels in the north, then by hardened jihadis from the Al Nusra Front (al Qaeda in the Levant), and now by the brutal fighters of Da’esh, the Islamic State. Syria is now a patchwork of territories and competing groups fighting brutally for each village, town, suburb and city. What was once a country firmly in the Second World is now perhaps the worst place on Earth. It is no place for a family to live, and around a quarter of the country’s population of 20 million have left.
Hence the rivers of people flowing into Europe. Some 40 percent of the people trying to cross the Mediterranean are Syrian, going either the long route via Libya and Egypt and the extremely dangerous journey to Lampedusa and Malta, or the short route through Turkey in a bid to land on a Greek tourist island off the coast.
Where else do you go when so much of the Arab world is also on fire (Iraq, Libya) or unsafe (Egypt)? Turkey claims it has reached saturation point with almost two million displaced Syrians within its borders, not including refugees from Iraq. A further 1.1m are in Lebanon, meaning that one in every five people within that country’s borders is a refugee. Two-thirds of a million have fled to Jordan, where their prospects are grim. Five million have not even escaped, but remain trapped as internally displaced peoples.
In an excellent recent article, Paul Collier makes the case that the Syrian stream of migrants is different to all the other major sources of people setting out to cross the Mediterranean. Sub-Saharan Africans fundamentally chose to seek a new home in Europe and leave their habitable, albeit poor and not necessary peaceful nor stable countries in search of a better life.
Syrians have no choice. The countries around them are closing their borders, fearing the destabilising effect of taking too many into camps dotted along the borders. Millions of restless people cooped up in remote camps for an indefinite period of time makes for a tinderbox, with no end in sight. Collier rather depressingly notes that “conflicts in middle–income countries seldom last more than a decade and this one has already been running for four years”, implying that six more years of chaos and misery should be expected.
Collier points out that countries like Jordan, which have potential sources of employment in disused or underused industrial sites, also have delicate social orders which makes integration through employment impossible. He instead proposes that Syrian businesses which have been forced out of their domestic markets should be encouraged to set up temporarily wherever their owners and employees have ended up, reducing skills fade and keeping the business going for the time when the refugees can return. Doing something in a refugee camp, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing at all.
This idea is a good one, and, along with assistance to Arab countries to help them absorb those fleeing the conflict, Western countries should do everything they can to support Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Saudi Arabia should also host many thousands of refugees, given its size and wealth. The Saudis have limited their support thus far to cash remittances to Syria’s immediate neighbours, aware that Syrian refugees would clash with their repressive internal social regime. This must change.
It is far better to keep the Syrian refugees as close to their home as possible. This speeds up their return: emotionally and psychologically, it is less costly to leave a UNHCR camp in the desert than it is to leave a suburb of Paris or Berlin.
Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt (where some refugees have ended up) are Arab and thus far closer to Syria in culture. Muslim Turkey, where many speak Arabic as a second language in the southern regions, along the border with Syria, and especially down the Hatay panhandle, is not far behind. Suez or is closer to Syria than Slough in so many ways.
Per capita, it must surely be cheaper for the European States to pay for the upkeep of a family in the Syrian penumbra than it is for them to be put up in a hostel in the Continent, and it is definitely cheaper than housing them here in Britain.
The people who the European states should consider absorbing, through the grant of asylum, are many of the 2.2m Syrian Christians who have been particularly heavily attacked in the war. Christians have been protected by the Al Assads, and are now the specific targets of Al Nusra and Da’esh.
In post-war Syria, it will be extremely difficult for Christians to thrive as a minority without a powerful Muslim entity protecting them. The Alawites will be a spent force, and the secular Sunni parties will have little incentive to assist them, in the same way that Sunni tribes in Iraq, and both Sunni and Shia politicians in Baghdad, have left Iraqi Christians unarmed and unprotected. For many Christians, post-war Syria will hold little for them, and there are scant few other places in the Middle East where they can settle and assimilate.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London. This article has been republsihed with permission from Quadrapheme.