J: Are Syrian refugees fleeing directly from Syria or from neighboring countries where they previously sought shelter? Is it primarily Syrians that are migrating or are there significant numbers of refugees from other countries?
SA: There are several factors that explain the two phenomena (greater numbers and westward flow from the EU perimeter states): the first is that the capacity of frontline host states to provide assistance to refugees from Syria has been exceeded. The second is that Italy and Greece can no longer accommodate the Dublin regulations, which require processing claims for asylum in the territory of the first EU member state entered by a refugee.
On the first point, it is important to remember that Turkey has registered 1.9 million refugees from Syria; Lebanon, 1.13 million; and Jordan 700,000–these figures reflect registered refugees, while the actual number in each of those countries is estimated to be much higher. The absorption capacity of each of these countries to provide assistance and protection to refugees has been far exceeded–even in Turkey, which is the largest and most economically stable of these host states. Jordan is among the most water-stressed countries in the world, and does not have the basic infrastructure to house more refugees. In Lebanon at this point, almost one in four residents is a refugee. The Syrian refugees are moving from these host states– where their needs can no longer be met, they are unable to work to support themselves, and their children and youth face a bleak future–to the states that offer the best prospect for safety and a stable life. Unfortunately, that means taking perilous journeys to move beyond a region that is unable or unwilling to provide what they need in the medium to long-term, and heading to a few states in Europe that are promising a future, primarily Germany and the Nordic states.
On the second point, the framework created by the 1985 and 1990 Schengen agreements, and the Dublin Conventions, particularly Dublin II (2003), have created a situation where the EU state in which refugees first arrive is obliged to process their asylum claims on its territory. In the Schengen states, the asylum process is placed on one member state based on certain factors. This framework has created what is often called “Fortress Europe,” in which the peripheral states bear the bulk of the refugee burden, preventing refugees from moving elsewhere even for reasons such as family reunification. The Dublin/Schengen obligations have created enormous tensions between the peripheral and central EU states because the peripheral states cannot absorb the numbers that are entering EU territory by themselves. This explains the responses of countries like Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovenia, which are trying to stop the flow from Serbia (which is not an EU member) and Croatia (an EU member that is not part of the Schengen agreement), in order to avoid the obligations to process asylum claims in their states.
Finally, the forced migrants are not just from Syria, but also other states with unresolved conflicts that are continuing to create refugees: Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan are the top refugee-producing countries after Syria. These non-Syrians have been hosted in the Middle East region, as well, but have also been unable to secure adequate assistance and protection, and are leaving the region for much the same reasons as Syrians.
AJ: According to the Economist, there were at least sixty million persons displaced due to conflict in 2014. In the period between 2013 and 2014, the number of refugees globally grew from 11.6 million to 14.4 million (a figure excluding 5.1 million Palestinian refugees). Forcible displacement of populations and refugee crises are the outcome of civil wars in Africa and Central America, and direct or indirect military interventions in the Middle East, namely in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
Refugee crises in the Middle East spiked as a result of the military interventions carried out as part of the so-called global war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. As of 2013, three million Iraqi refugees have left the country due the escalation of violence and lack of security. The number of Syrian refugees has now surpassed that of Afghanistan’s 2.59 million, reaching four million. In addition to refugees who have left Syria, there are an additional eleven million who are internally displaced. Of the four million Syrian refugees, the majority are in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. To reflect the scope of the global refugee crisis, many now describe it as an unprecedented “mass exodus” of people across the globe.
Most refugees look to Europe as their final destination with prospects for work, a better education, a health care system and, above all, safety. However, due to the very large numbers, many cannot apply for asylum at the embassies of EU member states in Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, forcing those who want to move to Europe to take their chances by various sea or land routes: the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey and Libya to Greece or Italy, and into eastern Europe on foot. Refugees trying to reach Europe are faced with physical hardships, crossing countries on foot, dealing with human smugglers, facing unfriendly borders and hostile border guards, and a real chance of being deported. With social media, images and videos of refugees’ struggles to get to Europe have become a daily reality that cannot be simply ignored. Concerned with refugees plight, many citizen-led campaigns (i.e. #WelcomeRefugees) in support of refugees have been launched globally, welcoming refugees, in spite of their governments’ efforts to block refugees’ entry. The public campaigns seem to have pressured governments and forced policy makers to address the crisis.
MAN: The most recent refugee flight to Europe started in 2012. Before that, it flowed gradually and then suddenly spiked. The largest number of those seeking refuge are Syrians but there are many other nationalities as well. I think we have a continuous rise of push factors and a sharp rise of pull factors. One pull factor is the realization that the chances of staying in countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden are actually rather good. Less than perfect communication from European, including German, immigration agencies has contributed to this perception. Thus people have gradually found out which countries are good to go to; someone knows a friend who made it to Sweden or Germany and got a free house and stipend and people start thinking of going there because it’s natural for people to seek better life conditions.
Other reasons also played into the growth of the critical mass movement to the EU. New routes were discovered; people share travel tips and advice; smugglers set up Facebook pages advertising their services; refugees who successfully obtain asylum display the stable living conditions they have achieved on social media. Others of course follow in their footsteps and the flow increases exponentially.
The wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe was exacerbated by the strict measures Lebanon introduced to stem the entry of more Syrian refugees into its territory. The kafala (sponsorship) system introduced at the beginning of 2015, for example, made residency and mobility for Syrian refugees in Lebanon extremely difficult. Syrian refugees in Lebanon who have been depending on paltry assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are experiencing extremely harsh living conditions. As their residencies expire they need a Lebanese sponsor to avoid getting arrested or deported. They have to tiptoe around curfews and endure being overworked and underpaid in order to survive from one day to the next. In addition, most of the poorest Syrian refugees took shelter among the most wretched and marginalized communities in Lebanon.
Inside Palestinian refugee camps with their already cramped living conditions, the influx of refugees from Syria exacerbated conditions for Syrian refugees, Palestinians from Syria, and Palestinians from Lebanese camps. Because of this, Palestinians from Lebanon have been increasingly taking the so-called “death boats” to Europe in the hope of finding a decent life. For Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon these days the quest for the bare minimum, which has gradually vanished or became unattainable in Lebanon, is all they contemplate.
This past summer, the situation in Syria made the situation hopeless for Syrians who had believed the war would be over soon. The economy continues to fail, and as a result a substantial number of people from government-controlled areas are fleeing Syria. Of course it goes without saying that the mass exodus of refugees walking to Europe on foot is not exclusively composed of Syrians but also includes Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Afghans and many countries across Africa.
YAS: There are multiple reasons for this “upsurge.” First, Syrians within Syria are fleeing the increase of violence. In many areas, the last couple of months have experienced the worst types of violence and destruction since the uprising began in 2011. Repression remains a fact of life for Syrians throughout Syria, and that forms an additional major motivating factor to leave. Moreover, Syrians are seeking better work and life opportunities since the country is going through massive economic instability due to sanctions, the war itself, and the continual forms of restrictions and corruption in both regime and opposition-held territories. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria make up the largest chunk of the Syrian refugee population, and I think they are starting to believe that they cannot continue as IDPs in this environment and are leaving in droves; first to neighboring countrie and, then elsewhere. After nearly five years, Syrians –those who are economically destitute as well as the better off – are reaching the conclusion that the war in their country will not end anytime soon. They previously had hope that they would go back, but as the war has dragged on they are coming to terms that their circumstances in host states is not sustainable.
Secondly, Syrians outside of Syria, and especially those in neighboring states, are deciding to leave because they have been residing in exceedingly hostile spaces. I think it is in this context important to point out that such hostility is mainly promoted by host country governments and elites. There are increasing restrictions on refugee mobility and access to the labor market, along with growing difficulties in receiving aid.
Thirdly, and in my opinion most importantly, Syrians have no one to turn to for protection and representation of their interests and needs. No one is communicating with, coordinating with, or organizing the Syrian refugees, neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition. Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition have challenged or condemned the abuses facing Syrians in host countries. Neither the Syrian regime nor the Syrian opposition have provided any type of support infrastructure. This lack of true representation for Syrian communities has left them to fend for themselves. Even worse, the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition have only added to the problems, such as Syrian regime media recent fear-mongering about terrorists going to Europe, and the blatant silence of the Syrian opposition regarding Arab Gulf countries’ restrictions on asylum for Syrian refugees.
To date, Syrians form the largest proportion of those heading to Europe. Last year they constituted over seventy percent and this year they comprise over fifty percent of the migrating population. They are followed by Eritreans, whose dismal plight is completely ignored by the media and “international community.” This serves as a reminder that it is not simply about Syrian refugees; even though they are significant in terms of numbers this sea of humanity includes Iraqis, Palestinians, Afghanis, Sudanese, Somalis, Libyans and others. I expect that Yemenis will contribute a significant number of migrants to Europe over the next few years as well, considering the horrific levels of violence unleashed against Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition over the course of the past six months.