The Humanity: Thoughts on the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Reggie Kramer

Originally published at The Spectrum, University of Pennsylvania

The Syrian and Iraqi civil wars appear set to be the humanitarian crisis of our time. In just three years, over eleven million people have fled those two countries as well as Afghanistan, and another seven million have been displaced from their homes within their countries. With so many people—including families and children—moving so quickly across national borders, these refugees have inevitably put a strain on the economic, political, and social systems of the countries to which they have escaped. That is not, however, an excuse for countries to close down their borders, cease helping people, and pretend there are not millions of suffering refugees.

Thus far, despite the consistent media focus on Europe, the two countries with the most refugees are Turkey (almost 2 million) and Lebanon (1.1 million). However, as those two nations, and Jordan (629,000), become full, or as stories of overcrowded and dirty camps reach the ears of those still in Syria, many Syrians are turning their attentions towards Europe. They are attracted by the strong national economies of countries like Germany, with their democracies and traditions of freedom and human rights. However, manyEuropean nations are either unable or unwilling to withstand the pressures the sheer numbers of refugees are putting on their systems.

The answer to the refugee crisis would seem to be threefold: a coordinated international asylum scheme that does not unfairly place the burden of rehousing and caring for the refugees on individual European or Arab nations; a redistribution of national and institutional funds; and a compassionate response by individuals who recognize that the refugees’ plight is human issue, not an ethnic, religious, or cultural one. Of course, stemming the flow of refugees by ending the root problem, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq, would be the optimal solution to the crisis. However, resolutions to these wars seem to be a long way off, given the religious extremists and megalomaniacal dictators involved.

The nations of Europe are in the unfortunate position of being the safe democracies nearest to Syria. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that refugees are pouring into the continent. Europe did not cause the crisis, nor, as some right-wing commentators would have us believe, are the largely Muslim refugees using the wars as an opportunity to either take advantage of western rights or infiltrate and destroy western society. For these reasons, a few European nations should not have to shoulder the burden of caring for the refugees, but the refugees should not be ignored either.

The most popular countries for refugees applying for asylum have been Sweden, because of its reputation for tolerance; Germany, because of its history of helping the stateless; and France, because of its relatively large Arab population. Sweden accepts more asylum-seekers per capita than any other country, and Germany has announced its intention to take in 800,000 refugees. France has stated that it will take some refugees. Other European nations have begun to step in to take the refugees that those countries simply cannot handle. After a Parliamentary petition garnered millions of signatures, the United Kingdom recently announced plans to take in thousands of asylum-seekers, despite Prime Minister David Cameron’s warning that opening the borders would only encourage human trafficking. Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila invited refugees to occupy his vacation home.

However, the avenue most worth pursuing is the one advocated by European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini. She called for the ministers of the European Commission, one of the EU’s primary legislative bodies, to meet in Luxembourg on Saturday, September 5, to discuss setting mandatory minimums for how many refugees a nation must rehouse and care for. The Commission drafted a plan for how many refugees each nation should take. This type of international planning allows for a nation to not worry about how other countries will deal with refugees (will they send them to us?), but to focus on the refugees that it has been assigned (how can we best rehouse, feed, and clothe them?). This is to the benefit of the nations, because they don’t need to spend time and money enforcing an arbitrary, self-imposed number and defending their borders lest a neighboring nation decide not to accept any refugees. On Tuesday, September 8, the European Parliament voted in favor of the Commission’s quota legislation.

Coordination and cooperation among European countries should allow for the overwhelmed nations to have some relief, and would allow the refugees to disperse somewhat, avoiding overcrowded and unsanitary camps like the ones they encountered in Hungary. However, some nations have been less than cooperative to this point, for ‘cultural’ reasons. Slovakia—which, according to the quota system, would only be required to take in 200 refugees—has stated that it will only use funds to help Christianasylum-seekers. Hungary has already built a fence on its Serbian border and deployed armed soldiers to defend its territory, while right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán waxed poetic about the Muslim refugees being an existential threat to European civilization. These countries, along with the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Poland (the five countries that expressly rejected mandatory minimum quotas) ought to be held to their commitments. As EU member states, they have all agreed to follow legislation passed by the European Commission. With the quota laws having gone into effect on Wednesday, September 9, if these nations have not legally pledged to fulfill their obligations, they ought to be censured in some material way by EU leadership. Other European nations have announced their willingness and readiness to enact the Commissions quotas: France will accept 30,000 refugees, the UK 20,000, and Spain and Italy 15,000 each. Even tiny Croatia has announced that it will accept 550 refugees (source translated from Croatian)—above the 505 required by the Commission’s legislation. And Germany has reiterated that it will accept 800,000 asylum-seekers, even though the Commission’s quota only requires that it take 40,000.

Further cooperation and coordination among European states is undoubtedly beneficial for the nations and for the refugees. However, just as Sweden, Germany and France should not shoulder the burden of caring for these refugees alone, neither should the European Union. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) already has the framework and infrastructure to propose and enforce asylum-seeker quotas on an even larger scale. There is no reason that countries like the United States, China, Australia, Canada and Brazil—large economies with lots of land—cannot accept refugees as well. Although there is a much higher cost associated with transporting refugees to countries like these (airplanes or ships would be needed, instead of buses), there are funds available from the UN for such activity, and more could be temporarily diverted from both national humanitarian budgets and from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (more on this later). United States Democratic Presidential candidate Martin O’Malley has suggested that the US take on 65,000 refugees, which it surely has the infrastructure and economy to handle. Canada has already made public its intent to play host to 10,000 refugees by the end of 2018, although some left-wing politicians have sought to take in 10,000 by the end of 2015, and 60,000 by 2019. However, the leaders of other countries, like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads the closest democracy to Syria, have already rejected the notion of taking any refugees. His reasoning—that taking in Arab Muslims would upset the demography of Israel—has no practical logic to it, and reeks of prejudice (although, if I were an Israeli, I might be skeptical of letting in citizens of a country that once vowed to kill me and my children). However, if the UN were to take on a role like the European Commission has, and publish quotas, even if they were only suggested and not legally obligatory, for how many refugees should be taken in by each nation, countries like Israel, Australia (PM Tony Abbot has said the EU should follow his lead and turn back refugee boats) and the notoriously frugal and amoral China and Russia might be pressured into accepting a few, thus lightening Europe’s load. These countries (and the US, Canada, Brazil and most other nations) should, legally, already be taking refugees. 142 nations are party to the 1951 UN Refugee Treaty and the 1967 UN Refugee Protocol. Some surprising signatories are already taking action:Venezuela has pledged to take 20,000 refugees, as many as the UK. Others (including the US) are legally obligated to follow Venezuela’s lead, and if they don’t, there should be repercussions.

And, yes, the Arab states of the Persian Gulf region should take in refugees as well, not because the asylum-seekers are themselves Arabs, but because these countries are wealthy and sparsely populated, and the more countries that participate, the less the crisis will hurt the world. An organized international asylum scheme like the EU Commission’s, but on a larger scale, could provide the encouragement, incentive, or obligation for states like those in the Gulf to participate in solving the refugee crisis. Even if it were voluntary, or there was a way to buy out of it (thus providing the money other countries would need to resettle the refugees an unwilling country refused to take), an international system would prevent a few countries, or any one geographic area, from being overwhelmed, and would allow for more humane and dignified treatment of the refugees. They are, after all, human.

Of course, those who prioritize money over human well-being will say that distributing refugees internationally, caring for them, and monitoring international compliance with the European Commission’s or the UNHCR’s asylum schemes (should the latter implement one, as I have suggested) constitute fiscal irresponsibility. And, without a doubt, implementing all of these programs would be expensive. As I mentioned earlier, transporting refugees to countries as far flung as Australia, the US, and Canada would cost much in materials (ships) and in man-hours and fuel. All monitoring programs are relatively expensive. However, the UNHCR already has the infrastructure for checking on the conditions of asylum-seekers. While that program would need to be expanded, it would not cost nearly as much as building a new one from the ground-up. Nevertheless, there are ways to ensure that the refugees are transported, cared for, and monitored without crashing national economies.

The most expensive portion of the crisis thus far has not been housing asylum-granted refugees as many would believe. Most countries have more shelter space than is necessary for their populations; in many cases there is no need to build settlements for those who have been granted asylum already. The true cost lies in housing, feeding, clothing, and caring for those who have applied for asylum but have not yet been approved. The United Kingdom spends roughly 700,000 pounds (almost 1.1 million USD) per day on those in the country who have not yet been granted asylum. For these people, countries have been (for understandable reasons; they have not yet been background checked, fingerprinted, or processed) unwilling to allow them into the general population, and so they have had to build camps. Refugees who have been granted asylum are distributed inside the country; for the most part they are housed in municipal buildings or unoccupied ‘hard-to-let’ flats at no cost, fed by local people and clothed in donated goods.

The problem is that European countries are receiving asylum applications so quickly that they cannot process them in a timely manner, meaning that camps for unapproved refugees are growing overcrowded and unsanitary, like the UK’s ‘Jungle’ camp in Calais, France. Simply expediting the process would save nations money. However, provided that they are doing the best they can, and cannot process applications faster than they currently are without compromising national security, European nations (and other nations that volunteer or are required to take refugees) do need more money to ensure that the camps are safe and do not begin to damage national economies.

Recognizing that this refugee crisis is an emergency, some international institutions which heretofore have focused on developing nations should temporarily repurpose their budgets to supply the developed-but-overwhelmed European nations with money. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are two such institutions. Combined, these two institutions have almost one trillion dollars at their disposal every fiscal year. Many of their grants go towards doing good work in developing nations: building dams to provide energy in India, highways in China, schools in Sub-Saharan Africa, and bridges in South America. However, in the short term, those grants could be more beneficial to humanity if they were given to developed nations: to European countries as subsidies for the housing and feeding of the thousands of unapproved asylum-seekers. Such funding would pressure other developed countries to do the same, incentivizing them to take in some refugees.

In addition, most developed nations have foreign aid budgets. The UK, for example, has roughly 20 billion pounds (27 billion USD) budgeted for foreign aid, of which it hasalready sent 1 billion to maintain camps for internally displaced people in Syria. However, that nation’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has already declared that the UK will use some of its foreign aid budget to house refugees inside its borders. Osborne specified that the UK will take refugees currently in the Calais ‘Jungle’ camp and in camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, so as to discourage them from making the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean (other countries would be wise to follow Britain’s lead). It makes good sense to utilize national foreign aid budgets for this purpose: it is part of the national economy that would otherwise not be spent on internal programs. While development in other countries may be temporarily stalled, as is an effect of my proposal regarding the World Bank and IMF, surely no one in the developing world would begrudge the Syrian and Iraqi refugees for the care they might be provided with national foreign aid budgets. Other countries, if without a surplus or if unwilling to sacrifice other parts of their economies, would be wise to follow Britain’s lead. Moreover, some money could certainly be taken from the world’s inflated military budgets (opens as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet) and put towards helping people, rather than killing people. But I’m afraid most of the world’s leaders are not so idealistic.

Lastly, the refugee crisis will be solved with open minds, open hearts, open arms and open doors. Compassionate responses at the individual level will be of the utmost importance on multiple levels: they will keep the amount of money each nation must spend to a minimum, and they will allow for the best possible treatment of refugees. I will address the former of these first. Governments at both the local and national level in every country that takes in some asylum-seekers will have to pay for the housing of all unapproved refugees and, probably, the housing of some who were granted asylum (municipal buildings are not likely to provide enough space for the extent of the crisis). However, there are certainly spare bedrooms in many houses in most countries, and there are unused vacation homes like the Finnish Prime Minister’s. By showing compassion, individuals can lessen the cost of the refugee crisis to the state with minimal losses themselves. After all, most households have clothing that no longer fits, and huge amounts of food are wasted by the average household every day.

Some individuals have already started to host asylum-seekers, while others in countries across Europe have volunteered to do so. German website Refugees Welcome, a website that matches refugees with spare bedrooms, and that is being called ‘Airbnb for refugees’ is expanding across the continent. The mayor of Bristol, in the UK, has urged his citizens to open their houses to refugees. And 12,000 Icelandic households havemade it known that they would host asylum-seekers. Other, smaller acts of kindness have also occurred, with Austrians bringing food to hungry refugees at their points of entry into the country. German football (soccer) club FC Bayern Munich set up its own accommodations for refugees, complete with complimentary German lessons and athletic training for children.

However, there has been just as much of a xenophobic response as a compassionate one. PEGIDA (a German acronym that translates to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West), an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim group based in Germany,staged a rally of 10,000 in Munich. They criticized the government’s decision to take in any refugees. Similar demonstrations, although on a smaller scale, have occurred in France and the UK. And the comments of the Slovakian and Hungarian heads of government—that Europe should only take Christian refugees, in the case of the former, and that refugees should stay in Turkey because they “might not be accepted here” in the case of the latter—are examples of institutional xenophobia in Central Europe. Such xenophobia, however, does little to solve the crisis; it delays crucial action to take in vulnerable refugees, prolongs the already-expensive and time consuming process of accepting asylum-seekers, and, in some cases (like Slovakia’s and Hungary’s) leads to violations of international law.

Of course, some will still have misgivings. And they are right to. Sudden influxes of new people—no matter who they are or where they come from—are always going to shock national systems and cause some social distress. Sheer numbers make that an unavoidable fact. However, many of these misgivings are the result of misinformation, fear, and bigotry. For example, some have argued that the influx of Muslim refugees from the Middle East will lead to the cultural degradation of Europe. For some context on this, the United Kingdom’s population is approximately three percent Muslim, France’s seven, Germany’s four, Italy’s two, and Spain’s less than half of a percentage point (all statistics from the CIA Factbook). The number of refugees each of these countries plans to take will not significantly increase the proportion of the country that is already Muslim. Only Germany’s 800,000 (a far cry ahead of the UK’s 20,000 and France’s 24,000) will be reflected in the statistics, and it will be just a 0.1 per cent increase in the percentage of the country that is Muslim. In general, the number of refugees entering the EU is but a tiny blip on the region’s overall population. So even if the Muslim refugees were planning a cultural takeover of Europe (they’re not), or even if their presence would alter the culture in some intrinsic way, the numbers are surely not so great as to overwhelm the native population’s culture as they might an economy.

Misgiving number two: The refugees will bring Islamist extremism with them. First of all, the refugees are fleeing from Islamist extremism. They’re not exactly running towards ISIS with open arms. They’re crossing dangerous waters, national borders, and continents, knowing that they might die, to get away from ISIS and what it represents. Of course, those of the xenophobic right who acknowledge this have changed their narrative: the refugees may not be terrorists, but then they’re cowards and deserters, and why should we help cowards and deserters? The question doesn’t even dignify a response, although I will point out that they have walked thousands of miles on foot, or crossed perilous waters, not knowing what awaits them.

Secondly, an estimated fifty per cent of the refugees are children under the age of 12. Half. And while ISIS has been known to ‘reeducate’ juveniles, turning them into extremists from a young age, chances are good that those children are not the ones making the trip to Europe with their parents. It would make no sense for ISIS to allow its not-fully-turned troops of the future to leave and potentially be westernized: not when its primary war is still in Syria and Iraq, rather than in Europe and the US, as its media campaigns might have us believe.

The third and final misgiving: These people are economic migrants, not refugees. This argument usually branches into two different directions, but both have the same conclusion. The first says that the refugees are taking advantage of an opportunity to make themselves economically better off, not fleeing for safety. The second says that they were refugees fleeing for safety until they arrived in a safer country, and if they travelled beyond that country they became economic migrants. While it may seem as though the distinction between economic migrant and refugee is not all that great, the terms have many political implications. An economic migrant would be treated as an immigrant—forced to apply for a visa, which usually takes three to six months, and remain outside of the country until granted a visa. A refugee, on the other hand, can apply for asylum once he or she has reached a country, and can stay in that country during and after the application process. Immigrants are not necessarily cared for, not provided food, clothing or housing. Refugees are. These are the distinctions outlined in the aforementioned 1951 UN Refugee Treaty and 1967 UN Refugee Protocol.

To respond to the first of these two arguments is easy: what rock have you been living under? With Western news constantly playing videos of ISIS’ latest barbaric acts, or of the Syrian Assad regime’s newest chemical weapons, only the most ignorant person or the most heartless cynic could honestly declare that there is no danger from which to flee in the Middle East. However, the second argument is a little more interesting. The UN treaty and protocol don’t spell out at which point a refugee is no longer a refugee. Nevertheless, there is a legal response. There is precedent for accepting asylum applications even once a refugee has passed through other safe nations. Prior to Nazi Germany’s invasion of France during World War II, for example, the UK took in thousands of German and Polish Jews and granted them asylum, even though they had passed through some combination of France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Norway, which at the time were still safe countries.

The other response is practical. For many of the refugees who travel through Turkey (a majority of them thus far have taken this route), Austria and Germany do represent the first truly safe nation. In countries closer to Syria, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, therefugee camps are overcrowded, violent, squalid places, and there is little hope of betterment as those countries do not accept asylum applications. The Balkan nations through which the refugees must pass after getting through Turkey have been especially hostile, with the exception of Croatia. There have been reports from that region of armed police and military personnel forcing exhausted refugees out of their national territories, in concert with barbed wire fences. After the Balkans, most arrive in Hungary or the Czech Republic, where refugee camps have no running water, no medical officials, and too little food and shelter. The camps have been described as more like prisons, with razor wire running around them and armed guards at the perimeter. Czech officials even wrote numbers in permanent marker on the forearms of refugees, drawing a worrying parallel to Nazi Germany’s concentration camps during the Holocaust. After these countries come Austria and Germany, the first truly safe nations for the refugees to reach. So, while they may not be threatened by ISIS and the Assad regime in the countries between Syria and Germany, they are threatened by malnutrition, dehydration, exposure to the elements, and lack of medical treatment. Seeing the conditions in which Syrian travelers arrived in Munich, having gone through the purportedly ‘safe’ countries of the south and east, one can hardly call them anything but refugees, in search of safety.

And that, ultimately, is the point. The refugees deserve safety, as do all others. These people have been through so much, travelled such great distances, and lost more than most will ever know. They are human, and they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, no matter their religion or national background, and no matter what that their humanity might temporarily impose on Westerners’ comparably cushy lives. There are ways that international institutions, nations, and individuals can help to soften the economic and social blow of the refugee crisis. I have outlined several but in the end, even if the blow could only be taken full force or ignored, I would hope that we would elect to take it, for the sake of doing what is right. That the refugees may be Muslim is irrelevant, that they may be Arab is irrelevant. First and foremost, they are human.

Refugees crisis: What you can do to help in Aberystwyth



Roundtable: The Refugees Crisis
Chaired by Dr Sergey Radchenko
Speakers: Professor Richard Beardsworth, Dr Ayla Gol, Dr Alistair Shepherd,
and Dr Kamilla Stullerova
Monday, 28 September
Main Hall, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University

In aid of the British Refugee Council
11 – 4 PM
Monday, 5 October 2015
Main Hall, Department of International Politics, Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University’s International Film Society Presents
<< We Are Young, We Are Strong >>
Entrance: 7:30 PM
Screening: 20:00 PM
Sunday, 4 October
Arad Goch