The magnitude of the Syrian refugees crisis can’t be understood without considering the current domestic economic and political situation in the European Union, explained the professors of the American University in Cairo (AUC) in yesterday’s media roundtable discussion series "Behind the Headlines," titled “The Future of Syrian Refugees: Between Humanitarian Relief and Border Control.” Speakers were AUC professors Ibrahim Awad, professor of practice at Public Policy and Administration Department and the director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies; Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology and Marco Pinfari, assistant professor of political science. The event was moderated by Amina Khairy, features editor and columnist at Al Hayat newspaper and AUC alumnus.With more than four million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who fled war-torn Syria, Awad noted that the crisis is a symptom to a real problem in the economic and political international order. As the crisis was highlighted lately with thousands of refugees reaching European countries, Awad explained that people have to remember that Syrians first went to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey then moved to other non-neighboring countries like Egypt and Iraq. “The percentage in countries like Jordan and Lebanon is higher in comparison to the size in these countries. Some refugees even had to flee to Iraq, in addition to the Iraqi refugees who sought refuge before in Syria and now had to return to Iraq,” said Awad commenting on the assumption that Syrians are basically targeting the European countries.
Henry explained that the surge in the number of refugees could be explained by learned helplessness, after five years of struggling in a war-torn country, “Syrians who started moving out of their country have reached the conclusion that there is no hope and no change will occur, yet on the other hand some countries like Germany have been welcoming the refugees, giving them hope for a better life for them and their children.”
According to UNHCR statistics, the figure of four million comprises 1,805,255 Syrian refugees in Turkey, 249,726 in Iraq, 629,128 in Jordan, 132,375 in Egypt, 1,172,753 in Lebanon, and 24,055 elsewhere in North Africa. Not included, are more than 270,000 asylum applications by Syrians in Europe, and thousands of others resettled from the region elsewhere.
Awad said that the crisis is now highlighted because in 2014 Lebanon and Jordan closed their borders to the refugees, except for humanitarian cases, so refugees headed to Europe.
Pinfari noted that we should get the broader picture, which is that Europe is coming out struggling from an economic crisis and it happens that the southern belt, Spain, Italy and Greece have been severely hit by the economic crisis and now are in the front line of the migration from the Mediterranean. “When we think about the reaction of Italy, Spain, UK and Germany, we shouldn’t forget that the conservative and right wing parties in Europe have taken advantage of the economic crisis to build their position basically against economic migrants rather than towards the refugees, which highlights the complexity of the domestic political environment of the European. He stressed that there are different political positions, political debate and that many parties are shifting their positions depending on political conveniences.
He also questioned the borderline between a refugee, who is fleeing a country in fear of persecution or being psychically endangered and an economic migrant, because refugees enjoy a better status than economic migrants. “Integration is a concept that we apply to economic migrants not necessarily refugees. The lines are blurred, now in Europe there is more support to help Syrian refugees but definitely not support to increase economic migrations,” he said.
Awad explained that it wasn’t foreseen that the European integration would be jeopardized by a refugee crisis. “Some EU countries and the European commission are trying to set a quota for EU countries based on GDP, size and more criteria. Some have refused and some have accepted,” he said, adding that East Europe countries have rejected but within it people are welcoming the refugees. Such assessment is based on policies and not on good and bad intentions, and it could be traced back to the history and the cultural development of East versus West Europe. “The European integration, jeopardized with the recent Greek crisis and then the refugees’ crisis, shows that there is a real problem in the international system, the problem is more of a refugees’ crisis.”
According to Awad, the situation is more complicated to generalize. “For example 171,000 refugees fled to Hungary, yet 39 percent are Syrians constituting less than half of the total number. “Some refugees are from Afghanistan and Iraq and others are from the Balkan nations, which constitutes an economic, political and a security problem.”
Awad explained that in Europe there are problems with the inclusion policies, contrary to Canada for example. “Refugees live secluded with high unemployment rate, we hope that European countries revisit these policies, because it is in the best interest of both the refugees and the hosting country.”
Henry also highlighted that what is as important as providing shelter and food, is the psychological rehabilitation, which is a humanitarian responsibility on behalf of the hosting countries to allow the refugees to get back to their normal lives. “The children usually adapt better than their parents, which could affect the unity of the families. So the question here is, do the hosting countries put into consideration the refugees’ culture and religion? Children are going to these countries with traumas, are these countries ready for the refugees? if rehabilitation is not offered then such situation will likely create ticking bombs in these countries,” added Henry.