Political, Economic and Psychological Dimensions of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Syrian refugee camps in Cappadocia, Turkey, 2014. Fabio Penna via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0
Syrian refugee camps in Cappadocia, Turkey, 2014. Fabio Penna via Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0

While the Syrian refugee crisis is a result of civil war, it is also an outcome of poor economic governance, explained Ibrahim Awad, director of AUC’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies. The nation’s economy created massive unemployment and poverty, thus forcing Syrians to seek opportunities elsewhere.

“Income and wealth are becoming more concentrated, leading people with no jobs or money to flee to European countries,” said Awad. 

Currently, there more than 4 million Syrian refugees registered in different parts of the world and more than 7 million who are internally displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since the civil war began in Syria in 2011, neighboring countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt became a safe haven for most Syrians, with Lebanon and Jordan having the highest rate of registered refugees in the Middle East. However, in 2014, these countries reached a breaking point due to the large influx of refugees. The living conditions in refugee camps became difficult due to over crowdedness and the spread of diseases, as well as lack of clean water, food and health supplies. In 2014, Lebanon and Jordan closed their borders to refugees, except in extreme humanitarian cases, so many of them headed to Europe.

In Search of a New Life

Currently, there are more than 420,000 Syrian asylum applications in Europe, according to the UNHCR, with Germany and Serbia having the highest number of registered Syrians, at 43 percent. Other popular European destinations are Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, with 40 percent of Syrians having applied for refugee status there. Germany is considered as one of the most welcoming countries, largely because of its shrinking workforce.

“Most of the refugees arriving are young adults and some are highly educated, so they contribute to the economy,” Awad explained. “Any country will prefer migrants who are of working age so they can contribute their skills and labor.”

Nonetheless, the treacherous journey to Europe has not been easy. Many refugees, including women and children, have walked thousands of miles to reach the nearest European country, sometimes illegally crossing borders, and others have migrated by sea. Throughout their journey, countless Syrians have been abused by smugglers, met with closed borders and barred fences, and subject to violence. Others never made it to their destinations and drowned in the sea.

“We need to understand the broader picture,” said Marco Pinfari, assistant professor of political science, speaking at the Behind the Headlines media roundtable series in a panel titled “The Future of Syrian Refugees: Between Humanitarian Relief and Border Control.” “Although some European countries have recently started to recover from an economic crisis, it's unforgiving to send back home thousands of Syrians as merely a strain to their economy. Spain, Italy and Greece have been severely hit by the economic crisis and are now in the front line of migration from the Mediterranean.”

Pinfari also questioned the borderline between a refugee, who is fleeing a country in fear of persecution or being psychically endangered, and an economic migrant. “Refugees enjoy a better status than economic migrants, and the lines are blurred between the two,” he said. “In Europe now, there is more support to help Syrian refugees, but definitely not much support to increase economic migration. When we think about the reactions of Italy, Spain, the 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 positions against economic migrants rather than refugees, which highlights the complexity of the domestic political environment in Europe.” 

To counter the problem, Awad noted at the media roundtable discussion, the European Commission is trying to set a refugee quota for European Union countries based on GDP, size and other criteria. “Some countries have refused, and others have accepted,” he said, adding that although Eastern European governments have mostly rejected, civilians are welcoming refugees. “Such country assessments are based on policies and not on good or bad intentions, and could be traced back to the history and the cultural development of Eastern versus Western Europe,” he said. “European integration policies, coupled with the recent crisis in Greece followed by the refugee crisis, indicates a flaw in the international political and economic order.”

Governments vs. Citizens

Despite government policies, many European citizens have exhibited a welcoming attitude to Syrian refugees, and some have offered food and shelter. “When analyzing the current crisis, we should be cautious not to generalize,” said Awad. “Governments, senior officials and journalists may refuse to let refugees in to their countries out of fear of them becoming an economic burden and to discourage more from pouring in, but many citizens are very welcoming. There are people volunteering to help refugees in Hungary, the United Kingdom, United States, Germany and Iceland.”

Awad noted that while it may be unrealistic for nation states to completely open their borders to refugees, “there are principles of international law that cannot deny entry to people whose lives are threatened because of their race, religion, nationality, political stance or social group affiliation. These principles should be respected,” he affirmed, adding that the flow of Syrian migrants to Europe is expected to calm down in the next few months because of winter.  “This will give time for European countries to rethink their integration and immigration policies,” he said.

Psychological Trauma

The surge in the numbers of refugees could be explained in terms of “learned helplessness,” a psychological condition where people who have been constantly subject to painful situations believe they are helpless and cannot change their status, even though they can. “After five years of struggling in a war-torn country, Syrians who fled have reached the conclusion that there is no hope and no change will occur,” said Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology at the media roundtable discussion. “On the other hand, some countries like Germany have been welcoming refugees, giving them hope of a better life for them and their children.”

The harsh conditions refugees face on a daily basis undoubtedly lead to psychological effects that are often overlooked by refugee support programs. Mona Amer, associate professor of psychology, stressed the importance of understanding the psychological background of refugees.

“Refugees are fleeing traumatic experiences by seeing the death of loved ones, fear and insecurity in their home countries,” Amer noted. “They face cruel situations when they arrive to Europe and come across police officials, who treat them like criminals and house them in temporary centers. The support that refugees should receive must be comprehensive and include health, housing, and social and educational services.  In term of educational services, classes on different cultures should be taught, as well as the native language of the host country.” 

Integration into European society and culture can be most challenging for parents. “Children usually adapt better than their parents, and this could affect the unity of families,” explained Henry. “So the question is: Do host countries put into consideration the refugee 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 situations may produce ticking bombs in these countries.” 

Also emphasizing rehabilitation and the need to train European psychologists who are recruited to assist Syrian refugees, Amer noted, “Most counselors are not trained or specialized to work with this particular group. They need to understand the background of refugees and be open to discuss key issues while in session, such as discrimination, loss of power and privileges in societies. These are often ignored on many levels.” 

In addition to improving the quality of refugee assistance, Amer made it clear that “part of the role of counselors is to advocate for just refugee policies and practices. They should be aware of the biased policies governments and social media report. Counselors also have biases that are based on Western views because their values are not the same as other cultures. Many counselors are not aware of the contextual issues that surrounded the reason why refugees left their homeland.”