23 July 2019

Europe 2019. Will Syrian refugees also arrive this year?

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

It is not a rhetorical question. It is not a subject Europe might want to treat lightly. It did it once, in 2015, and governments were toppled, the nationalistic right in many countries breathed electoral oxygen, and one million Syrians passed multiple borders to reach “El Dorado / Das Goldene”, where “mother Merkel” promised them compassion and support. And that was mostly it. The following years did not repeat this more or less spontaneous migration, borders were reinforced with wire fences and less permissive legislation, new European leaders are way more careful with public expressions of compassion, Turkey was convinced to be more rigorous with the freedom of movement within its borders. And also, at its borders. But the refugees are still there, in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan and, of course, in Turkey. For the moment, they will not return to Syria, but the pressure from these countries and entities is big. They cannot stay, but they do not want to return under a regime they contested. A solution or a collective decision will need to be found. We are in 2019. Will there be, just like in 2015, a migration towards Europe, or will they choose, in an option adapted to their own culture, the road to Damascus?

Image source: Mediafax

The state and economic post-conflict reconstruction is still being awaited in Syria. One province remains under the control of Jihadi rebels. Several others are under the authority of Kurds or militias supported by Turkey. Military forces from several countries are deployed on the Syrian territory, from the Mediterranean to the Eastern deserts. This is not an optimistic perspective for the several million Syrians who are either refugees or internally displaced, neither for the other millions who fled to neighbouring states. The latter are especially in a very difficult situation. They cannot return yet, but cannot remain in the countries hosting them anymore. Ethnical or religious fraternity has its limits. Which is starting to show more and more evidently in the attitude of these state’s governments, but also in that of the local population.

Of course, the situation is not the same everywhere, not every country which received these millions of refugees have to deal with a pressing situation. There are positive exceptions, but they are few and not important numerically. But this is the general tendency: Syrian refugees must go back home or, at least, leave the places where they have found temporary shelter. And each of the neighbouring countries has its own reasons and circumstances for this option.

The evolution of relations between host countries and refugees. From exuberance and solidarity, to open hostility.

The Syrian model of the Arab Spring initially created a wave of compassion and solidarity for those who had to leave the country and find refuge, presumably temporary, in neighbouring countries as early as 2011. The widespread perception of that period was that the war will be over in several months, dictator Bashar al-Assad will rapidly be toppled and people will be able to come back home. After spring 2011 came summer, then autumn, then winter of the same year, then 2012, 2013, and the following years did not bring the presumed change. On the contrary, the regime managed to stabilize and, following Russia’s intervention, took over the offensive. What seemed to be temporary began to develop a permanent character.

This entire period can be separated into three phases of relations between Syria’s neighbour states and the Syrian refugee communities which are still living on their territory:

1. the period of solidarity and compassion for those leaving Syria, but also exuberance and enthusiasm regarding the Syrian revolution. It started in 2011 and continued to 2013-2014, depending on the state, probably most in Turkey;

2. the period in which they awoke to the reality of economic and social difficulties created by the high number of refugees, while postponing to find a solution for their status. It began before Russia’s intervention and continued until it was obvious that the regime in Damascus won its fratricidal duel with the opposition and Jihadist group;

3. the “hostile” period in which these states or, at least, the majority of them, began to adopt an attitude of rejecting the continued presence of Syrian refugees on their territories, and as such promoted measures to determine the latter to leave either back to Syria or wherever else. It is the period we currently find ourselves in.

The first phase had the following characteristics: borders remained open, Syrian refugees were received with manifestations of solidarity and support, local authorities and international structures considered that the Syrian crisis will be short-lived and solved before the end of 2011.

In the second phase, borders were “reconsidered and strengthened”, their traversal became more difficult, the first signs of public fatigue in manifesting solidarity with the refugees who consumed more and more of local resources were showing. This is when international appeals for “burden-sharing” appeared.

In the third phase, several provisional refugee camps were closed, the right to work was restricted, the refugee communities were isolated on the inside through bureaucratic and administrative measures which made the lives of refugees increasingly harder. Local government policies are becoming visibly hostile to the presence of refugees; forced repatriations begin.

Jordan – a monarchy where most of the citizens are ex-refugees

Jordan received an impressive number of Syrian citizens for the reasons presented earlier, which added to tribal ties, but also to the fact that half of them were already in the country when the crisis occurred. The approximately 500,000-600,000 Syrian refugees which entered Jordanian territory beginning with 2011 (a similar number was already there for mainly economic reasons), of which only 100,000 were assigned to refugee camps, began to stabilize after 2013 towards this number and became subjects of the Jordanian economy, its social security and education systems. For a country with such few resources, so dependent on foreign aid, with very serious internal economic problems, the enthusiasm could not last for too long.

Therefore Jordan, a promoter of Arab brotherhood, an inheritor through the Hashemite monarchy of the Prophet Mohammed’s bloodline and of the custody of holy Islamic places in Jerusalem, began a process of re-evaluating the necessity for a secure border, while needing to regularize the presence of Syrian refugees on its own territory.

Jordan, just as other Arab states, did not sign international agreements on the protection of refugees and also does not have internal laws on this subject. The reason is evident: these bills would also entail responsibilities towards Palestinian refugees, an extremely controversial subject not only in Amman, but especially in Amman.

Therefore, the Jordanian answer to the challenge caused by the massive flux of refugees was one with ad-hoc measures which tried to respond to problems as these were appearing:

- it received refugees because it had no choice, but also tried to lower the shock by promoting the policy of reporting their numbers higher than they were (by also including Syrians which arrived before 2011) in order to obtain international assistance;

- it built several refugee camps, but with a relative reticence and in unhospitable places in the desert, to avoid repeating the experience from the 70s, when Palestinian camps on the kingdom’s territory were not obeying local order anymore;

- it began isolating the Syrian population from the rest of its own population, including by continuing to construct camps, but also by legal measures which allow the registration of all refugees and their monitoring;

- it restricted the freedom of movement and the right to labour, by imposing regulations on granting work permits or by having security forces detain the refugees’ personal documents for long periods of time.

Lebanon – a country with unending crises

If the situation in Jordan cannot be defined as complex, the one in Lebanon is more than that. In the past couple of decades this country also received several waves of refugees. Some, like the Palestinians, numbering approximately 300,000, brought the problems of their community with them and, inevitably, a conflict with Israel. That is why, in Lebanon, since Syrian refugees started coming in, the subject of erecting camps to host them was taboo, as local politicians did not wish to repeat the experience of the 70s and 80s, when Palestinian camps acted like a sort of extraterritorial enclaves, where the law was made by different groups and warring factions.

The country is currently stabilized along the lines of a fragile confessional system which will function as long as its three major internal confessions – Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims – will remain in a numerical and decisional balance. The 1.5 million Syrian refugees are dramatically affecting this balance, with their number being approximately the equivalent of the local Sunni community. The Lebanese political elite is, also, ambivalent towards Syria, a part of it being solitary with Damascus, including by militarily supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime, while the other part considers that the Syrian state is the cause of Lebanon’s problems.

That is why Syrian refugees in Lebanon did not have an easy time even since the beginning of the crisis, and the situation is getting worse with every day. Unlike Jordan, Syrians who preferred to go to Lebanon did not do it due to family bonds, but because their homes were close to the border. The main cause for choosing this country as a destination was having a professional relation, with approximately 300,000 Syrians crossing the border yearly to work in areas of the Lebanese economy, where the local workforce is insufficient. Mainly in constructions, but also in the areas of agriculture and services. When the Syrian War began, the 300,000 seasonal workers arrived again, this time with their families. And they stayed.

And therefore, although local conditions are not the most favourable, Lebanon became the country with the most Syrian refugees reported to their local population, and the local reaction, of course, was not favourable. They only received the status of displaced individuals, because considering them refugees would have meant, like in the case of Jordan, assuming responsibilities. So without any refugee camps, without the status they should have, Syrian refugees could only insert themselves in the free spaces between Lebanese towns, where they built villages with homes made out of cardboard, plastic or metal plates; a kind of local favelas, without the base facilities of civilization.

And they do not have the perspective of staying here either, as different Lebanese institutions – the most vocal represented by those which can make use of force – previously acted in order to force Palestinian refugees to leave. Measures to destroy some of these provisional settlements have already been taken. The most direct to communicate to the refugees the fact that they are not wanted in Lebanon are the Christian politicians, but representatives of other confessions also do not support the idea of keeping the Syrian refugees.

Iraqi Kurdistan – refugees are well received. With one condition…

The situation of refugees from Iraqi Kurdistan is special. For two reasons:

1. local authorities are not a state, but an entity with limited rights to make political decisions (at least theoretically);

2. 99% of the 250,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq/Kurdistan are Kurds.

And yet, this is the place which handles the problem in the most positive manner, both from the point of view of Syrian refugees and local authorities. Kurdish Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan began their exodus towards the region when ISIS started to take over Western Iraq and Northern and Eastern Syria. Several years after the beginning of the Arab Spring. And the process worked because:

- there was a linguistic community (although the Kurdish language spoken in Northern Iraq is not really the same with the one used in Syria);

- Kurdish Syrian refugees have integrated well into Kurdistan’s labour market, especially in constructions;

- the local government, the local political elite are in a state construction process in which numbers count, strengthening the ethnical component counts, and the 250,000 refugees added 5% to the region’s human resource.

Of course, Syrian refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan meet this condition. That is why there are no pressures for them to leave, on the contrary, their continued stay is supported. And one indicator for that is the fact that refugee camps are built with concrete and bricks, ready for a long stay, and for potentially evolving into small towns, as happened with the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. And there is another illustrative fact of this special situation: while 80% of refugees have a job, only 70% of locals are employed.

Turkey – a story to wake up Europe.

Although there is no linguistic communion, and memories from the Ottoman era still persist within Arab communities, 64% of Syrian refugees choose Turkey as a destination, in the biggest exodus in the history of the country. According to the UN’s specialized agency, 3.6 million Syrians were officially registered at the beginning of this year, and it is very possible that their real number might pass 4 million. Of course, Turkey is not Jordan or Lebanon, its economy is developed, its infrastructure is way better, and opportunities for newcomers are plenty. And politically, Ankara adopted from the beginning of the crisis a harsher attitude towards the Damascus regime, which encouraged opposition supporters to head north.

As in all other cases, Turkey also did not believe that this crisis will continue after 2011. In that period, Syrian citizens could enter Turkey without visas. Restrictions were instated after some time for those who arrived by air or aboard ships. Security checks and a selection of those who would let to enter the country began. A security fence was erected for the entire length of the border. Syrian refugees had to wait in improvised camps along the border, on the Syrian side, before they were allowed entrance. 1.5 million Syrian refugees were in this situation at one point.

For the Turkish Government, the Syrians were not even refugees. For Turkey, the term “refugees”, adopted by the Geneva Convention of 1951, has a geographical connotation, covering only those arriving from Europe, as Ankara opted for when it signed the document. Because the first historical wave of refugees into Turkey was the one which came from Greece, after the First World War. The second one happened in 1989, when Turks arrived from Bulgaria. Syrians, who passed the border in ten times the number of their predecessors, were initially called “guests”, and later “individuals under temporary protection”. With time and under the pressure of the events they became, however, “refugees”.

That is how they were recognized as when, in 2015, they passed the land border with Bulgaria or Greece, or were carried on commercial ships to the Greek islands, passing Turkish security filters very, very easily. And later committed to a gruelling march throughout the Balkans towards Central Europe.

Four years later, Europe stopped surrendering that easily, and Turkey and cannot use the same “negotiation” formula again. The situation was summarized by Binali Yildirim, the AKP candidate at the repeated elections for Mayor of Istanbul: “Syrians in Turkey are under temporary protection. They will return home. Approximately 500,000 already returned to the areas liberated from terrorists by Turkey and more will leave after the area east of the Euphrates will cleaned. Syrians in Istanbul (approximately 500,000 – ed.) which will carry out illegal actions will be caught”.

There is not much finesse in the language of the candidate, who is a former prime minister and represents the Turkish ruling coalition. Kurdish voters did not vote, as they used to, with Erdogan’s party, and the new minority which is emerging, that of Syrians who do not wish to return back, does not seem to be a fan of the president. The honeymoon between the Turkish Government and Syrian refugees is over.

Finally, let’s summarize!

Syrian refugees in Jordan can return to Syria, with most of them originating from the Daraa governorate, currently under the control of Damascus. The process will be lengthy, because local infrastructure is destroyed, and returning under the authority of a regime they contested is not option for many of those who crossed the southern border.

For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the pressure to leave is even more intense, which will probably result in a hastening of the repatriation process.

From Iraqi Kurdistan, rich in oil and economic opportunities, too few will return to a disputed and poor region.

Turkey is still crowded with refugees, but also full of surprises. Some internal, others in areas under its control in the Syrian territory. In the governorate/province of Idlib, a mass of about 1-2 million people can, in desperation caused by a potential Russian-Syrian attack on local Jihadi bases, take the road up north at any time.

In a message sent for Refugee Day (June 20), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized negative attitudes towards the refugees, decrying the discrimination, xenophobia and racism of populist politicians and the media, especially in Western countries. The same countries which paid an important bill, after 2015, in order to support economic protection measures for Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Is this a sign that Syrian refugees on the Turkish territory, currently there or potential, are not wanted anymore or that the sums allotted have been depleted?

Translated by Ionut Preda