October Issue 2015
Knocking at Haven’s Door
The more outlandishly xenophobic politicians in Europe see the influx of refugees as a Muslim plot, a scheme to surreptitiously Islamicise the continent. Their counterparts in the United States have claimed that accepting asylum-seekers from Syria would be tantamount to facilitating a jihadist pipeline.
Even somewhat less hostile responses to what is undoubtedly a challenging — and, in terms of scale, unprecedented — phenomenon tend to be grounded either in ignorance or a singular lack of empathy. One of the most frequently raised questions is: Why don’t Syrians fleeing the war in their country seek refuge in other Muslim countries?
The obvious answer to that is: They do. Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are hosting millions of Syrians. They are relatively “safe” there, in the sense that they are out of the reach of Islamic State (ISIS), Bashar al-Assad’s military and other belligerents. But conditions in the refugee camps are grim, food and water can be scarce, and there is no reason to expect they will be able to return home in the foreseeable future. In the circumstances, is it any surprise that a small proportion of them are willing to avail any opportunity to escape this limbo, even if it entails huge risks?
Likewise, attempting to seek asylum in Europe is a no-brainer, given its geographical proximity, for one, and the prospect of a civilised existence. Nor is it particularly surprising that a large proportion of asylum-seekers make a beeline for Germany.
Just a few months ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel attracted plenty of notoriety when a video clip showing her reducing a Palestinian girl to tears by telling her that she might not be able to stay on in the country went viral. The girl and her family did eventually receive asylum. Merkel, meanwhile, has more than redeemed herself by recalibrating her government’s approach towards refugees. Germany is expected to accommodate at least 800,000 of them this year, and the nation’s vice-chancellor has said that an annual intake of half a million could be sustained for years to come.
The conservative German government’s generosity has found few echoes among its partners in the European Union (EU), though, with several nations indicating a willingness to accept vastly smaller numbers, and some — notably Hungary and Slovenia — declaring only non-Muslims would be welcome.
When the EU last month sought to set down quotas for member states, based on their capacity in terms of population and economic health, it faced a revolt from central and eastern Europe, and the measure had to be passed by majority vote rather than the unanimity that Brussels prefers. The particularly reluctant states are those that were most gung-ho in backing Germany’s tough economic stance on Greece earlier this year, in clear contravention of the Greek popular mood.
Berlin’s determination to turn the screws on Athens, despite evidence that the consequence would be to further cripple the Greek economy, earned it plenty of bad reviews, and it is possible that the enlightened stance on refugees is intended to undo some of that damage. It is also likely to be based on the historical fact that the last time Europe faced a refugee crisis of similar dimensions, it was Germany — in its Nazi guise — that was responsible.
Greece, meanwhile, also has a starring role in the refugee conundrum, given that it’s the obvious entry point for those travelling from Turkey. Almost none of them intend to stay on in the country, given the state of its economy and the levels of unemployment. Inevitably, the Greek government does not have many resources to spare, but it has been doing what it can to facilitate the onward journey of the refugees, which invariably entails transiting through the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
The main alternative route is via Libya to Italy. Libya has been an utter mess since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled with NATO assistance, and is today controlled by rival Islamist factions, with both ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates exercising a degree of control. The EU has been gearing up for military operations intended to curb the people-smuggling trade, and when a notorious people-smuggler was gunned down in Tripoli last month, the suspicion fell on Italy (which has denied carrying out the assassination).
On the other hand, Turkey has gone largely unmentioned in official European pronouncements or the media. Perhaps the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan wouldn’t be able to altogether prevent people-smuggling operations from its Greece-facing coast, but there is no evidence it has even tried to do so — and it has come under no pressure whatsoever from the EU.
Erdogan is able to mock the EU’s discomfiture over the arrival of a far smaller number of refugees than it has had to contend with, but his focus on toppling Assad while facilitating ISIS recruitment is among the strategic decisions that feeds into the Syrian exodus. The same could be said about the efforts of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which have been feeding the Syrian conflict.
The latter countries, none of which is a signatory to the refugee conventions, have attracted opprobrium for not helping Syrian refugees. In the wake of criticism, both the Saudis and the UAE cited seemingly spurious figures — perhaps tallying the number of Syrians who anyhow work in those countries — in their defence. It may well be the case that few of those who have headed towards Europe would be equally eager to head in the direction of Saudi Arabia, even if that were a feasible option.
At the same time, it isn’t hard to imagine any number of Muslim states adopting a stance equivalent to that of Hungary and Slovenia in the event of being called upon to accept non-Muslim refugees. Hundreds of years ago, Jews escaping Christian fundamentalism in Europe found a haven in Muslim countries, albeit as second-class citizens. It is extremely difficult to envisage a comparable scenario in the 21st century. It is worth mentioning, meanwhile, that the only neighbour of Syria that has refused to accept refugees is Israel. (Iraq doesn’t count; after all, who in their right mind would consider it a potential safe haven?)
Another huge elephant in the room in the context of this crisis is the reluctance in Europe to openly acknowledge that the disarray in the Middle East is mainly a consequence of wars in which it has been an eager participant. Sure, the West did not directly intervene in Syria until this year, when it has undertaken bombing missions ostensibly intended to degrade ISIS. But it is highly unlikely that matters in Syria, or in several other Middle Eastern countries, would have come to such a pass without the initial blow struck to the region’s relative stability in Iraq 12 years ago — which, incidentally, was directly responsible for the outfit now known as Islamic State (whose initial nomenclature was Al-Qaeda in Iraq).
It is frequently claimed that the destruction of Syria could have been forestalled if the West had intervened to back the initial uprising against Assad. They invariably fail to point out which paradigm such an intervention should have followed: the Libyan attacks or the Iraqi occupation? Has either of them delivered results that anyone in their right mind would wish to emulate?
It is also often said that the only feasible way of halting the refugee influx into Europe would be to tackle the root cause. That’s true as far as it goes, but how do you achieve that? Russia and Iran might be able to force Assad to the negotiating table, were they so inclined, but what about ISIS — not to mention the ostensible western allies, from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to Turkey, that have funded the anti-Assad rebellion?
Of course, only a certain proportion of the refugees heading to Europe originate from the growing Syrian diaspora. There are also plenty of Iraqis and Afghans — beneficiaries, in one way or another, of US-led intervention — as well as Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Eritreans, Somalis and citizens of other ravaged countries in Africa. Yes, some of them may simply be seeking a better life — since when has that become a crime? — while others are escaping untenable situations.
Could there be dedicated — or potential — jihadists among them? That is not inconceivable. But let’s not forget that a not insubstantial proportion of ISIS recruits have anyhow come from the West. And it doesn’t require any great insight or counter-terrorism expertise to recognise that most of those making the dangerous journey to Europe are simply seeking a place to live in peace, and the vast majority of them could potentially serve a useful economic purpose in countries with static, ageing — or even declining — populations.
The EU’s unresolved conundrum is unlikely to recede in a hurry. Even if the apportioning of refugees works out, under the Schengen rules they will eventually be able to go wherever they choose. The bloc’s common purpose has already been severely tested, and more trials undoubtedly lie ahead. But why should it be an EU headache alone? The US could open its door to at least tens, if not hundreds, of thousands — thus far, Latin America has been considerably more generous. So, for that matter, could Russia.
The reluctance to do so emanates largely from a refusal to recognise those in distress as fellow human beings. For once, Deutschland uber alles can serve as a desirable model.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.