All adrift? The Mediterranean refugee crisis, and doing the wrong thing for the right reasons

After a certain point, the pictures all begin to look the same. Endless columns of hollow-eyed refugees, trudging down dusty roads in an apparently never-ending stream, rising in the Levant and ending around the fringes of Western Europe. In July alone, roughly 107 000 migrants reached Europe – I say ‘roughly’ because we really have no clue how many more weren’t registered. The statistics for August will probably show a sharp rise. The trend will only continue.

The fundamental problem facing the leaders of Europe is this; how can the humanitarian tradition of which Europe is rightly proud be reconciled with the very valid fears of the public about the entry of millions of non-Europeans with different religions, values and cultural norms? How can we avoid antagonising the citizens of Europe whilst still putting an end to the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding around the Mediterranean?

Perhaps prompted by several tragedies (perhaps most notably the grotesque death in Austria last month of over 70 refugees in an abandoned van) the anti-immigrant stance of many politicians is fading. Earlier this week, Angela Merkel announced recently that any Syrian who arrived in Germany would be given automatic asylum. Thousands have already taken her up on her offer. In Britain many notable writers from all across the political spectrum are suggesting admitting thousands of refugees into the country.

Certainly this is an admirable response, one which suggests that Britain still remains a bastion of humanitarian sentiment. But is it the right one? If handled correctly, this crisis could be resolved to the benefit of both Europe and those who seek to enter it; however, at present it seems that it is sentiment rather than rationality which is directing European lawmakers.

Firstly, it is a myth that it is a humanitarian imperative that Syrian refugees be let in. In almost all cases (with a notable exception that shall be addressed) these refugees are coming from the countries surrounding Syria – Jordan, Lebanon and most importantly Turkey. These countries are not at war; they are entirely safe for              Syrians to live in. They certainly don’t have the living standards of Western Europe – but since when was the imperative to unilaterally improve the living standards of every single person on earth? If that was the case, then why not airlift in the starving millions of Africa and Asia, who are certainly more deserving. Those Syrians who venture forth towards Europe are not ‘fleeing ISIS’, as some commentators put it – they are looking for a better life. A laudable ambition, certainly, but not one which should be unconditionally supported by the EU.

A more sustainable solution to this issue would not entail offering asylum to every Syrian who enters (as Germany does) but instead to increase funding towards improving conditions in source countries such as Turkey. Consider the actions that the Jordanians have taken with regards Syrian refugees – refugee camps there resemble well-planned cities, with considerable investment into the future of these camps. In such circumstances, refugees would be far less likely to make the dangerous passage to Europe, and would instead be induced to remain in the Middle East. Such investment could be particularly useful in the chronically overcrowded Lebanon, where the presence of Syrian refugees is a sore spot amongst the Christian and Shi’a majority.

There is one major subgroup of refugees who do not originate in the surrounding countries of Syria. This group consists of middle-class Syrian youths who are about to become eligible for the draft to join the Syrian Arab Army. The parents of these young men stump up the extortionate prices necessary to enable them to evade the draft and get to the safety of Europe. But my sympathy here is limited. Traditionally young men have always fought for the cause they believe in – why should we enable them to flee the battlefield, particularly when poorer Syrians have no such option and are automatically drafted? Such refugees, if they are genuinely unwilling to fight, will be able to earn a decent living in any of the neighbouring countries, and there is no compulsion for Europe to admit them.

Secondly, the presumption that Syrians could immediately integrate into Western European culture is false. The overwhelming majority of fleeing Syrians are observant Sunni Muslims, and relations between Islam and European culture have often been fraught, to say the least. This is not to say that they are incompatible – there are innumerable stories of the successful integration of Muslims into European culture in France, Germany and the United Kingdom. But it would be remiss to simply gloss over the major problems encountered by diaspora Muslim countries in Europe. In certain municipalities of Holland, almost 50% of all Moroccan teens have had run-ins with the law within a five-year period – this is indicative of a serious problem. Many Muslims, put frankly, despise Western culture and withdraw into ghettos which become hives of crime and extremism.

Moreover, would the local Europeans be happy with having an alien populace imposed upon them? Even if cultural integration were not a problem, there remains the issue of the economic capacity of Europe to support an indefinite number of refugees. The infrastructure of Europe was not designed to cope with such an influx of individuals – schools and hospitals, for example, are simply not prepared. Even if they were happy with asylum being extended to Syrian refugees, would most Europeans be happy about sending their children to school alongside new Syrian arrivals? Or queuing at hospital behind refugees?

Finally, the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe complicates the reconstruction of Syria. Though sometimes construed as an ‘endless war’, at no point has peace been closer than now. Steffan de Mistura, the UN envoy, has heroically drafted an agreement which has the tacit approval of not only the Syrian government but also many of the armed groups operating within Syria. If implemented, it will see the transformation of the war into an internationally-supported counterinsurgency program against such groups as IS, Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham (the latter of whom have recently attempted to rebrand themselves as authentically Syrian revolutionaries, despite offering condolences to the Taliban upon the death of Mullah Omar.)

But the reconstruction of Syria would be critically hampered (potentially fatally) if an exodus of Syrians to Europe was permitted. Many of those presently attempting to get to Europe are the best and brightest of Syria; doctors, engineers, magistrates and the like. Rebuilding Syria without a middle class would be exceptionally difficult. No other reconstruction project has encountered this – for example, the rebuilding of Grozny was so rapid because the locals remained essentially in situ. But if Syria were to be deprived of an entire generation, then it would remain in dire economic and political straits for years to come. We cannot be guilty of betraying the Syrian nation.

Nonetheless, it would be immoral and counterproductive to simply stop all migrants from entering Europe. Syrian migrants might prove to be the fuel the European economy needs, providing labour and skills to accelerate growth. Furthermore, there are many cases in which it is simply a humanitarian imperative to give certain refugees asylum in Western Europe. Hence I propose a nuanced and effective program to ensure that help is given to those who deserve it, whilst fighting the fundamental causes of the crisis.

The most important element of this is to end the practise of giving automatic asylum to Syrians. This has led to hundreds (potentially thousands) of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean as a result of their desperate attempts to make the crossing and take advantage of Germany’s offer. It must be made clear that illegal crossings are futile; if asylum is to be sought, it must be sought through legal means. The EU should invest in building ‘immigration centres’ in source countries, through which all requests for asylum must be routed. Every year 40 000 permits should be offered; these will be given primarily to humanitarian cases and family reunification.

Any migrants found entering the EU illegally will be considered to have committed a criminal act. They will be transported to detention centres situated around the EU, where they will be kept in secure and humanitarian conditions until the cessation of hostilities in Syria, and invited to participate in voluntary labour programs. Though not retrospective, those migrants presently in Europe who are found guilty of serious crimes or terrorist offences will also be transferred to these centres.

In order to stem the flow, major investment must be put into Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  The EU must collectively help fund the improvement of refugee facilities, especially in Lebanon. This could take the form of building permanent homes for migrants, or simply constructing sanitation and medical infrastructure. Investment should also be directed towards improving border security, such as training the Turkish coast guard or building fences on the porous Turkey-Greece border in northern Thrace.

And, of course, efforts must continue towards ending the war in Syria. That, above all, is the cause of the migrant crisis – the fact that much of Syria remains a battlefield, and reconstruction is failing to take place in those parts retaken from the terrorists. Diplomatic weight must be put behind the de Mistura plan, and the warring parties brought to the negotiating table in order to end the war, and in doing so end the flow of refugees out of the region.

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