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Asylum for Syrian refugees: An overdue olive branch

April 22, 2015 at 5:54 pm

The United Nations has started looking west in a despondent attempt to find asylum for the millions of refugees streaming out of Syria. Last week UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, became the most recent UN official to urge Western countries to shoulder more responsibility for what is being called the ‘worst humanitarian disaster in modern history.’

But as immigration becomes an ever more contentious issue in Europe and the United States, will we heed this advice? Do we feel any weight of responsibility for those most needy in foreign lands? And what do we stand to gain from opening our doors to a war-torn population in desperate need of shelter? – I would argue a lot, including a viable – and significantly cheaper – alternative to military operations in our ‘war on terror,’ a chance to mend some severely burnt bridges with the Middle East, and an opportunity to prove that our human rights discourse is more than just a lot of hot air – which Syrians could be forgiven for thinking when you consider the abuses that we’ve sat back and observed over the last four years.

The Syrian civil war is being called one of the biggest humanitarian disasters in modern history and its resulting refugee crisis has been labelled the worst since the Second World War. Since the start of the conflict in 2011 more than 220,000 people have lost their lives, many of whom civilians, while ten million Syrians have been displaced and almost four million of those have fled the country. Most of those refugees have piled into Syria’s neighbouring countries, while others have dared the dangerous Mediterranean Sea crossing on illegal immigration boats – 3,000 of which lost their lives doing so last year alone.

The majority of Syrian refugees languish in the overcrowded camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but Syria’s neighbours are now at breaking point. Due to the unprecedented numbers filtering into these countries they have begun to close their borders to their Syrian neighbours. Over the last few months Jordan and Lebanon have cancelled their open-door policy to Syrians, while Turkey just last month became the most recent country to impose new restrictions on Syrian refugees.

The immediate concern falls on the side of those unfortunate civilians trapped in a violent warzone, but the reality for those who have made it to the foreign camps isn’t a great deal better. António Guterres said that over one million Syrians living in Lebanon are struggling to meet their basic needs, while Jordan have cut health care and education for Syrian refugees in the camps as they could no longer support the programs.

At least they’re better than the refugee camps within Syrian borders. Damascus’ Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees is probably the most alarming example. The civilian population living in Yarmouk struggle through Syrian government assaults and a street war waged by the Islamic State and Al Nusra Front. The UN Relief and Works Agency say the camp’s residents are “starving and terrified” and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described it as “the deepest circle of hell” in Syria.

These camps are clearly not places for innocent civilians to be living, for children to be brought up or for any grain of positivity to blossom. They are places in which human populations are left teetering on the brink of life and death and honeypots in which extremism will thrive.

As the camps continue to swell and the number of refugees continues to rise Western nations are coming under increasing pressure to offer asylum to Syrians displaced by the conflict. Last week António Guterres and Amnesty International called on industrialised countries to accept 130,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. Before that the UN Special Rapporteur for migrants’, François Crépeau, said Europe and other rich nations should use a quota system that would take into account population, GDP, available land, and population density to re-house one million refugees over the next five years. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even waded into the argument by stating that Western countries “leave [Syrian] refugees to die at sea.”

Although provocative, Erdogan’s assessment of the West’s Syrian immigration policy isn’t completely unfounded – more Syrian refugees died in 2014 trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea than have been let in by the United Kingdom (143) the United States (about 700) combined since the war began. In total developed nations have pledged sanctuary to 104,000 Syrian refugees, which is a tiny percentage of what is needed and, in all honesty, what we can afford. To draw a comparison to an equally pressing refugee crisis from modern history the West managed to resettle 1.3 million Vietnamese refugees between 1975 and 1995 as they fled the country after the war.

However, as expanding immigration and the opening up of borders (especially to Arabs/Muslims) becomes a political taboo in a host of Western nations, we appear to be erring on the side of caution when deciding whether to help alleviate the suffering of Syrian refugees or not. Europe in particular has seen a rise in anti-immigration and nationalist parties in recent years, which hurts attempts to widen immigration quotas as they can be used as powerful political tools for right-wing politicians.

In the US the Democrats decision to accept 2,000 further Syrian refugees has prompted a political backlash from the Republicans and has given right-wing media the ideal ammo to sling at their adversaries. Republican lawmakers in Congress, led by chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Michael McCaul, are warning that jihadists and terrorists may take advantage of the opportunity to sneak into the country. “We need to put our foot on the brakes until we have more certainty that terrorist won’t slip through our fingers,” said McCaul.

However, counterterrorism experts have denounced these claims as ‘alarmist’ and ‘unfounded,’ and said that they are damaging our ability to respond adequately and objectively to the crisis at hand. The resettlement programs do have a filtering process, which is focused on the most vulnerable of the refugees. This typically includes women and children who played no part in the fighting.

Besides, is there not a pertinent argument to be made that accepting our fair proportion of the Syrian refugees would actually be an effective counterterrorism strategy in itself? Desperation, violence and hopelessness are some of the major reasons that people are drawn to extremism when the opportunity arises. Most of Syria’s refugees live in a world dictated by such things and with the Islamic State and other extremist groups operating in the region they are prime candidates to be drawn to Islamic extremism. If the situation stays as it is surely they could become the next generation of militant Islam. For that reason alone why not show that we are more than airstrikes and economic sanctions, why not show that we are serious about extinguishing the threat of the Islamic State, but with peaceful, preventative measures, which look to stem the flow at its source.

In the US alone the pentagon has admitted that the war on terror has cost more than $1 trillion. Experts say it is more like $5 trillion. Either way, it is an obscene amount of money. Imagine transferring a tiny proportion of that into shelter and service costs to resettle Syrian refugees. Surely the US government would have found a significantly cheaper way to approach the problem. A humanitarian response rather than an unpitying punishment. We can all see the current strategy hasn’t been working; let’s try something new.

And it’s more than just a counterterrorism strategy. It shows people from that region of the world that – at least at some level – we are willing to practice what we preach. We harp on about human rights, equality, justice and tolerance yet show them almost none of these things. We tell them we want to spread peaceful democracy around the world and prove to them that we’re willing to try and do it by force, but when it comes to the simpler – cheaper – task of sheltering them from violence and oppression we scowl and turn our heads.

Sam Pothecary is a British journalist, formerly working in Argentina for The Argentina Independent and The Bubble.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.