Traditionally, the onset of the New Year is a time of hope as people around the world make resolutions and targets. For those fleeing war-torn Syria, however, there is no such luxury.
Whilst the ongoing refugee crisis has not featured in the headlines in 2017 as predominantly as it did in previous years, hundreds have continued to arrive on Europe’s shores every day. Almost 600,000 Syrians entered Turkey as registered refugees last year, bringing the total hosted in the country to over 3.4 million. A minority of those have been able to continue their journey into Europe, settling in Germany, France, Sweden and Britain. The journey remains a perilous one, during which families risk separation, injury and even death.
So after facing another gruelling year in search of safety and security, what awaits Syrian refugees trying to enter Europe in 2018?
More border delays
Compared to previous years, some countries have seen a fall in the number of Syrians seeking refuge. Whilst final figures have yet to be calculated, last month German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere rejoiced that the number of asylum seekers entering the country in 2017 would be less than the expected 200,000. The figures have been praised and largely attributed to the success of financial incentive projects encouraging refugees to return to their home countries. The first half of this year also witnessed a 94 per cent decline in people using the sea route from Turkey into Greece, as per the deal struck with the EU in March 2016, in which Turkey would take back any refugees arriving on Greek shores.
Yet despite the fall in arrivals, thousands of refugees have continued to make the treacherous journey from Syria, often finding themselves stranded between land and sea, turning to smugglers in their desperation. Such delays often see Syrians exploited and robbed of their rights as they wait to receive official asylum seeker status.
Last year was also one in which some countries started to reject Syrian refugees altogether, with Australia refusing admission to some 500 asylum seekers on “security grounds” in the aftermath of the Westminster terrorist attack. In December the US Supreme Court also passed President Donald Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban” that would prevent people entering the country if they were from six Muslim-majority countries, including Syria. The move has once again been justified as an issue of national security.
The majority of Syrian refugees are at present still in Turkey, which has maintained an open door policy towards those fleeing the conflict across the border. Ankara is feeling the pressure, though, and has repeatedly accused the EU of not sticking to a 2016 bargain, according to which Turkey would be granted visa liberalisation and cash in return for keeping refugees within its borders. It has also threatened to abandon the agreement, over concerns about the EU supporting the US-led coalition in Syria, which is primarily made up of Kurdish forces, including branches of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which Turkey has designated as a terrorist organisation.
After another war of words last month ended with Turkey threatening to scrap the deal and allow the hundreds of thousands to cross into Europe. The EU Ambassador in Ankara, Christian Berger, then announced that €3 billion, half of the agreed amount, had been delivered to Turkey and plans were being made to facilitate the remaining.
For the moment, the plan seems stable, but the fate of Syrian refugees once again relies upon a bilateral political resolution largely unrelated to their welfare.
However, it is not the end of the story for the refugees who do make it to Europe. Biased media coverage and the rise of the far right have stoked nationalistic fervour across the continent, culminating in scores of incidents of hate crime and abuse against newcomers. Preliminary figures estimate that some 1,246 politically motivated attacks on refugee shelters were reported across Germany in the year to mid-December 2017; according to the Federal Police Office 251 of those were perpetrated by far-right groups. In February, a far-right German politician was sentenced to eight years in prison for burning down a sports hall that was to be used to accommodate refugees.
Greece has also witnessed a rise in anti-migrant sentiment since 2015. Last year, the NGO Hellenic League of Human Rights said in a report that after years of inaction, Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn party was once again starting to recruit and train anti-migrant hit squads.
Much of the anti-refugee sentiment has been attributed to biased media coverage, which has been accused of focusing excessively on refugee crime rates. A study by Macromedia Media School earlier this year found that there had been a complete reversal in trends since the mass sex assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, which were tied to the huge influx of refugees. Compared to 2014, German news broadcasters this year aired four times as many reports about non-German crime suspects and 50 per cent fewer reports on non-German victims of violence.
Even in Turkey, which has maintained an open door policy towards the refugees, reports of communal tensions have surfaced as locals resent the changes in their hometown demographics. In November, a Syrian restaurant owner fought against a local government order to remove all Arabic signs in an Istanbul area, allegedly to “protect cultural values”.
Nevertheless, some organisations are pushing back against the propaganda. Campaigns aimed at welcoming asylum seekers, such as Refugees Welcome in the UK, as well as a host of NGOs and charities are aimed at empowering migrants and changing the discourse surrounding their arrival.
The beginning of deportations?
Last year saw governments starting to implement diversionary tactics to reduce the number of refugees settling in the country. For Germany, this manifested in the government offering refugees cash to return to Syria in February. Families who opted for the scheme within a month could see cash donations of up to $3,600 if they consented to leave Germany. Such a policy, where the final decision to stay or remain is still determined by the individual, is unlikely to last in the long term, as Europe looks set to deport refugees to regions deemed safe in their countries of origin.
Germany has already had such a scheme for refugees from Afghanistan since 2016, when some 3,440 were returned to areas around the war-torn country. Many German airline pilots have spoken of the moral qualms they experience in returning families back to an uncertain and potentially dangerous situation. Sweden has implemented a similar policy with Afghan refugees, who represent more than half the migrants in the country.
Despite the intensified bombing of opposition held areas and supposed de-escalation zones, deporting Syrian refugees may also be on the cards. Last month, German interior ministers started to discuss a proposal to forcibly repatriate refugees once their asylum status lapses as early as this June. Whilst it is unlikely that any areas in Syria will be deemed to be safe enough for civilians to get deported to, as the Syrian regime consolidates its control over former Daesh territories the presentation of “liberated” regions as safe may aid the government in its advocacy of a political solution to the conflict.
Yet it remains to be seen how well those who fled will be treated upon their return, given the statement of the late Syrian General Issam Zahreddine; he warned refugees escaping the conflict not to return after the war was over. Such a sentiment is likely to be prevalent among the military elite surrounding Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, particularly against those who fled and supported the revolution from abroad.
Another year for Europe to find its humanity
As the fate of Syrian refugees hangs in the balance, 2018 presents another opportunity for Europe to recognise the refugee crisis for what it is; vulnerable people escaping the horrors of their home countries, be they due to war or desperate poverty. In addition, Western states must recognise the role that it has played in the decades of conflict and underdevelopment plaguing many of their former colonies.
The coming year also offers Europe another chance to show zero tolerance for the growing far-right narrative, and instead practice the values of tolerance and equality that it preaches so sanctimoniously to the world. In a time of insecurity and uncertainty, the world does not need any more Donald Trumps.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.