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Europe doesn't have a migrant crisis; it has a Syrian crisis

Syrian children cross the Hungarian border András D Hajdú/IRIN
The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is introducing an $81 million “winterization” plan to protect thousands of Syrians as they cross through Europe in the coming months. Will it work?

Imagine Syria didn't exist - that the war never happened. Suddenly Europe’s migration crisis doesn't look so bad.

The two EU countries that receive the vast majority of arrivals by boat are Italy and Greece.

In Italy, the number of sea arrivals (mostly from Libya) has changed little since last year. From January to the end of August, there were 114,000, up from 112,000 over the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration. This is still higher than Europe would want, but not a number that a rich economic bloc of more than 500 million inhabitants shouldn’t be able to accommodate.

The big change has been the huge influx into the Greek islands. By the end of August this year, sea arrivals to Greece had reached 239,000. In the whole of 2014, there were just 45,000. By the end of the year, we could be looking at a ten-fold increase, with at least half of these arrivals Syrians.*

Europe’s current migration crisis is essentially the arrival of the Syrian crisis onto European shores.

Listening to the debate in the West, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Syria exists. A few weeks ago, Matt Hancock, a UK government minister, appeared on the country’s flagship political radio debate show. Using the word “migrant” rather than “refugee” for obvious reasons, he talked about how the world needed to encourage countries like Sudan and Somalia to develop so people didn’t feel the need to migrate.

He avoided mentioning Syria or Afghanistan, the two countries that have produced the largest number of refugees globally.

Hancock's omission, wilful or not, is merely a symptom of a wider trend. In a way, the world has been imagining Syria didn't exist for years. A middle-income country not far from Europe’s borders has been allowed to descend into an atrocious civil war. Whole cities have been destroyed, around half the population have fled their homes, four million Syrians are now registered refugees. The peace process, for want of a better phrase, has been virtually non-existent. US Secretary of State John Kerry has spent more time searching for a Palestinian-Israeli deal that was never going to work than on a Syrian solution.

By trying to keep the Syrian refugee crisis at arms' length, hoping that refugees will stay put in neighbouring countries, the West has only made the crisis worse.

Western policy seems to be to contain as many Syrian refugees as possible in neighbouring countries and hope the problem stays far away. While Turkey is accommodating 1.9 million Syrians, the United States is taking in only between 1,000 and 2,000 this year – around 0.0005 percent of the total – and Britain has managed to relocate just 216.

The three D's

Over the past few years, as the crisis in their homeland has deepened, I have watched many Syrians go through several layers of anguish before taking the painful decision to leave and try to reach Europe.

The first stage was denial. Syrians are incredibly proud of their country and none that I know wanted to leave. Initially, they often refused to accept the magnitude of the crisis, moving around internally inside Syria if they had to.

The second phase was determination. When they eventually fled to neighbouring countries, all were desperate to make it work so they could return home as soon as possible. In 2012 and even into 2013, the refugees I spoke to overwhelmingly believed it would only be a matter of time – they just needed to survive the coming few months.

Finally, came desperation. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees have recently been banned from working. In Jordan, they have never been allowed to do so. Turkey has done more than any other nation, but it too is starting to limit refugees’ freedom of movement. The humanitarian response – only ever a sticking plaster on a gaping wound – has been ravaged by funding shortages. Four-and-a-half years after the conflict erupted, hopes of returning have been extinguished for most Syrian refugees. Even if the war ended tomorrow, millions have no homes to return to. As a grim future in neighbouring countries reveals itself, more and more Syrian refugees opt to take the risk of leaving for Europe, for the best chance of a proper life.

Noha and Omar

Many, like single mother Noha**, wanted to wait and go legally. Several times she was told by various Western embassies that a decision on her resettlement application was “imminent”. Several times the decision never came. On Monday, she took a flight from Lebanon to Turkey with her two small children. From there, like thousands before her, she will take a smuggler’s boat to Greece and then make the long overland journey into northern Europe through Serbia, Macedonia and Hungary.

Lebanon, a country of little more than four million citizens, is hosting more than a million refugees. Until March this year – the most up-to-date period the United Nations has statistics for – only 7,620 of those have been accepted for resettlement by other countries.

This is the real issue driving Europe's crisis. For while Noha cannot get an embassy to give her a visa or refugee status, she knows that if she can make it to Europe’s doorstep, international law gives her the right to apply for asylum there. Syrians have an almost 100 percent refugee status approval rate across Europe – as long as they can get there first.

This is not only illogical but deeply flawed as asylum is meant to be granted to the most needy first.

Take Omar. The 10-year-old is the oldest of four brothers forced to survive by begging on the streets of Turkey’s largest city Istanbul. At night, as the iconic boats that crisscross the Bosphorus rest for the night, he rushes back to the port. As the shutters close, he and his siblings scuttle onto a boat and bed down on the hard boards. Omar will never be able to raise enough money to take the boat to Europe - his future is on the streets.

If the West was more open to accepting more Syrians through formal channels, such as refugee resettlement, family reunion and humanitarian visas, then perhaps we wouldn't be seeing so many desperate families forced to rely on smugglers to reach Europe.

By trying to keep the Syrian refugee crisis at arms' length, hoping that refugees will stay put in neighbouring countries, the West has only made the crisis worse.  Without a properly managed response, the crisis in Syria will continue to wash up on Europe's shores.

*IOM does not yet have nationality figures for July, so estimates are based on the figures until the end of June when over 55 percent of arrivals were Syrian.

** Names changed to protect their identities

Joe Dyke was IRIN’s Middle East editor until 2015. He lived in Lebanon from 2011, the year the Syrian war began, until 2015.

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