Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Syrian Refugees – the Myth and Reality of a Brand | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page
Media ID: 55349150


As some of us had expected the great European scare built around Syrian refugees has already fallen out of the headlines, barely retaining a place in inside pages. Why is this?

The flow of refugees has not slowed down, let alone stopped. According to latest estimates by the United Nations, over 100,000 new refugees have arrived in Turkey since last February.

What has happened is that Europe has factored in the immigrants’ issue in the complex and constantly changing mix of its political concerns. In some countries immigration has become the number one issue of national politics, even when no or few immigrants are involved.

Britain, for example, has pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years and has so far only admitted 126. And, yet, fear of mass immigration is emerging as a key factor in shaping the result of next June’s referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

In Hungry, which has said it won’t take any refugees, the fear of “a tsunami of immigrants” has become a hot topic. Nobel Prize winner for Literature Imre Kertesz has even published a book on the subject. The book’s title “The Last Refuge” refers to Europe which the great Hungarian novelist believes “Muslims are flooding, occupying, in no uncertain terms, destroying Europe.”

In Paris the magazine Valeurs Actuelles warns that France’s national identity is in danger, although the French have wiggled out of European quotas for admitting immigrants. So far, a total of 1003 Syrian refugees have been let in with promises of admitting another 3000 at an unspecified date.

Part of the scare is due to the activities of lobbies that want as many immigrants as they could get away with. Dominated by left-liberal ideologies, the European Union’s huge bureaucracy is sold on the idea of open borders inside the continent. Its ideological allies in several European political parties and hundreds of NGOs go even further in support of open borders beyond the continent.

The massive welfare industry that consists of large segments of the bureaucracy, and numerous charitable organizations often benefiting from the public purse also favor mass immigration if only because immigrants form a significant proportion of welfare recipients.

With the collapse of Communism as an ideology, those who share its view of the world have fallen back on a new theme: equality. They no longer talk of the dictatorship of the proletariat or even the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Instead, they urge regulation and redistribution from the well-to-do to the underprivileged.

Economists like Thomas Picketty and Joseph Stiglitz have built a whole system on the claim that there is less equality in Western democratic societies today than there was a generation ago. To sustain such a thesis you need a steady flow of poorer people who help bring down the statistical average of income distribution. In other words you need to import poor people to prove your theory right.

Paradoxically, though ideologically close to the right, large segments of the European business community also favor mass immigration because it ensures an endless source of cheap labor that could keep wage levels as low as possible in the same way as the supply of slave labor did in the Roman Empire.

Support for mass immigration comes from another surprising corner: moderate conservative and Christian movements concerned about Europe’s demographic decline. In fact, German Chancellor Mrs. Angela Merkel all but publicly acknowledged this before the “Syrian tsunami” started. She appealed to the youth of other European counties to immigrate to Germany where they would be welcomed and helped to achieve their full potential. Thus when she surprised many by saying Germany would take up to a million Syrian refugees she was, in fact, acting according to a well-thought strategy.

According to German experts, quoted by the weekly Der Spiegel, the federal republic needs at least two million live births each year to avoid speedy demographic decline and even “extinction” within decades. At the moment, however, Germans produce only 700,000 babies each year, a quarter of them from immigrant backgrounds. The demographic picture is equally grim for Italy, Spain, Greece and Sweden.

For its part, Turkey quickly recognized the potential of the Syrian refugee tragedy” to further its own end. It was invited back to the top-table in Europe, given a $6 billion golden handshake and had its years of regression on human rights simply ignored.

Using the “Syrian” label to sell the idea of mass immigration to Europe was a stroke of marketing genius. Here were “innocent civilians” fleeing from a sanguinary despot backed by Iran’s disreputable mullahs, the Hezbollah mercenaries and later Vladimir Putin’s death machine. Any European loyal to his or her “cultural values” would support a policy of open arms to welcome people in such a dire strait. “We could not let Syrian children die on Turkish beaches,” became a mantra for the European liberal left. The head of the Catholic community Pope Francis echoed the sentiment by denouncing the idea of allowing the Mediterranean to become a graveyard of refugees.

But while people talk about “up to 20 million Syrian refugees” coming to settle in Europe, the real picture may show something different. The official data available shows that the tsunami may well turn out to have been more of a spring shower, at least so far.

According to figures presented by the German government to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, in 2015 the Federal Republic registered a total of 311,000 immigrants. Of these 99,290 were Syrians while Iraqis, in second place, numbered 36,000. Iranians were in third place with 13,535 people. The rest came from Afghanistan and over 20 other countries, most of them in the African continents. In other words, less than one third were Syrians.

In the same year, the Federal Republic approved 30,000 demands for asylum. Of these more than a third, 11,770, belonged to Kurdish-Turkish refugees. Iranian asylum-seekers were in second place with 5776 approved applications. Syrians came third with 5389.

Also in 2015, the Federal Republic granted temporary resident status to 155,208 immigrants. Of these 87 per cent belonged to the Balkan counters with Serbs at number one receiving 30212 approvals. Kosovars were in second place with 13,533. The Syrians were again in third place with 9,988. Finally, 37,220 refugees agreed to return to their original homelands with financial help from Berlin.

To sum up, while the “Syrian” brand has been massively used for marketing purposes, the number of Syrians offered refuge in Europe is nowhere near the 1 or 2 million figures bandied around. In fact, in 2015 many more Turks, Iranians and Serbs were absorbed in Europe than Syrians. To be sure, Berlin has a further 1.2 million demands for asylum, of which almost half are from Syrians, to consider this year.

According to the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015 five countries accounted for almost 80 per cent of all asylum seekers: Syria, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even then the picture is more complicated than it appears. For example, the number of Iranians registered as refugees by the UNHCR is just over 76000 whereas Turkey alone is host to 1.2 million Iranian “exiles” granted temporary residence which is renewed every year. There is no such facility for Syrians.
According to the charity Oxfam, western democracies have admitted 1.4 per cent of those refugees, including a total of 67000 Syrians. The share of the US in that is around 1800.

The moral of the story is that there are interest groups that wish to use and abuse the “Syrian refugee tragedy” as a brand to serve their own political purposes either to dismiss any suggestion that mass immigration poses a threat to the European way of life or to hide the cowardice of western democracies to deal with vicious regimes that drive their people out of their homes.