Refugee problem endures in Europe

How diplomacy around Syria pans out over coming months will tell much about long-term situation facing refugees.

A migrant carrying a child walks from the Macedonian border into Serbia, near the village of Miratovac, Serbia.

2016/02/26 Issue: 45 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Istanbul - The warning signs were there. Humanitarian agen­cies predicted months in advance that the summer of 2015 would see unprec­edented numbers of migrants and refugees take to the seas towards Europe. While 2014 had 280,000 desperate people reach Europe’s borders in the hope of making a new life, that figure trebled in 2015.

The result of the largest move­ment of refugees since the second world war has led to more than 3,500 people drowning while at­tempting to make the journey.

It was the image of the 3-year-old boy’s limp body washed up on a Turkish beach that appeared on 20 million computer screens in just 12 hours last August that changed the world’s attitude — if not actions — to a problem hiding in plain sight.

The death of 700 migrants on a ship off the coast of Libya in April became a distant, forgotten memory in light of all that came to pass after­wards.

The refugee crisis has linked Syr­ia, Turkey and Europe like never be­fore and none can sincerely claim to have done enough. Fewer than 15% of all refugees in Turkey are being housed in government-built camps. The remainder are strewn across cities of the south and among the 15 million inhabitants of Istanbul where, because of the city’s sheer size, they find themselves no more than a passing concern.

Responses to the crisis have been far from clear or in unison. Despite the doubling of requests for refu­gee status globally, countries have increased acceptance rates by only 9%. “We need to strongly increase resettlement from Turkey… We need to substantially increase the number of opportunities for people to come to Europe legally,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in October.

According to a Greek police source, Athens has agreed to re­turn or readmit more than 8,000 “irregular migrants” to Turkey. The problem is that most of those people have already moved on to Austria and Germany, and Turkey, having accepted 2,395 people through this scheme, actually readmitted just eight individuals.

How diplomacy around Syria pans out over the coming months will tell much about the long-term situation facing refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq.

For refugees in Turkey and Eu­rope, the initial euphoria, media attention and sense of urgency that characterised 2015’s response to the crisis is unlikely to be repeated.

For those in Europe, 2016 will be a year of sitting tight, dealing with winter temperatures and exercising patience as countries work through a massive backlog of refugee and asylum applications and the logis­tics that entails, as well as political horse trading with their European neighbours, many of whom have seen their national politics veer to the right.

Syrians in Turkey face a much more daunting future. The resur­gent Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is unlikely to grant more secure status to the 2.2 million and counting refugees for fear of losing support from large numbers of the population it has worked hard to reel in and keep over the past decade.

2015 proved to be a chastening year for a Europe still foundering to pin down its identity; for Ankara, which is attempting to manage the spillover of war while attempting to seize its way back into Europe’s good graces, and for Syrians who continue to be pummelled by barrel bombs and Russian air strikes. Sure­ly 2016 can’t turn out as bad.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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