A BRIEF STORY OF THE CONFLICT
The conflict began in March 2011, when pro-democracy protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa, after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, which followed with more people taking to the streets. These events triggered nationwide protests of people demanding the resignation of President Assad. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets across the country demanding that President Assad step down.
Supporters of the opposition began to take up arms, first to defend themselves from security forces, and later to expel them from their local areas. Violence escalated and a civil war ensued. By early 2012, fighting had reached Damascus and the city of Aleppo. By June 2013, the UN estimated that 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. By August 2014, that figure had more than doubled to 191,000, and continued to climb to 220,000 by March 2015.
The conflict that began with prodemocracy demonstrations between those for or against President Assad, quickly acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect. The rise of the jihadist groups, including Islamic State (IS), the extremist group that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq added a further dimension.
Presently, Islamic State has taken control of large areas of territory across northern and eastern Syria, as well as neighboring Iraq, and are now involved in a “war within a war,” battling rebels and jihadists from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, as well as Kurdish and government forces.
The Islamic State, which has been defined by the UN as a terrorist group, has been waging a campaign of terror in large areas of territory in northern and eastern Syria inflicting severe punishments on those who transgress or refuse to accept its rule, including torture, public executions and amputations. Its fighters have also carried out mass killings of rival armed groups, members of the security forces and religious minorities, and beheaded hostages, including several Westerners.
THE REFUGEE CRISIS
Syria’s conflict has devastated the nation. Current estimates indicate that more than 240,000 people have been killed, including 12,000 children. One million more are wounded or permanently disabled. More than half of the country’s population of 22 million has been forced to leave their homes. Many of them have moved multiple times since the conflict began. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 7.6 million have moved within Syria, and more than 4 million have taken refuge in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. About half of those displaced are children. Absorbing the influx of refugees has been an overwhelming challenge for Syria’s neighbors, with strong implications for the stability of the entire region.
THE EU’S POSITION
Generally, asylum is granted to people fleeing persecution or serious harm in their own country and in need of international protection. Asylum is a fundamental right; granting it is an international obligation, first recognized in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the protection of refugees. At present, 145 countries of the world, including Europe, Canada, the United States and most Latin American countries, are signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Protection of Refugees.
An asylum seeker is a person who has applied for asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention on the Status of Refugees on the ground that if she is returned to her country of origin she has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. A refugee, in the context of the current crisis, means a person fleeing civil war or a natural disaster, but not necessarily fearing persecution as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention.
In the EU, an area of open borders and freedom of movement, States have usually used a joint approach to guarantee high standards of protection for both, asylum seekers and refugees. However, the current refugee crisis prompted by the Syrian civil war has resulted such an overwhelming arrival of people to some countries, that it is becoming a challenge to reach agreement among the EU States.
Nearly half a million migrants crossed the EU’s borders from January to August 2015, compared with just 280,000 during the whole of 2014. The majority came from Syria but there are also people who came from Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Darfur, Somalia and other countries in the hope of a new life somewhere like Germany, France or the UK. Under an EU rule known as the Dublin regulation, refugees are required to claim asylum in the member state in which they first arrive. But some EU countries, such as Greece, Italy, and Croatia, have been allowing migrants and refugees to pass through to countries where they may have better prospects.
Yesterday the European governments reached a divisive deal to impose refugee quotas; they agreed to distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. The decision was reached on a majority vote with the objections of four eastern members. Although Slovakia threatened to take court action against the resettlement quotas, the other three countries that voted against quotas reluctantly accepted the plan, but not without expressing their disagreement.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, accused Germany of “moral imperialism” over the refugee crisis stating that even if Germany decides to take in more refugees, it should not try to force other countries to do the same. Britain refused to take part in the EU refugee-sharing scheme because it does not belong to the Schengen “open borders” zone in continental Europe, and it opted out of the discussions. Later, David Cameron pledged that Britain would take 20,000 Syrians from camps by 2020.
THE US POSITION
The White House stated last week that the US would take at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1. Secretary of State John Kerry announced Sunday that the U.S. will raise the annual number of total refugees it accepts over the next few years. The Wall Street Journal reports that under the new plan, the U.S. will take on 85,000 refugees in the fiscal year 2016, which starts in October, and 100,000 in 2017, up from a current annual total of 70,000. The 2016 total would include the 10,000 Syrian refugees the Obama administration has already said it would like to admit.
According to the UN, worldwide, nearly 60 million people have been forcibly displaced. Of that number, 38.2 million are internally displaced, 19.5 million are refugees, and 1.8 million are asylum-seekers. Under the new plan, the U.S. will accept 85,000 refugees next year. This number is undoubtedly large, but it pales in comparison to the scale of the problem, and what other countries, sometimes much poorer than the US, are doing in response. The top six countries to host refugees are Turkey (1.59 million), Pakistan (1.51 million), Lebanon (1.15 million), Iran (982,000), Ethiopia (659,500), and Jordan (654,100).
There is no easy solution to the refugee crisis in the world. Although the civil war in Syria, and the resulting flux of refugees in Europe has made the problem more palpable in the last few weeks, the sad reality is that there are millions of individuals that are forced every year to leave their homes for fear for their safety, and almost half of them are children.
Countries in the world have a choice to make: they either provide meaningful help in the resettlement of refugees, or they do not. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that Germany could take as many as 800,000 refugees this year, as compared with the 85,000 the US has indicated it would accept in 2016, and the 20,000 that Britain has committed to accept by 2020.
As long as there are undemocratic regimes in the world, political turmoil, wars and natural disasters happening around the globe, there will be asylum seekers and refugees asking for help. And even though there is no easy solution to the refugee problem in the world, there is something that can be concluded easily, asylum seekers and refugees are people, like us, looking for a safe place to live and raise their families.