More than four million refugees have fled armed conflict in Syria since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. With no end to the war in sight, an estimated 400,000 displaced Syrians are now fleeing to Europe, risking treacherous journeys in the hopes of finding refuge for their families. As the influx continues to climb, Europe is struggling to manage what experts report to be the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide. We asked Associate Professor Christopher Rudolph, an expert on international migration and international humanitarian law, for insight:
Q: What factors have contributed to the current refugee crisis? And, what is the tipping point that brought it back to media attention recently?
As I see it, there are three primary factors contributing to the current crisis. First and foremost, it is the protracted nature of the civil war and the profound suffering it has brought to the people of Syria. The longer the conflict continues without any real progress made toward peace, the higher the probability that Syrians will flee for their own safety. When hope in peace fades, migration becomes an increasingly appealing option. The second factor that has made this a global crisis is the fact that the countries neighboring Syria have simply become overrun by the volume of the refugee flows. There are roughly 2 million refugees in Turkey, more than 1 million in Lebanon, and over 600,000 in Jordan. Because of this, refugees are more likely to seek refuge further abroad, including the EU. Lastly, the current crisis involves more than Syrian refugees. More than 3 million people have fled from Iraq seeking refuge from ISIS, Afghanistan is currently the second-largest producer of asylum seekers, and thousands more continue to flee from Eritrea.
The tipping point, at least in terms of the Western media, was reached when the refugee flows arrived at the European frontier. Though the trials and tribulations of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey was well-documented by human rights NGOs, it generally didn’t receive “front page” status among Western media outlets. Media coverage increased as the number of boats carrying refugees across the Mediterranean grew. Each day saw not only more boats and more refugees landing on European soil, but also more and more stories of human tragedy. Media attention also continued to grow when thousands reached the Hungarian border, where they were met with barbed wire rather than open arms. The striking images released by the media over these past weeks have caught the attention of a global audience. In particular, the haunting image of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi has made it difficult for anyone to ignore the profound suffering involved in this crisis.
Q: Germany, Sweden, and other European countries are accepting tens of thousands of displaced Syrians. What measures should the European Union take to manage the massive and increasing influx of refugees?
Ideally, an EU-wide policy would facilitate burden-sharing among its member states. If each of the 28 EU member states shared in the burden of providing refuge, it stands to reason that safe haven could be provided to more refugees. However, such a policy faces considerable obstacles. Recent events make it clear that there are substantial differences among EU members on the question of refugees. On the one side, Germany has taken a strong stance in promoting asylum for large numbers of refugees. On the other, Hungary, which is currently on the front-lines of the crisis, considers the mass influx of largely Muslim migrants as a potential threat to its national identity and its societal security. Preferences of the other 26 EU member countries fall along the spectrum between these extremes. Thus, seeking to address the problem at the EU level poses a risk of worsening already strained relations among EU-member states in the wake of the Greek financial crisis. In the short-run, I’d expect refugee admissions to be managed largely at the state level rather than by the EU as a whole.
Q: The Obama administration has promised to take in at least 10,000 refugees over the next year. What more can the United States and its citizens do to help?
In the short-run, accepting more refugees would help with the immediate crisis, but doing so poses substantial challenges. Admitting refugees emanating from an ISIS stronghold is a potential risk for homeland security and presents a challenge for immigration authorities to effectively screen new arrivals. Let me be clear that in no way am I saying that refugees are a threat to homeland security. Rather, opening a channel of entry represents an opportunity for those who may pose a legitimate threat to national security. Screening asylum applicants quickly and effectively has become much more difficult than it was prior to 9/11, and this task becomes even more daunting task the greater the volume of the flow.
The most important response would be to address the cause of the problem—the conflict in Syria. It seems quite clear that current U.S. policy—or lack thereof—is simply not working. Hopefully, the refugee crisis will prompt policy makers to revisit the U.S. strategy in Syria and to find a solution that will stop the bloodshed and establish some stability in a volatile region. Given the rapidly growing scope and scale of the crisis, addressing the cause of the crisis can’t come soon enough.
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