By the Blouin News World staff

Refugees, Syria, and a history of crisis

by in Europe, Middle East.

Syrian Kurds go back to Syria at Mursitpinar crossing gate at the southeastern town of Suruc in Sanliurfa province, on September 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC

Syrian Kurds at Mursitpinar crossing gate on September 24, 2014. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC

Over 300,000 migrants streamed into Europe in the first seven months of 2015. This influx has made the lack of infrastructure and social systems to support growing populations in war-torn regions of the world painfully evident. Syria is the most obvious and hardest-hit example of wartime aggression taking its toll on civilian populations, but Afghanistan, Eritrea, and a number of other Middle Eastern and Northern African countries are also experiencing the fallouts of inadequate physical, social and political infrastructures. Who is arriving on Europe’s shores, and why? What is the history, both political and cultural, behind these movements? What sort of responsibility does the rest of the world hold in terms of accommodating and adjusting to the massive numbers of people escaping war-torn regions?

The majority of those arriving in Europe fall under one of two categories: migrants and refugees. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines a migrant as “any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born, and has acquired some significant social ties to this country.” In 1951, the Geneva Convention determined a refugee as any person who, due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that over 3,000 people died attempting the voyage to Europe from the aforementioned countries in 2014 alone; this exceeds the 2011 peak and is over four times the estimated number of deaths in 2013. In total, an estimated 22,000 migrants have died en route to Europe since 2002. One might draw a correlation between the increased level of desperation on the part of migrants trying to flee countries crumbling under political and military turmoil and the increase in the rate of mortality.

According to a study by Eurostat, based on the country of origin listed on asylum applications, the largest influx of refugees is from Syria. However, some refugees do not apply for asylum, meaning the numbers could be far greater. According to the study, over 55,000 people fled Syria in 2014 to seek asylum in Europe. The European Union granted 184,665 asylum applications in 2014; Syrian refugees were the top recipients. Like many other countries facing an exodus of refugees, Syria has a history of exploitative leadership and a fragile social fabric.

Here is a brief chronology of the turmoil that has contributed to Syria’s current refugee crisis:

  • 1958: Syria joins with Egypt to create the United Arab Republic (UAR). A group of Syrian army officers becomes discontented with Egyptian power. In 1966, there is a coup that results in Hafez al-Assad becoming defense minister.

  • 1967: The seven-day war with Israel. In 1971, Assad is elected to a 7-year term as president.

  • 1973: Assad eliminates the requirement that Syria’s president be Muslim. In 1974, Syria and Israel sign a disengagement pact.

  • 1980: The Islamic Revolution takes place in Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood attempts to assassinate Assad. The Muslim Brotherhood increases its influence throughout the 1980s; conflict rages in Lebanon. Syria joins a U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 1990, reinforcing ties with U.S. and Egypt.

  • 2000: Assad dies and his son Bashar succeeds him. The Muslim Brotherhood becomes active again.

  • 2002: U.S. President Bush lists Syria as member of the “Axis of Evil.” The U.S. claims Syria has weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, the U.S. places sanctions on Syria for alleged support of terrorist groups.

  • September 2006: There is an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Syria. One year later, Israel bombs the northern border of Syria, alleging a covert nuclear proliferation facility.

  • May 2011: Assad lifts a 48-year-long state of emergency. In June, 10,000 people flee from the besieged town of Jisr al- Shuguor. In November, the Arab League suspends Syrian membership and imposes sanctions.

  • May 2012: France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada, and Australia expel Syrian diplomats in protest of the killing of more than 100 civilians in the Homs province. In June, Syria shoots down a Turkish plane, increasing tensions with Turkey. The U.S. threatens intervention in the event of chemical weapon use. Amidst international pressure, Assad allows international inspectors to begin destroying chemical weapons.

  • By March 2014, Assad is widely viewed as an international pariah responsible for suspected war crimes and social and political upheaval in Syria. That year, the Syrian Army and Hezbollah take the city of Yabroud, the last rebel stronghold. By August, the Islamic State controls the entire Raqqa province.

  • 2015: The Islamic State has spread across Syria and Iraq, encroaching on Turkey’s borders.

Today, the E.U. is straining to adapt its ill-equipped refugee protection policies to the refugee influx. In 2014, Germany granted 47,555 claims for asylum, surpassing Sweden by over 14,000. France and Italy granted around 20,000 each. As is often the case with a large wave of refugees, Germany is experiencing a violent backlash from the far right. President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel appear to be accepting of recent refugees; both made recent visits to refugee centers. On September 13, Germany reinstated border controls.

The 28 members of the E.U. met last week to draft a plan to redistribute the estimated 160,000 (at the time of this writing) asylum seekers. They failed to agree on a plan that would require individual countries to take shares of refugees. The U.N. is similarly stalled. In the wake of the international community’s failure to act during the 1994 genocides in Rwanda and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the U.N. adopted the Responsibility to Protect principle. It is a point Angelina Jolie brought forth in a statement as Ambassador for Syrian Refugees in April of 2015. She called for the U.N. to honor its promise to protect: “International humanitarian law prohibits torture, starvation, the targeting of schools and hospitals – but these crimes are happening every day in Syria…The Security Council has powers to address these threats to international peace and security – but those powers lie unused. The UN has adopted the Responsibility to Protect concept, saying that when a State cannot protect its people the international community will not stand by – but we are standing by, in Syria.”

Meanwhile, Syria’s crisis continues.