Syrian Refugee Crisis: Another Perspective

Syrian refugees having rest at the floor of Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 5 September 2015.

by Wayne White

Post-Paris, there are good reasons for concern over the mass migration of mainly Syrian refugees into Europe. The knowledge that a November 13 Islamic State (ISIS or IS) attacker slipped into Europe among the refugees surely demands that a less chaotic immigration process be established. Yet, this is not the greatest challenge posed by this human tidal wave. European countries with large Muslim communities must work a lot harder to avoid alienating Muslims living in their midst. And if waves of Syrian refugees continue heading for Europe, there will be consequences regarding the future of Syria itself.

The Syrian diaspora is the direct result of an international—and especially European—humanitarian failure. Europe has neglected the substandard conditions in the makeshift camps from Jordan to Turkey that host vast numbers of largely Syrian refugees. The US could do more as well. However, Europe’s inadequate response to desperate UN appeals for far more money to meet even the basic needs for livable refugee camps means that the US has footed an unusually large percentage of the support for these refugees. France’s contribution, by comparison, has been minimal. Yet, even with US aid, less than 40% of UN needs just two months ago have been met. For a long time huge numbers of Syrian refugees tried to make a go of it in the camps, but the situation simply became unbearable.

To prevent a continuing flood of Syrian refugees from overwhelming Europe, neglect of the camps needs to be rectified—especially as the region enters this winter season. Other regional donors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE surely can donate a lot more too. If the camps could be rendered a lot more viable as alternatives to emigration, the mass movement toward Europe could be curbed somewhat.

Security Vulnerability Now

Given the sheer volume of refugees pouring into Europe in recent months, reliable “vetting” is practically impossible. European countries, the US, and others right now face a major security issue: returning IS veterans with real or false passports that reveal nothing about their IS connections.

In that respect, the leading challenge is the frequent absence of documentation, such as police records, on past refugee activities. Coordination with Syrian authorities to find further clarity is not likely to be of much value when, hostile to the coalition, Damascus could refuse to cooperate, fabricate incriminating records against certain refugees, or give most everyone a clean bill of health just to get rid of anti-government Syrians, especially the many Sunni Arabs who despise the regime.

So it is hardly the fault of Greek authorities for being unable to perform meaningful vetting. No one could in the face of this surge of humanity. Early vetting— such as detailed individual interviews by qualified immigration officials—that could reveal inconsistencies in stories or other issues of a suspicious nature was nearly impossible.

The Far Bigger Security Challenge Ahead

Over the long (and short) term, the leading danger related to the European Muslim community will remain their second-class status as citizens in many countries. In France and Belgium especially, there is considerable prejudice against them. In the two years after 9/11, in Brussels on NATO business, I heard profoundly shocking views toward Muslims and Arabs from working- and middle-class native Belgians (in one case, from a cab driver while passing through Molenbeek).

Regarding the new wave of Syrian immigration, the exclusionary or reluctant reaction of Hungary and a few other countries toward bone-weary refugees often travelling on foot is sure to stoke resentment right off among the new arrivals. Of far greater importance will be their treatment over the long haul. It is no surprise that downtrodden Muslim immigrant communities in France and Belgium, for example, have spawned large numbers of Islamic State recruits and sympathizers. And if the plight of these large European immigrant communities that the new arrivals will join cannot be improved, radicalization of young resident Muslims (new arrivals and old) will likely remain a problem well into the future—regardless of the fate of the Islamic State.

As talks continue in search of a solution to the Syrian crisis, the downstream consequences in Syria of hundreds of thousands of Syrians quitting the area for Europe and beyond also demand mention. Whatever the end game for IS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, a shattered Syria will need to be rebuilt. Many Syrian refugees now on the move toward Europe represent relatively secular or moderate Islamic elements, quite a few with the education and skills needed for that immense task. To the extent that those most amenable to the vision of a free, less authoritarian, and moderate Syria leave, it will be that much harder to restore some semblance of normalcy to their former country. The attrition among such valuable human assets where they are needed most could be the fallout of greatest significance from the ongoing Syrian migration.

Photo: Syrian refugees in Hungary

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.