Middle East expert Carolien Roelants recently read a column at the annual Network Day of the Netherlands Interuniversity School for Islamic Studies (NISIS), presenting a cynical look at the role of world leaders in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis.
The present refugee crisis of course is not the first and will not be the last. Take the Afghan refugee crisis, which caused millions of Afghans to flee their country after the Marxist coup in 1978 and Soviet occupation in 1979. Iran then harboured two to three million Afghans, at that time the largest refugee population in any country in the world. Many of these Afghans are still there, sweeping the roads early in the morning, being blamed for crimes and other problems, and now employed by the Iranian regime to fight in Syria in support of Assad’s regime. Another example is Kenya, where more than 300,000 Somali refugees still live in the biggest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab -23 years after the war started.
From a European perspective, however, these crises did not have as much impact, as most refugees remained in the region. From time to time international TV stations paid attention to their situation, particularly when aid organizations – permanently in search of funds – organized trips for reporters to refugee camps. So we at home could donate some money if we felt this necessary to placate our conscience. But that was all.
This time, however, the war which has caused the current refugee crisis is in Europe’s back garden. Refugees from Syria have fled in such large numbers that neighbouring countries have simply overflown, which has resulted in their passage to Europe.
Refugee camps in the region
Recently I returned from Lebanon. I love Beirut, where the atmosphere at least looks much freer than in other Middle East capitals. Cultural festivals took place, heavy metal music thumped through the streets, a Formula One race took place in the Corniche. The huge nightclub Music Hall attracted its usual public of young and not so young but prosperous Beirutis.
At the same time the number of beggars appeared to have increased significantly since my last trip to Beirut in 2014. They included women with young children, old and disabled people, and boys offering to polish your shoes. A touching young boy selling flowers. All Syrians.
As everybody should know by now, Lebanon is confronted with the highest number of Syrian refugees per Lebanese citizen. About 1,5 million Syrian refugees now live in Lebanon, together with about 4,5 million Lebanese in a country which measures roughly one quarter of The Netherlands.
The United Nations is paying for them as the Lebanese government only wants to spend money on its own population, unlike the Turkish government which harbours and supports 2,7 million Syrian refugees. It simply does not want these Syrians. It fears the Syrians will stay, just like the Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948, disturbing the fragile sectarian balance between Sunnis and Shias, the majority of Syrian refugees being Sunni. That is why there are no official camps in Lebanon, only horrible improvised camps in fields the refugees themselves rent from the owners.
The Lebanese government does permit Syrian children to attend school as well as accepts all Syrians to its health services. Currently there are 200,000 Syrian children at school in Lebanon on top of 250,000 Lebanese. Still, that means about 300,000 Syrian children under 18 do not attend school.
Another thing: not only the government does not want these refugees, neither do many Lebanese. Which is understandable as schools and health care are in a bad state, rents are rising, and cheaper Syrians take away a lot of jobs.
Elsewhere in the region the situation is not much different. Well, you know.
But politicians here and at EU level in general appear not to know the situation. They prove their ignorance by promoting the Regional Solution for the Syrian refugees. Visiting Dutch Prime Minister Rutte said it was fun to look, I quote, “in their small houses” in such a filthy, improvised camp in Lebanon. Implying that as far as he was concerned, the refugees could live there forever. And of course there is the EU deal with Turkey to keep refugees within Turkish borders.
Now I do understand the European wish to somehow regulate the influx of refugees. What I don’t understand is that there appears to be no urge to try and solve the Syrian war. Which is after all the root cause of the refugees crisis.
The war in Syria began when the Syrian regime started to deploy armed forces to end an initially non-violent protest against the Assad regime. It did not take long for regional and other countries to intervene and escalate the war.
If you look carefully, you will see that most of the involved countries are not really affected by the war. Apart from Syria itself of course, neither the US, nor Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are suffering. If you have a cynical world view – like me – the conclusion is they are not working for a speedy solution. They are involved in a power struggle with their own agendas. I do not want to imply it is easy to end the war. But in the end, all rebel groups and the Syrian regime are backed by one or another country, and if they order them to stop they will have to.
But Europe is affected by the war. And the only solution European leaders can think of is trying to squeeze all the refugees in the region.
How not to end the Syrian war, is the title of this column. The answer is: by doing nothing to end the war.
This a shortened version of the column Carolien Roelants read at the annual Islamic Studies Network Day of NISIS, held at Leiden University on 27 May. For more information about this event, click here.