By Henry Gilliver
The process of writing a blog post about the Syrian refugee crisis is an oddly liberating experience. The bind of objectivity associated with the academic rigour of an essay, or the diplomatic constraints of compiling an official report; such impediments do not restrain the author of an opinion piece. It is, however, often hard to break with the habits of writing to which one has become accustomed. This article will therefore begin with a factual description of the situation as it presently exists.
Whilst the humanitarian crisis in Syria has fallen from the agenda of many mainstream media outlets in recent months, the situation for all those directly affected continues to deteriorate. Amnesty International estimates that over 10 million Syrians, or 45% of the country’s population, have been displaced by the conflict. UNICEF has suggested that over 50% of these are children.
At present, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are hosting 97% of all Syrian refugees; about 3.8 million people. A further 6.5 million displaced persons remain in Syria. As a point of comparison, the aggregated GDP of these five states is about 1.4 trillion US Dollars. The GDP of the United Kingdom is about 2.7 trillion. In fact, five European states have a GDP that is higher than the aggregated total of these five main recipient countries. Whilst GDP is not the only factor which must be considered when trying to determine how best to share the global responsibility for the Syrian people, it could be argued that Europe is not doing all that it can to help alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis. In fact, only five European states have pledged to accept more than 1000 refugees, with Germany’s offer of 30,000 being by far and away the most significant.
To labour this point further, my own government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis deserves further consideration. The UK, which is the fifth largest economy in the world, spent 61.8 billion US Dollars on defence in 2014 (The Military Balance 2015; IISS), but has only accepted 143 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Interestingly, in the year ending in June 2014, the number of Tier 1 Investor visas granted to non-EEA citizens by the British government increased by 484 from the previous year. This visa grants permanent residency to individuals who wish to invest a minimum of 2 million GBP in UK businesses. I would prefer that my country’s borders were open to the world’s most vulnerable people at the same time as they are open to the wealthiest.
The aforementioned facts provide an initial insight into the failings of the European response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Quite simply, the priorities of these governments seem to be less focussed on global moral value judgements than they are on economic performance. Whilst this is nothing new, the global financial crisis of 2008 served to intensify this focus of governance, demonstrated by the wave of austerity based economic policies adopted across the continent. While it may not be entirely fair to suggest that the European intake of Syrian refugees has been so low because it isn’t profitable, the prolonged, single-minded focus on economic recovery has certainly proved an effective distraction from fulfilling our moral obligations to help those displaced by war.
The priorities of those governments with the greatest capacity to help Syrian refugees have also been affected by the rise of Islamic State. The group’s continued presence in neighbouring Iraq, and within Syria itself, constitutes a serious problem for international security in the view of many global actors. In terms of governments’ attention to global issues, international security often trumps humanitarian crises. Consequently, the humanitarian situation in Syria has fallen from the agenda of most of Europe’s mainstream media outlets, and thus, from the consciousness of most people.
Looking toward the domestic politics within some European states, it has become politically convenient for many governments to avoid fully committing to the Syrian refugee crisis. Europe has witnessed the rise of increasingly influential anti-immigration parties. The likes of the UK Independence Party, the Front National in France, and Germany’s Alternative Für Deutschland party are just three examples of this trend. These parties appear to have garnered support by emphasising what they see as the negative elements of immigration. This rise in support has created political pressure on some governments to focus their efforts on curbing net immigration figures, which they may fear will become distorted by a large influx of refugees. That having been said, Germany has shown that despite these pressures real humanitarian progress can be made. 30,000 refugees is by far the largest pledge made by a European nation. Domestic political pressure, then, should not be considered an insurmountable hurdle to humanitarian commitment.
It is the ease with which our governments can ignore the Syrian situation that we must make an effort to change. Those of us who live in democratic societies have enormous scope to influence government decisions; our governments are ultimately answerable to us. It is therefore a weak excuse to simply blame them for their inadequate response. If they are failing to act, it is because we are not making the issue one they can’t ignore. Presently, those voicing their concerns about immigration and the economy are shouting louder than those who are shouting about Syria. As a result, the misery for those whose lives have been devastated continues without our help. The distractions of the economy, IS, and political parties must not drown out the cries for help from the 10 million Syrians who have been displaced.
To employ an over-worked cliché: you have a voice, so use it to raise awareness of this issue. Write to your local government representative, post articles about the evolving situation, sign petitions and join protests. If you don’t think your government is doing enough to help, tell them about it, and tell anyone else who will listen. One voice might not seem like much, but the more people who start singing to the same tune, the more likely it is that that others will start to listen. Together, we can increase the political costs associated with ignoring the situation any longer, and encourage the hand of government to help those in desperate need.
Henry has just completed a Master’s degree in International Public Policy at University College London. He is interested in the proliferation of international norms, and believes that young people have an important role to play in generating and promoting them.