Today marks the one-year anniversary of an attack that killed 38 people, including many British tourists in Tunisia – an attack that came five years after a street vendor, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest harassment by municipal officials and in the process sparked the pro-democracy movement known as the Arab Spring across the Middle East and North Africa. The 2015 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Despite the tragedy, Tunisia stands head and shoulders above the rest of the region in terms of having the foresight to engage in a productive dialogue which, according to The Economist, of a “new, enlightened constitution.”
The Assad regime did not respond with a dialogue quartet when teenagers painted revolutionary slogans on a Syrian school wall in 2011. According to unverified sources, they used torture. Another theory for the catalyst that triggered the Syrian war was that demonstrations mirroring those in neighboring countries triggered a violent response from the government. Such a response was in keeping with the actions of past governments eg, in 1982 the Syrian army quelled an uprising in Hama, Syria, by destroying “half of the city with tank shellfire and killing up to 20,000 people.” Regrettably, this time government violence contributed to the descent into chaos where a genuine desire for freedom became conflated with the separate agendas of local tribes, military deserters, disaffected locals, and jihadists (see this article for a guide to the Syrian opposition). Add Afghans, Iranians and air strikes into the mix and there seems to be no end in sight for this conflict. However, it is worth remembering that Assad is still supported by many Syrians who see him as a preferable alternative to ISIS and other groups in the region.
If only one could get a Syrian do-over where the opposition formed a unified coalition bargaining with the government for a democratic country aka Tunisian style. Alas, now the world has to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. Let’s examine some of the prevailing myths about them.
1. All of Syria has fled to the EU
Up to 12.5 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes ie, less than 20% of the world’s 65.3 million refugees, but they have become indelibly etched in the public psyche because of seismic geopolitical shifts reverberating across the globe (2016 Pew report on refugees). Put another way, about 6 in 10 Syrians are now displaced from their homes. In addition, rising numbers of Somalis and Afghans are among the non-Syrian refugees who have applied for asylum in the European Union between July 2015 and May 2016. These numbers will likely increase as there appears to be no resolution to wars/perilous circumstances that forced people to flee in the first place. The European countries with the smallest percentage increments due to refugees were France and England, since they did not take in many asylum seekers. By contrast, Sweden saw the foreign-born share of its population rise from 16.8% in 2015 to 18.3% in 2016. This rise of more than 2% in one year is astronomical when one uses the United States as a point of reference. Here, the immigrant share of the population rose by 1% over a full decade, from 13% in 2005 to 14% in 2015.
2. The Syrians are taking our jobs
Refugees do not automatically become citizens stealing the locals’ jobs. Depending on the country and after satisfying entry criteria, they are granted residence permits and allowed to apply for legal residency after satisfying prerequisites relating to language, civic knowledge, financial independence and good conduct.
Given the heated arguments one hears about refugees, it may come as a surprise to many people to know that most displaced Syrians are not in the European Union. Over 3 million Syrians are in the countries bordering that once-proud nation: Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. One could argue that the presence of these refugees spells doom for the economies of these respective countries. However, according to the World Bank, the gross domestic product for the countries are expected to rise in spite of the influxes. Is this situation ideal? No. Would these numbers have been higher in the absence of refugees? Possibly, yes. Nevertheless, the anti-refugee economic portion of the argument does not hold up. Let us not forget that more than 6 million people continue to be displaced from their homes within the porous borders of Syria.
3. The Syrian refugees harbor terrorists
In his 2014 Journal of Conflict Resolution article,” Are Migrants More Extreme than Locals After War? Evidence from a Simultaneous Survey of Migrants in Sweden and Locals in Bosnia,”Dr. Jonathan Hall coats his conclusions with the usual academic precautions before stating: “Under certain conditions, migration may promote inclusive and reconciliatory attitudes by improving access to coping resources and providing an exit from detrimental wartime and post-war conditions in original countries.”
It took an unfounded rumor that one of the Paris bombers was a Syrian refugee to set the Internet on fire, upset Dr. Hall’s careful conclusions and spook jittery governments coping with the influx of people. Adding to these fears is a recent report that ISIS has gained a foothold in Sirte, Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, an uncomfortable boat ride away from Europe. Unfortunately the unthinkable is always possible, but recent history has taught us that most of the terrorists were actually born in the countries where they perpetrated their acts.
4. The USA wants large numbers of refugees
According to the June 2016 Pew article, our views towards refugees have generally been opposition to “admitting large numbers of foreigners fleeing war and oppression, regardless of official government policy.” This antipathy towards refugees was on display as far back as 1958, when respondents were against Hungarian refugees fleeing a communist regime settling here and as recently as 1999, when two-thirds of the respondents were against settling Albanians escaping atrocities in Kosovo in this country. Although polling trends are useful in reflecting prevailing opinions, it will be heartening to humanitarians to know that programs such as “I was a stranger” exist in this country to help refugees.