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Syrian refugee crisis continues to haunt EU ahead of European Parliament elections

In our increasingly conflicted world, peace efforts for Syria will be swept under the carpet for another while (File/AFP)
In our increasingly conflicted world, peace efforts for Syria will be swept under the carpet for another while (File/AFP)
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30 May 2024 01:05:56 GMT9
30 May 2024 01:05:56 GMT9

If you ask any of the more than 5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq or Turkiye about the likely chance they will be able to return home any time soon, the answer is a unanimous “zero.”

I am sure also that a majority of the millions who are displaced internally within Syria would want to leave the country if possible. For the 13 years since the protests against the regime in Damascus escalated into a civil war, most of the displaced have been actively trying to seek refuge elsewhere, preferably in EU countries where, if they were lucky, welfare might be provided by the state.

On the streets of major European cities, the sight of Syrians, mainly, but also Iraqis, Afghans and people from other countries, has become a source of discomfort, bordering on racism, among large sections of native populations, not all of whom look favorably on what some describe as an “invasion,” and what they describe as “no-go areas” in neighborhoods now heavily populated by foreigners.

You hear it from taxi drivers and people in coffee shops. One elderly German asked me in a Berlin cafe recently whether I had “arrived in the UK swimming,” referring to the waves of asylum seekers arriving from Turkey, North Africa or via Calais in France.

There is no doubt that migration, and the increasing numbers of refugees on Western streets, has been taking its toll. And there is a risk the situation might be further exacerbated if political figures from the ascendant hard right and hard left use the issue as a way to justify extreme political narratives that promise voters improved domestic social and health services and prosperity, while pledging to enhance security by blocking the arrival of more refugees, vetting those who are already in the country, and deporting those who fail integration or language tests.

Amid the near-total geostrategic discord between the big powers, this week’s EU donor conference is unlikely to provide much more than symbolic traction

Mohamed Chebaro

It is no exaggeration to say that the European Parliament elections, which will take place from June 6 to 9, are being fought not through ideas for social and economic renewal or who might best provide security for EU nations facing an existential threat from Russia, but instead on a narrow agenda of anti-immigration fears that could disrupt the entire EU project.

Europe is undoubtedly facing a major test and on the brink of lurching further to the right as it tries to remain true to its ethos of protecting human rights and sharing among its community of nations the burden of providing refuge for those in need.

The EU’s latest donors’ conference for Syria took place this week, but preventing divisions within its membership while also offering dwindling levels of assistance to Syrians might now be an impossible balancing act for the bloc to maintain.

Syria undoubtedly has become a “forgotten crisis” that nobody wants to address amid the Israel-Hamas war, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and the near-total geostrategic discord between the big global powers in which some actors do not shy from weaponizing migration flows in an attempt to squeeze concessions from their rivals or enemies.

The result of all this is that the refugee and asylum-seeker crisis might have long-lasting repercussions as it continues to divide societies across the 27-country union.

During this week’s donors’ conference in Brussels, €7.5 billion ($8.1 billion) was pledged, of which the EU promised to commit €2.12 billion ($2.3 billion) for 2024 and 2025. This could be useful as many Syrians continue to seek ways to reach Western countries, primarily, by hazardous land and sea routes because their instincts tell them, correctly, that their frozen conflict is not high on the list of priorities for the major global powers. But as the economic and social burdens associated with refugees mount, the bloc is increasingly divided and unable to find solutions to adequately address the issue.

International funding for efforts to support Syrians is in decline in general, with the likes of the World Food Programme reducing the amount of aid it provides. Difficulties associated with hosting refugees are increasingly surfacing in neighboring nations, most notably Lebanon, where the economic situation is already perilous because of a long-running financial crisis, and the call for Syrians to be sent home is one of the rare issues that can unite most of the country’s fragmented communities.

Such growing calls for repatriation come despite the general, widely held assessment that the quest to find a “political solution to the conflict in Syria remains at an impasse,” with no safe, voluntary or dignified process for the return of refugees, as the EU’s chief diplomat and security commissioner, Josep Borrel, put it.

The level of participation at donor conferences has fallen over the past few years. The likes of Russia, a key backer of President Bashar Assad’s regime, is in no mood to lend a hand, even a humanitarian one, that might put pressure on Damascus to meet some political conditions that could pave the way for refugees to return.

Meanwhile, divisions within the EU on the issue are on the rise. Countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to some form of dialogue with Assad to at least discuss possible ways to step up the voluntary return of refugees, in conjunction with and under the auspices of the UN.

These divisions were highlighted last week when eight countries — Austria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta and Poland — issued a joint statement following talks in Cyprus in which they broke ranks with the bloc’s position. They argued that the dynamics had changed in Syria and that while political stability does not yet exist, the situation had evolved sufficiently to “reevaluate the situation” in an attempt to find “more effective ways of handling the issue,” curb the flow of refugees, and work to send some of them home.

As it stands, more than one in four Syrians are extremely poor, according to a recent report by the World Bank. The UN humanitarian response plan for 2024 requires more that $4 billion of funding but so far donations are only in the millions.

And amid the near-total geostrategic discord between the big powers, this week’s EU donor conference is unlikely to provide much more than symbolic traction. In our increasingly conflicted world, peace efforts for Syria will be swept under the carpet for another while, leaving desperate Syrians with no choice but to resort to whatever means they can find to feed their loved ones, whether that is the crumbs provided by international organizations, or through mass migration to less-than-welcoming societies in the West.

Their presence in those European countries might be shaking some host communities to the core, resulting in the magnification of intolerant narratives driving wedges between people in otherwise tolerant countries, and indirectly increasing the chances that previously marginal, anti-immigrant voices could be elected across Europe next month.

  • Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.
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