Over the past year, the European Union has been struggling to deal with the massive wave of immigration from Syria. For some time now, these refugees have not been just a Syrian problem, or a Middle Eastern problem, but a problem for many countries on the continent.
Although the biggest burden is falling on Syria’s immediate neighbors, out of the 4 million refugees who have fled the country since the start of the popular uprising in 2011, nearly 300,000 have filed requests for asylum in Europe – about half of them in Germany and Sweden. Since August 2014, there have been 10,000 to 20,000 asylum requests per month. Recent reports from Greece indicate the situation could soon get worse: About 1,000 refugees per day, mostly Syrians, have been coming from Turkey to the Dodecanese Islands, the first stop on their journey.
For the Syrian refugees, the decision to set out for Europe is usually a last resort, after they’ve exhausted all legal avenues to obtain asylum there. The journey is very arduous, involving dangerous sea and river crossings, long marches through mountains and forests without food and shelter, and then having to evade the threat of incarceration by the border police of the Balkan and EU countries, as well as the threat of robbery and abuse by the crime organizations involved in the smuggling. Now that Turkey has taken measures to prevent old cargo ships from being used to smuggle refugees, rubber boats, which are even more dangerous, are being used more often.
On Turkey’s western shores and on the Greek islands, picturesque tourist sites contrast jarringly with the sight of the destitute refugees. The refugees’ route usually takes them through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, and doesn’t always end with their safe arrival at their destination. The cost of getting to Europe is about $5,000 per person, but can be as much as double that depending on the destination and whatever glitches come up along the way. Many Syrian refugees have to mortgage all their savings to make the trip. The desperate situation in Syria, the overwhelming demand and the absence of a legal alternative for getting to Europe leave them with no other choice.
Turkey staggering under burden
Turkey is now hosting nearly half of all the refugees, over 1.8 million, more than any other country. But it is staggering under the heavy burden of the resources and infrastructure this requires. Initially, Turkey relied mainly on its own resources, but in the past two years it has expressed fury over the paltry international aid it has received, which it says is far from sufficient to meet the major humanitarian challenge it is facing. Ankara periodically announces that it has “reached the limit of its ability to absorb refugees,” but it does not really appear to have given up its open-door policy in relation to the crisis in Syria. At the same time, Turkey is trying to promote the construction of refugee camps within Syrian territory, and also pressing Western nations to take in more refugees. Because of the Greek debt crisis, most of the refugees who get to that country hasten to leave. Meanwhile Athens is using the flood of refugees as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the EU.
The ever-growing numbers of Syrian refugees are posing tough dilemmas for the EU for which no clear strategy has yet been formulated. One possibility is to legally open up the doors to a larger number of refugees, but this does not appear to be the preferred option. Another option is to beef up the naval and land barriers to slow the flow of refugees. Hungary recently announced a project to build a 175-kilometer wall along the Serbian border. A third possibility is to massively increase European aid to Turkey, to help ease the refugees’ integration process there. A fourth possibility is increasing Europe’s diplomatic and military efforts to bring the Syrian war to a close, to enable the millions of refugees to return to their homeland.
In any event, as long as the bloody civil war in Syria continues with no end in sight, the number of refugees who see the perilous journey to Europe as their last chance for a future will continue to rise.
The authors are research fellows at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.