While Syrians Are Selling Organs at Home, Refugees in Denmark Face Repatriation

Financial stress is still driving many Syrians to leave, but Turkey-EU deal keeps them out of the continent; now some countries say it's safe enough in parts of Syria to repatriate certain refugees

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Thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey, as seen from the Turkish side of the border, in 2015.
Thousands of Syrian refugees walk in order to cross into Turkey, as seen from the Turkish side of the border, in 2015.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s a routine story that surfaces in the media from time to time and then quickly disappears. The names and the cities are different, but the phenomenon is the same: In Syria, the young and old, women and men are selling their organs to support their families.

A young Syrian recounted in an interview with the Enab Baladi website how he had had no choice but to sell a kidney. Syrian law prohibits selling organs and permits only donations to other family members, so the young man was arrested and brought to court. Luckily for him, the judge listened to his story sympathetically and released him on the grounds that “he had nothing else to live on except by selling his kidney.”

You can find offers to “donate” organs on social media networks and even in classified ads and notices pasted on utility poles, though it is abundantly clear that the real intent is to sell them. Prices range from $10,000 to $20,000 for a kidney, several thousand for a cornea and $10,000 for part of a liver.

The industry operates almost entirely in the open. The organs are harvested by private clinics and even in people’s homes, then are brought by agents based in Turkey to clients in Europe and the Gulf. Some of the “donors” do it in order to get enough money to leave Syria, others to buy their way out of army service. Syrian law doesn’t allow people with only one kidney to be drafted, but it was amended recently so that a man who hasn’t fulfilled his national service is barred from donating one, even to another family member. In any case, most of the countless “donations” are made for financial reasons.

The other solution to those in financial distress, at least until three years ago, was to emigrate to Europe or Turkey, but that is no longer much of an option. Turkey began blocking refugees from entering European territory after signing an agreement with the European Union. Some have enough money to go to Lebanon and then pay an agent to bring them to Cyprus or Greece by boat, but even this route is gradually being closed off.

Meanwhile, the countries Syrians dream of reaching, namely Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, have already begun repatriating numerous refugees. Denmark has led the way: Since last summer, it has refused to renew the residency permits of 189 refugees. The government affirmed the policy last month, asserting that parts of Syria are now safe to live in, obviating the need for Denmark to continue hosting refugees.

Inger Støjberg, who was Denmark’s immigration, integration and housing minister until her party’s lawmakers voted to impeach her, used sharper language to explain the policy. She posted on her Facebook page: “Dear Young People, We’ve given you the chance to get a free education so you would have something on which to build in Syria. We gave you this chance even though we knew that one day you would be angry at us for what we’re about to do today … Anyone whose residency permit has expired must pack his bags and return to Syria and say thank you to Denmark for the opportunity it gave him.”

The former minister’s remarks accurately reflect the Danish government’s current policy; the anger it generated was immense. About 1,000 refugees and Danish citizens rallied in front of the parliament building in Copenhagen two weeks ago to protest the repatriation policy. In response, the government said that just as European host countries had already repatriated 140,000 Syrian refugees, they should also repatriate the remainder who still haven’t received residency permits or citizenship.

People attending a demonstration against the tightening of Denmark’s migration policy and the deportation orders in Copenhagen, Wednesday.Credit: David Keyton,AP

Following Denmark, the Netherlands is expected to adopt a similar policy. The country hosts about 90,000 Syrian refugees whose asylum applications haven’t been approved or who have been in the country for less than the five years it takes for them to qualify for citizenship.

The problem that Denmark, the Netherlands and other countries face is that repatriating refugees has to be coordinated with the Syrian regime, with which they don’t have relations. In addition, returning the refugees would grant Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a stamp of approval, signaling that conditions in his country have stabilized, that there’s no longer a war being fought and that the returnees face no danger, except the risk of punishment by the regime itself.

The main reasons usually offered for repatriating the refugees is fear of Islamism, the inability to integrate them and claims they take away jobs from natives because they are willing to take much lower pay.

Rightists and nationalists usually make these claims under the banner of nationhood and social unity. However, they fly in the face of research that shows that the presence of refugees in Europe is positive and that the number of jobs lost to them is marginal at most. A comprehensive study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, using data from 2014 through 2017, forecast that the labor force participation rate in most European countries would grow by 0.5 percent to 0.8 percent by 2020 due to refugees. The unemployment rate would rise consequently by only a fraction of a percentage point, except among those with less education, whose rate was predicted to rise more sharply.

The impact could be significantly bigger in cities and regions where the unemployment rate is very low to begin with. The study also noted that the impact of Syrian refugees was bigger in Turkey, where they number 3.5 million. But overall, the impact of refugees both on the size of the labor force and the jobless rate in most cases would be minimal.

Later research conducted by Oxford University in several European countries found that approximately 82% of all Syrian refugees were deemed unemployed, of whom 38% had college degrees. These data confirmed the OECD findings that the ability of refugees to take the jobs of native-born workers was very limited due to language difficulties and lack of job skills.

More than 6.2 million refugees have fled Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. Another 6.1 million are displaced inside Syria. Most of them don’t expect to return to their country or their homes anytime in the foreseeable future.

Despite some impressive success stories of refugee entrepreneurs, professionals and college graduates, the reality is that only a small number of them have integrated into their host countries. From the Syrian perspective, it’s a lost generation, maybe two. But if a process of rebuilding Syria ever gets underway, the refugees could be an engine of economic growth and help the country rise from the rubble of war. For that to happen, a major international undertaking is required that injects billions of dollars into rebuilding infrastructure, factories and hundreds of thousands of homes. Without that, the refugees will continue to rely on international aid and allowances provided by their host countries, many of whom are showing signs of fatigue and impatience.

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