The refusal of Germany and the Netherlands to let Turkey’s ministers use their countries to promote propaganda in support of a new Turkish constitution has created a new international lexicon. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been tagging Europe and some of its countries “Nazis.” Another epithet, “supporter of terrorism,” is earmarked for anybody allowing Kurdish organizations or activists for the Gulen movement (led by Erdogan’s rival Muhammed Fethullah Gulen) to operate in the European public sphere.
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'Blow the mind of Europe'
Now Turkey has unleashed a new threat: Cancelling the refugee agreement with the European Union, which was formulated to reduce the flow of illegal refugees to Europe. Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu has threatened to “blow the mind of Europe,” as he put it, by sending over 15,000 refugees a month to EU territory.
If a year ago, the waves of Syrian refugees – now estimated to number around 11 million – were making headlines, the media and public seem to be cooler in their concern.
The media focus has shifted to the European-Turkish foofaraw. Journalists, who had latched onto every convoy of refugees, interviewing them in droves and filming their confrontations with border guards as they sought to flee the horrors in Syria, have stopped visiting the tent camps of the refugees who were unable to reach European cities. Even the number of volunteers, who came out in the thousands to welcome the refugees and set up temporary kitchens and field clinics, is dwindling.
The German media are now publishing stories about the difficulties of those volunteers, about language gaps that require every refugee to use an interpreter to fill out the dozens of forms and the lack of jobs for refugees.
For example, despite the shortage of doctors in Germany, Syrian physicians have to go through a circuitous route before they can practice their profession there. This includes special courses to prepare them for licensing exams. Syrian doctors know the medical terms, but often in Arabic rather than Latin. They can’t communicate with patients who don’t speak Arabic, and most patients and their families prefer to be treated by German doctors.
Students who want to register for university studies have to present high school graduation certificates, which they don’t have because of the war. They also have to pay registration fees that can be as much as a few hundred euros. In addition, they have to know German; that is, they have to study in private language courses that are very costly.
But it is not only the bureaucratic and economic limitations that are making it hard for young Syrians to integrate into European society.
Refugees from Muslim countries, and particularly Syrian refugees, arouse suspicion and fear, which are bolstered by police reports from time to time containing data about the crime rate among foreigners. For example, the radio station in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg in southern Germany broadcast a police report stating that more than 64,000 crimes were committed in the state in 2016 – 20 percent more than the previous year.
The number of suspects in those crimes has doubled, and last year reached 250,000, half of whom were foreigners. The “threatening” piece of information is that out of all the foreign suspects, about 25,000 are asylum-seekers, and out of those, Syrians are at the top of the list, with 4,000 suspects.
While it’s true that most of the reports deal with petty crimes, like minor theft or sneaking onto a train, that fact does not stop the spread of terms like “a people of thieves and rapists,” “cultureless,” etc. It is difficult to blame Germany, which has so far spent about 23 billion euros on aid to refugees and their integration. But for some 430,000 refugees whose legal status is still in limbo because of the hugely overburdened bureaucracy, that money is no comfort and the future seems grim and hopeless.
Refugees returning home
According to German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière, about 55,000 refugees voluntarily returned to their homeland in 2016, compared to 35,000 in 2015. But that is not an encouraging figure from the German point of view. In February, the government offered 1,200 euros to any refugee who would accept voluntary repatriation and withdraw their asylum request – and 800 euros to any Syrian who would leave if their asylum was turned down.
The German policy and the refugee agreement with Turkey have already created a new reality: In 2016, the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany plummeted by more than 600,000, compared to the previous year.
But it is not clear what will happen to the refugees who remain in Europe. Will they try to move to neighboring European countries, or go back to Syria, where the war continues?
On the other hand, if Erdogan makes good on his threat, hundreds of thousands more refugees could reach Europe, and vie for their place among the “veteran” refugees.