October 16, 2015

On Refugees, Young Men and a Life Worth Living

As wars continue, people are forced to recognise that there will be no returning home.

Since early summer, the European Union has been troubled by a seemingly endless inflow of refugees. The crisis is tearing Europe apart because we do not know what to do with this wave of people. The media widely publish images of refugees barging across borders looking like gangs of angry young men. The young male Arab is becoming the symbol of Europe’s problems, the personification of terrorist threat and refugee crisis. In view of the increasingly aggressive image, it is important to understand who these people are, and from where and why they come, since this is how we can dispel the emerging stereotypes.
The crisis in Syria has caused the greatest wave of migration since World War II. Within that country, 7.6 million people have been forced to leave their homes and, according to official figures, 4.1 million Syrians have fled the country, but there are probably even more. The majority of the refugees are in neighbouring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 533,824 refugees have reached Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea this year.1 55% of them are from Syria and 4% from Iraq. 2
660,865 people had applied for asylum in one European state or another, according to data from August 2015.3 Thus, many of the applicants are not from Syria or Iraq but from other conflict regions in the world, such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Somalia. Many of the refugees come from Eritrea, where a strict military regime is in power. These people have strong reasons for fleeing. Unfortunately, economic migrants are also trying to reach Europe during the crisis.
The fact that there are a lot of young men in the pictures published by the media does not mean that they are not war refugees. Syrian refugees are not only young men; the UNHCR states that 50.3% of the refugees in the states surrounding Syria are women.4 But 69% of the refugees who reach Europe are men, while 18% are children and only 13% women.5
There are several reasons young men are more likely to reach Europe. First, Syrian society is relatively young, the median age for men being 23.3 years and for women 24.1. It is therefore understandable that the average refugee who comes to Europe seems young, because the average Syrian is young, and this should not be a criterion for judging refugees.
At first, the refugees go to neighbouring countries as they hope that the war will end soon and they can easily return home from there. Until this summer, the refugees who came to Europe did not arrive like a flood. Now the war has lasted four years, people are slowly starting to realise that they may not be returning home any time soon. The so-called Islamic State and Assad’s regime are still the strongest parties in the conflict, which is why it seems that the situation will only normalise in the distant future. The refugees are starting to think about how to live on and where to go.
The neighbouring countries are not able to accommodate an infinite number of refugees—these are states with only average income and restricted resources. Iraq is also busy fighting Islamic State. In Lebanon, refugees make up more than a quarter of the entire population; the Zaatari refugee camp is technically Jordan’s fourth-largest city. Lebanon has not built refugee camps on principle, since it does not want the refugees to stay. The Lebanese fear that the mainly Sunni refugees will upset the political balance between the country’s three largest religious groups—Sunni, Shia and Christians—which, in turn, could be fatal for its ever-precarious democracy. At the same time, 12.1 million of the 16 million inhabitants of Syria require humanitarian aid, which means that the pressure on the neighbouring states will probably increase even more in the near future.
The refugees’ life in the temporary camps of the neighbouring countries is hard. Lebanon and Jordan have not signed the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. While they do receive refugees, they are not required to grant them all the rights prescribed in the convention. In both countries, the refugees are not allowed to work legally in many sectors, and thus have to work outside the law. One result is an increase in unemployment, which creates increasingly negative feeling towards the refugees among locals, as the former contribute to a rise in rental costs, and burden the infrastructure and social welfare system. The UN has managed to collect only 37% of the US$4.55 billion in aid required for the Syrians. During the summer, the UN cut down on refugees’ food-aid programmes, as a result of which the amount that can be spent on a single refugee’s food is just $13.50 per month.6 Jordan has stopped offering medical aid to refugees. Due to lack of resources, some children have not been to school for several years.
It has now become clear that the war will not be ending any time soon, and many middle-class families have decided to move on to Europe, where they hope to have a humane life. Parents want to send their children to school, young people want to graduate from university, and families want a chance to return to normal life. Many refugees go to Europe with their entire families, but this option is not available to everyone, as smugglers demand about $2,000 per person. If it is not possible to pay for the entire family to travel at the same time, families are most likely to choose to send the men (as breadwinners) ahead to Europe. Once there, the men hope to earn enough in a couple of years to bring their families.
The fact that men come alone is not an act of selfishness or lack of care towards their families, but happens because men are much more likely to reach Europe safely. The Mediterranean Sea is often stormy and there are too many people in dilapidated boats, which may capsize. Men are generally stronger than women and children, which makes them more likely to survive in harsh conditions. The case of little Aylan Kurdi is an example of how hard is the journey from Turkey to Greece or from Libya to Italy via the Mediterranean. Aylan’s father, Abdullah, was the only person to survive from that family, as Aylan’s mother and brother died beside him.
Men and women escaping to Europe face different dangers. Female refugees are generally more vulnerable since they are threatened by particular dangers. When women who travel alone pay the smugglers, they can never be sure of reaching their destination safely. They may be raped on the way or captured and sold to human traffickers as sex slaves. The journey is not safe for men either, as the Syrian army needs more soldiers and there is a danger that the smugglers will send them back. People have fled Syria because they do not want to fight for the Islamic State or the government’s forces and there are simply no alternatives to this in many regions. Men who are not Sunnis or who are not prepared to swear allegiance to the Islamic State are in mortal danger. Men who leave their womenfolk behind are not being uncaring, but are trying to protect them by putting their own lives on the line.
Given the background against which these people come to Europe, we should be careful not to view the Arab man in Europe as an angry layabout or a terrorist. Syrian men, women and children have survived unimaginable hardships, first in Syria itself and then in refugee camps. Syrian men come to Europe to give their families the chance of a proper life. The fact that others seek to take advantage of this should not be held against the refugees. The refugee crisis is difficult for Europe, and it is therefore important that we develop a working mechanism to identify those who need help, and consider different scenarios for restoring Syria to a state to which people can return.
1 UNHCR: data.unhcr.org/mediterranean/regional.php (last accessed 3 October 2015).
2 Ibid.
3 Eurostat: ec.europa.eu/eurostat/tgm/table.do?tab=table&… (last accessed 3 October 2015).
4 UNHCR: data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php (last accessed 3 October 2015).
5 Ibid.
6 “Time to go – Who is leaving for Europe and why”, The Economist, 26 September 2015
www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/2166… (last accessed 3 October 2015)


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.