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September 16, 2015
The arrival in Europe of hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing violence in their country has raised some difficult and often uncomfortable questions for governments in the region, not to mention those in Europe. Arab countries are becoming aware of the need to be seen as doing something to address the ongoing crisis, which explains why some dailies are beginning to attempt to “set the record straight” on the burden currently carried by these governments. Still, most observers agree that the current status quo is not sustainable, with many of them considering the removal of Syria’s president as the most pressing issue for stemming the flow of migrants into Europe.
According to a report by the Saudi Gazette staff, members of the Organization of Islamic States have gathered to propose solutions, including the introduction of a peacekeeping force in Syria, to “help stem [the] refugee tide…. The United Nations should consider a peacekeeping force for war-ravaged Syria to help curb the surge of refugees which is destabilizing the region and beyond, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said Sunday....It also called for more to be done to find a rapid political solution to the Syrian conflict. The OIC blamed the humanitarian crisis on ‘the war crimes committed by the regime in Syria.’... ‘The meeting stressed the common responsibility of all nations, particularly OIC member states, to open their doors to the Syrian refugees as a mark of Islamic compassion and solidarity,’ a closing statement from the meeting said.”
Arab countries have come under scrutiny for what many perceive to be an unwillingness to shoulder the burden of accommodating the Syrian refugees. However, according to Khaled Batarfi, facts tell a different story. Beyond that, for Batarfi, the real problem is the continuing resilience of Bashar Assad: “While none of the Gulf Cooperation Council members—Saudi Arabia, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar—has signed the UN Convention on Refugees, which has governed international law on asylum since World War II, they have taken in millions of Syrians since the civil war began, just not as refugees....In addition to Saudi Arabia, Syria’s neighbors are taking millions of refugees. Turkey has taken 1,938,999, Iraq 249,463, Jordan 1,400,000 and Lebanon, with a population of 4 million, is hosting 1,113,941....I would say to the hypocrites of the world, all you need to eliminate your refugee problem is to get rid of one person, so that millions will be able to return home. His name is Bashar Assad and his address is the Presidential Complex, Damascus!”
The Saudi Gazette editorial agrees that the key to the refugee puzzle is the stabilization of the domestic situation in Syria and elsewhere, but in their view that is also the least likely outcome under the current conditions: “Since tens of thousands of migrants from conflict-hit states in the Middle East and Africa have been trying to make their way to Europe in recent months, the onus is on EU countries to find a better way to handle this colossal influx....But the real problem of migration lies at the source. Obviously, what is pushing thousands to leave their countries is much greater than any allure Europe has for them. The push factor is much greater than the pull. Upheavals and instability across much of Africa and the Middle East have led to this massive increase in the numbers trying to reach shores beyond....While the best solution is to dramatically change the lives of these refugees and migrants in their home countries so that they don’t need to go anywhere else, it is also the most unrealistic of solutions.”
Others have focused on Europe’s response to the crisis, with a recent Khaleej Times editorial pointing out that despite Germany’s willingness, Europe is unlikely to come up with an adequate response to the migrant crisis: “Germany may have welcomed refugees with open arms but it is already overwhelmed by the numbers. The larger problem facing Germany is that most of Europe does not share its enthusiasm due to domestic issues. Politically, there is fear of a far-right return riding on anti-migrant sentiment....The fact that a majority of Europe does not share Germany's views to take in migrants compounds Berlin's woes. Morally, Europe should accept people, but most of Europe does not have the money or the resources to deal with the crisis. Germany also knows it cannot spend its way out of trouble. It should rope in more partners, which it has not been able to do so far....An open Germany may be the go-to destination for refugees. What they don't realise is that while Germany is willing, Europe is weak.”
Some, like Yedioth Ahronoth’s Noah Klieger, have gone further expressing concern about the impact that this mass migration might have on Europe’s demographic cohesion and its ability to retain its identity in the not too distant future: “Whether out of innocence or out of foolishness, the Europeans are failing to realize that they are singlehandedly creating fundamental changes in their populations, which will lead in the coming years to the complete disappearance of the tradition, culture and progress of their countries. In other words, in the not so distant future we will witness the end of 'classic Europe' and the establishment of an Islamic rule across the entire continent....It's also strange that Europe's leaders are unaware of the fact that the large majority of their public doesn’t even want the refugees. So in conclusion, it seems that Europe is once again ignoring the dangers it is facing and is failing to realize that this is the beginning of the end of the old continent.”
But as Sever Plocker reminds us, regional observers, including Israeli ones, should think hard about the possibility that the next migrant wave might not be across the water toward Europe, but on their own borders: “Israel is watching what is known as ‘the refugee crisis in Europe’ with a mixture of sharing in grief and malicious joy. Grief over the refugees, (restrained) joy over the exposure of the hypocritical Europeans' face.... What if tens of thousands of people arrive tomorrow from the battle and oppression areas in Syria and Iraq at border in the Golan Heights, seeking refuge in Israel? What if they knock on our gates, take the risk and climb the fences with their crying children in their hands? What if they prefer to live in an enemy country than die in a whirlpool of war and terror or on escape routes? In the blink of an eye, a refugee crisis could arrive at Israel's doorstep. When that happens, it will be interesting to see how our ministers and commentators respond when CNN broadcasts heartbreaking images of an exhausted refugee family at the Golan border, begging confused IDF soldiers with cocked weapons to allow it to run for its life into the Jewish state.”
There are in fact migrants or refugees, whatever term one might choose to use, knocking on Israel’s door. Thousands of Palestinian refugees have fled Syria and are seeking refuge in the West Bank. Their pleas seem to have fallen on the deaf ears of the Israeli government, prompting The National’s Matthew Ayton to surmise that “It seems that Mr Netanyahu is indifferent to consigning Palestinians fleeing Syria to the grim portents of triple displacement, and to the mounting number of people who have drowned at sea attempting to make the perilous journey to Europe....What stands out about this rhetoric is that it suggests Israel has made the decision to ignore the plight of Palestinians refugees not because of infrastructural or economic constraints, but because it fears such moves could undermine its aspirations to preserve a Jewish majority demographic."
As we take stock of the disjointed responses offered by the Arab states, Europe, or Israel, it goes without saying that for many the solution lies with global cooperation, rather than regional ones, which makes this recent Khaleej Times editorial so timely: “Deaths of migrants on such a large scale in recent days should act as an eye-opener to deal with the crisis on an emergent basis. What is needed at the outset is a strategy to stem the outflow of migrants from Asia and Africa and at the same time address the root causes that make them risk their lives. The prime reasons for this diaspora, which is resulting in disaster before the destitute souls could reach the greener pastures of Europe, are rampant poverty, lack of economic opportunities back home and last but not the least the war in Syria.... A coordinated global response is required to save the precious lives by resolving conflicts and facilitating the refugees, who have little choice but to flee their homelands. It's time to act on both sides of the shores to end this madness of migration.”
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