European Union grapples with Syrian refugee crisis ahead of elections

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European Union, Syrian refugees

The Syrian refugee crisis remains a significant challenge for the European Union (EU) as the European Parliament elections approach. If you ask any of the more than 5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, or Turkey about their chances of returning home soon, the answer would likely be a unanimous “zero”. Additionally, a majority of the millions internally displaced within Syria would likely seize any opportunity to leave the country. Thirteen years have passed since protests against the regime in Damascus escalated into a civil war, and most displaced individuals have been actively seeking refuge elsewhere, particularly in EU countries where they might receive welfare support from the state.

In major European cities, the sight of Syrians, along with Iraqis, Afghans, and people from other countries, has become a source of discomfort for many locals. This discomfort sometimes borders on racism, as large segments of the native populations view the increasing number of refugees unfavorably. Some describe this influx as an “invasion” and refer to neighborhoods now heavily populated by foreigners as “no-go areas.” This sentiment is palpable among taxi drivers, patrons in coffee shops, and even casual conversations. For instance, an elderly German in a Berlin cafe recently asked whether someone had “arrived in the UK swimming,” a derogatory reference to asylum seekers arriving from Turkey, North Africa, or via Calais in France.

Migration and the growing number of refugees on Western streets are undeniably impacting European societies. The situation might worsen if political figures from the far right and far left exploit the issue to promote extreme narratives. These narratives often promise voters improved domestic social and health services and prosperity, while pledging to enhance security by blocking more refugees from arriving, vetting those already in the country, and deporting those who fail integration or language tests.

The upcoming European Parliament elections, scheduled for June 6 to 9, are not being contested on ideas for social and economic renewal or strategies to secure EU nations against existential threats from Russia. Instead, the elections are being fought on a narrow agenda of anti-immigration fears, which could disrupt the entire EU project. Europe faces a major test and is on the brink of swinging further to the right as it strives to uphold its ethos of protecting human rights and sharing the burden of providing refuge for those in need among its community of nations.

The EU’s latest donors’ conference for Syria took place recently, highlighting the difficulty in maintaining unity among member states while offering diminishing levels of assistance to Syrians. Preventing divisions within the EU while supporting Syrians has become an increasingly challenging balancing act. Syria has undoubtedly become a “forgotten crisis” amid other global conflicts, such as the Israel-Hamas war, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the geostrategic discord between major powers, where some actors use migration flows as leverage to extract concessions from rivals or enemies.

The refugee and asylum-seeker crisis might have long-lasting repercussions, as it continues to divide societies across the 27-country union. During this week’s donors’ conference in Brussels, €7.5 billion ($8.1 billion) was pledged, with the EU committing €2.12 billion ($2.3 billion) for 2024 and 2025. While this funding could be beneficial, many Syrians still seek ways to reach Western countries by hazardous land and sea routes, driven by the belief that their frozen conflict is not a priority for major global powers. As the economic and social burdens associated with refugees increase, the EU remains divided and struggles to find adequate solutions.

International funding to support Syrians is generally declining, with organizations like the World Food Programme reducing aid. Hosting refugees is becoming increasingly difficult for neighboring nations, notably Lebanon, where the economic situation is already dire due to a prolonged financial crisis. The call for Syrians to be sent home is one of the few issues that unite most of Lebanon’s fragmented communities.

These growing calls for repatriation persist despite the widely held assessment that finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict remains at an impasse. There is no safe, voluntary, or dignified process for the return of refugees, as stated by the EU’s chief diplomat and security commissioner, Josep Borrell. Participation at donor conferences has decreased over the past few years. Key backers of President Bashar Assad’s regime, like Russia, show no inclination to lend a humanitarian hand that might pressure Damascus to meet political conditions necessary for the return of refugees.

Meanwhile, divisions within the EU on the issue are rising. Countries such as Italy and Cyprus are more open to dialogue with Assad to discuss possible ways to facilitate the voluntary return of refugees under the auspices of the UN. These divisions were highlighted recently when eight countries — Austria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Poland — issued a joint statement after talks in Cyprus. They argued that the dynamics in Syria had changed and that while political stability does not yet exist, the situation had evolved sufficiently to reevaluate their approach. They called for finding more effective ways to handle the issue, curb the flow of refugees, and work towards repatriating some of them.

According to a recent World Bank report, more than one in four Syrians are extremely poor. The UN humanitarian response plan for 2024 requires more than $4 billion in funding, but so far, donations are only in the millions. Amid the geostrategic discord among major powers, this week’s EU donor conference is unlikely to provide much more than symbolic support. In an increasingly conflicted world, peace efforts for Syria will likely be sidelined, leaving desperate Syrians with few options but to rely on limited international aid or pursue migration to less-than-welcoming societies in the West.

The presence of refugees in European countries is unsettling some host communities, amplifying intolerant narratives that drive wedges between people in otherwise tolerant societies. This situation indirectly increases the chances that previously marginal, anti-immigrant voices could gain political power across Europe in the upcoming elections.

Europe is undoubtedly at a crossroads, facing the difficult task of balancing humanitarian principles with the practical challenges of integrating a large number of refugees. The outcome of the European Parliament elections will significantly influence how the EU addresses the refugee crisis moving forward. It remains to be seen whether Europe can uphold its commitment to human rights and solidarity while managing the social and economic pressures of hosting millions of refugees.

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