Z., the Syrian refugee
Z. is a Syrian refugee whom I met four years ago. Just before the Syrian civil war started he managed to escape the country. In Syria he was a young lawyer and human rights activist. Security forces of the Bashar regime imprisoned many of his friends who were demanding more rights. After his escape from Syria, Z. ended up in Brussels.
His first two years in Brussels were a living hell. No papers, no money and no place to stay. Some people tried to support him by offering to put him up for few days or to give him some money, but he was not keen on accepting handouts.
The story of how Z. escaped Syria and the journey to Belgium, which he told me in fluent English, sounded like a nightmare you do not wish on anyone. The Belgian government was less impressed as it refused to give him papers.
There are many like Z. in Europe. Brussels has 19 communes, but when referred to the undocumented migrants we speak of the so-called 20th commune, which probably is also one of the biggest in the city.
Flooded by refugees
People all over Europe believe that most of the refugees of the world are coming to their countries. This is no coincidence as they have politicians in their countries telling them such lies. And this is not the only lie as refugees and migrants are depicted as abusers of social security who steal jobs away from the indigenous population.
But let us have a look at the facts and figures. Since World War II, there have never been this many refugees in the world. For the first time in history, the main reason is not war. It is climate change. According to numbers of the United Nations, there are currently over 51 million people forcibly displaced. In 2013, 17 million people were refugees. Half of the world’s refugees in 2013 were children. In Europe there were only 435.385 applications for asylum in the 28 European member states in 2013. In other words, the wealthiest part of the world received merely 2,5% of the refugees.
According the most recent data from UNCHR there are about 3,9 million Syrian refugees. 3,7 million of these refugees are residing in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Between the spring of 2011, when the Syrian civil war erupted, and December 2014 only 5,6 % or 217.000 Syrians took refuge in Europe.
Europe has become the most dangerous destination in the world for refugees. Hundreds of Syrians, clearly political refugees, lost their life on their way to Europe. Since the beginning of the year at least 400 people perished in the Mediterranean Sea. Migrant Offshore Aid Station estimates that 2015 will be the deadliest year so far. According to research, since 2000 at least 40.000 refugees died on their perilous journey to Europe.
The reaction of EU to this fact has been cutting funding for Mare Nostrum, a search and rescue operation for refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, and replacing it with Triton. However, Triton is not focused on search and rescue and does not operate routinely in international waters. On the other hand EU has invested approximately 2 billion Euros in the buffer zone around the EU to protect their borders and to keep refugees out.
Migrants, the future of Europe
It is time EU admits that its migration policies have failed and takes action in order to avoid more tragedies. I’m aware it will be difficult considering the present situation in Europe.
First, it is needed that social-democrats, christian-democrats, liberals and other parties of center-right change their discourse and policies on migration. Out of fear to lose voters to far-right parties, these political parties have harshened their policies towards migration. From the beginning of the nineties until today, there was a significant shift towards far-right discourse. Migration policies in Europe will not change if these traditional parties do not dare to offer a new discourse on asylum and migration.
Second, the debate on migration is based on false figures, stereotypes and, often, racist discourse. It is necessary to bring correct figures and statistics to the public debate. Such figures exist, but politicians are ignoring them. Citizens have the right, and should be, correctly informed.
Third, as figures clearly show, only a small percentage of global refugees are entering Europe. Considering the fact that Europe has some of the wealthiest countries in the world, it should take its responsibility and host more refugees. Coordination and solidarity among EU members is essential, but exactly what is missing at the moment.
Fourth, the millions of Euros that are spent on the security of borders, could be used to establish legal trajectories to Europe. By enabling safe access routes, not only more lives will be saved, but it will also help to fight human trafficking. François Crépeau, United Nations special rapporteur, had the same message recently in Brussels for European politicians.
Fifth, Crépeau but also the OECD clearly state that Europe needs migrants. Europe’s ageing workforces need replacing. A OECD study found that in two-thirds of European countries, a higher share of immigrants had been to university than the native-born population. They are more likely to find work, rather than sponge off the state. Other studies in various European countries show that migrants pay out far more in taxes than they receive in state benefits.
Since 2 years Z. has permission to stay and work in Belgium. He has learned Dutch and French. He has a full time job and volunteering during his free time.
Refugees need the solidarity of Europe today. Tomorrow they will be the ones contributing in a better future for Europe. All they need is opportunities. To start with, they need to be given the opportunity to live.