Why the West’s Syrian refugee crisis is unresolvable

Saad Omar Khan

In the early morning of September 2, 2015, Alan Kurdi—a three-year old Syrian Kurd—boarded a flimsy inflatable raft with his parents and brother on a voyage from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. Within hours, Alan, along with his brother and mother, would be dead, drowned after their vessel capsized not long after its departure. Unlike many anonymous victims of the Syrian civil war, Kurdi’s name and image would be etched in international media through a now infamous photograph showing his drowned body facedown on the shores of Turkey’s Aegean Coast. For the world, Kurdi is a symbol of the Syrian refugee crisis. For Canada specifically, he has become an electoral issue, a horrifying emblem of a refugee policy needing re-examination after it was found that his family had unsuccessfully sought asylum in Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has defended Canada’s refugee policy, and has declared military action in Syria against Islamic State (IS) to be essential to resolving the refugee crisis. To say IS plays a part in the mass migration of refugees from Syria is certainly true. Alan Kurdi and his family fled from Kobani, a city in Syria’s ethnically Kurdish northern region besieged for months by IS fighters. Yet to say that the fight against IS will itself solve the refugee crisis is at best misleading, especially considering that IS is not the only actor in Syria’s civil war creating the situation. Much of Syria is divided into a patchwork of areas controlled by the Assad regime, the Free Syrian Army, IS, and the country’s Kurdish population. As barbarous as IS has been in its self-proclaimed caliphate, the government under Bashar al-Assad has created an environment of outright terror against any and all dissent as part of its campaign against anti-government forces, including the use of barrel bombs in civilian areas, systematized sexual violence, and widespread torture. With so much of Syria divided between a murderous regime and an equally violent extremist group, there is little wonder why millions of Syrians have fled their homeland to neighbouring countries.

Many of these Syrians have also applied for asylum in the European Union (EU), Canada, the United States, and other nations in the Global North. The EU in particular has been undergoing a political crisis of no small significance due to the massive influx of asylum seekers, with close to half a million migrants coming into Europe through illegal border crossings in 2015 alone. While these migrants have come from a variety of countries (including Eritrea, Iraq, and Afghanistan), the largest contingent has been of Syrian origin.

Polls show support amongst Canadians to take in more Syrian refugees. The United States has pledged to increase its refugee quota to do the same. Regardless of the degree to which Western countries increase their refugee intake, there is little evidence that the outflow of migrants from Syria will abate in the near future. According to the OECD, the “uncertainty regarding the ending of the conflicts in Syria…creates a unique challenge compared with previous refugee crises,” with little end to the war foreseeable in the future. With the situation so dire and intractable, it is not difficult to conclude that the West’s Syrian refugee crisis is unresolvable as it is fundamentally a problem whose solution cannot be found in the West itself. Unless the conditions that created the crisis in the first place have been resolved, changes to immigration and refugee policy, expanded settlement services, and an increase in humanitarian quotas by Western countries will be insufficient to manage what the international media continues to describe as “the worst refugee crisis since the second world war.”

The Western world has options to resolve the Syrian crisis, although none of them are by themselves ideal. The world’s traditional power brokers in the Middle East (the so-called quartet of United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) could push the Syrian government towards resolving the civil war through diplomatic means. This option is as idealistic as it is improbable. The Syrian government has made no concessions to any opposition faction and is unwilling to consider a peaceful resolution. IS is similarly intransigent. Russia, long a supporter of the Assad regime, has already taken a side in the conflict by sending military forces to support the government against IS and other anti-government groups, including those supported by the United States.

If international actors cannot resolve the crisis through diplomatic means, outright force may be another option. With a coalition already fighting IS on Syrian soil, the West alongside regional partners may be forced to intervene against the Assad regime as well. As with the diplomatic option, military intervention (beyond the fight against IS) has many considerable political risks for all parties considered. The appetite for another full-scale war involving ground troops and regime change in the Middle East appears low and could lead to outcomes far worse than what the region has seen.

Without resolving the political catastrophe in Syria, the only option the international system is left with is to accelerate the integration of refugees scattered amongst Syria’s immediate neighbours, including the millions spread across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. This integration must go beyond the immediate problem facing the refugee population, including the very real and very pressing food crisis. As repatriation is unlikely to happen, there must be greater thought paid to options for citizenship in the first countries of settlement, continued primary, secondary, and even tertiary-level education for the refugee population, and integration into local labour markets.

The countries of the West cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility to accept, settle, and properly integrate this unparalleled human migration. At the same time, Middle Eastern host nations must accept the reality that these newcomers must be absorbed into their new societies as immigrants and not simply as isolated, marginalized refugees. As many of Syria’s dispossessed population is highly-skilled and educated, there may be potential for Syrians in surrounding countries to benefit local economies. With the assistance of the international community, countries of the Middle East must alter their existing policies (many of which actively discriminate against refugees participating in economic life through the denial of work permits) and accept the permanency of their Syrian guests staying in their new homes. Without such policy changes, more Syrians will see Europe and North America as their only option to live a peaceful and dignified life. Ultimately, this will mean more illegal migration, more boats leaving Mediterranean shores, and more Alan Kurdis perishing in the water.



Saad Omar Khan is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He holds a Bachelor degree in Peace and Conflict Studies and Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master degree in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. Saad has worked in the non-profit, financial, and academic sectors. His policy interests include international relations, human rights, immigration, and cultural policy.



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