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The Refugee Crisis in the Mediterranean Panel Recap

 

A quick author’s note:

Dear reader,

This article is a recap a discussion hosted by the Reiff Center and the Rumi forum about the Mediterranean refugee crisis. Amongst other topics in this article, I will be mentioning the Islamic State. However, from this point on, I will be referring to the Islamic State only as “Da’ish”, which is the acronym for al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil ’Iraq wal-Sham, the Arabic way of saying “ISIS”. Da’ish has strongly opposed their group being referred to as this, due to “Da’ish” being close in sound to words meaning “to smash, stomp, or scrub”. With that being said, I hope you enjoy the article.

Syrian Refugees in Vienna. Source: Josh Zakary, Creative Commons
Syrian Refugees in Vienna. Source: Josh Zakary, Creative Commons

With the terrorist attacks carried out by Da’ish in Paris, many in the United States are calling for the government to close its borders to Syrian refugees. President Obama has said that the administration will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees this year. But fears are high that a terrorist attack will happen in the near future on U.S. soil, especially with Da’ish announcing that it would attack Washington D.C. So far, 31 states, all but one whose governors are Republican have said that they would not accept any Syrian refugees. And presidential candidates have spoken out against admitting Syrian refugees into the country. Presidential candidate and Republican Senator Ted Cruz has even insinuated that President Obama, in criticizing his and other candidates’ positions on the refugee admittance decision at the G20 Summit in Turkey, does not have the courage to challenge his position on American soil. If there is one thing that is for sure, it is that this situation is very complex, and it is imperative to understand the full scale of the crisis.

On Tuesday, November 10, the Reiff Center, along with the Rumi forum, had the pleasure of hosting a panel on the Refugee Crisis in the Mediterranean. The first panelist, Angela Banks, a professor of law at William & Mary, began the discussion with an overview of European and United Nations (UN) refugee and asylum law. This derives from two major treaties: the Refugee Convention of 1951, in which 145 state parties participated, and the Refugee Protocol of 1967, which had 146 states participate. Within the European Union (EU), refugee laws are rooted in the EU Asylum Qualification Directive of 2011 and the EU Asylum Procedures Directive of 2013. These treaties define a refugee as an individual who is outside their country of nationality, which is unable to be protected by said country, and is unable to return to their origin country due to fears of being persecuted. Reasons for persecution include race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. However, the key issue in this definition is that European Union law does not define the term “persecution”. Consequently, the interpretation of who is being persecuted is up to the individual member states. The United States High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines persecution as a violation of human rights. One notable omission is that war or armed conflict is not a basis for being labeled as a refugee.

The European Union does provide some subsidiary protection for these people, however. Asylum seekers cannot be returned to the country where they faced persecution or harm. Legally, asylum seekers have the right to file for international protection as soon as possible. Free information regarding the asylum process is provided to the applicant in a language they can understand. Asylum seekers are also guaranteed legal representation. The state provides free legal representation for all asylum appeals, guarantees the right to remain in the state while the application is pending, and will provide an interpreter when necessary. Before the state grants asylum status, it provides material vouchers so the applicants can purchase essentials. Upon asylum being granted, the individual receives residence, is allowed to travel within the state, and is provided social assistance, health care, and more social benefits. In terms of legal status, once the applicant has arrived in the state and made a request, their means of arrival is disregarded. The individual cannot be detained, but can have conditional housing and social benefits, which are determined by the state. They are also given refugee and subsidiary protection status.

The second panelist, Dr. Hanadi al-Samman, who teaches Modern Arabic Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Virginia, gave an overview of the events leading up to the current refugee crisis. The Syrian Civil War did not start with violence, but with peaceful protests regarding the detainment of several children who had written on a wall, “ The people want to topple the regime”. The children were tortured, and when the parents inquired about their children, they were told by the police to “forget your children. If you really want your children, you should make more children”. The protestors of these acts were attacked by the Assad regime. Despite protestors’ attempts at remaining peaceful, civil war soon broke out. Since then, millions have been internally displaced, and a large amount of Syrian infrastructure and would heritage sites have been destroyed. The Assad Regime is insisting that Da’ish is the main danger in the region, while revolutionaries say that it is the Assad Regime that is the real killer. President Obama said that there would be Western intervention if the Assad Regime used chemical weapons, but even after the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta on August 21, 2013, the president failed to keep his word. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, according to the United Nations, documented death tolls have reached 220,000, though actual death tolls are estimated to be over 300,000. Currently, over four million refugees have fled the country, and seven million are internally displaced. With the threat of Da’ish, the opposition forces, the Assad regime, and many other militant groups, Syrian citizens are faced with two choices: fight or flee. Many have chosen to flee, either south to Lebanon, Jordan, or other Arab countries, or north to Europe through Turkey. Because of this, Turkey is being heavily impacted by the refugee crisis.

Relief effort for Syrian refugees in Kilis, southern Turkey. August 2012. Source: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation's Photostream, Creative Commons
Relief effort for Syrian refugees in Kilis, southern Turkey. August 2012.
Source: IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation’s Photostream, Creative Commons

The third panelist of the night was Mahir Zeynalov, a Turkish columnist for Al Arabiya, Huffington Post, and the Washington Bureau Chief of Today’s Zaman. He has been recognized as one of the 100 people to follow on foreign policy by Foreign Policy magazine. He has been deported from Turkey by president Recepp Tayyip Erdoğan for Tweeting against the government. Zeynalov addressed some issues Turkey is facing with the refugees coming in, and how the government is responding to this wave of humanity. The refugees have been a huge burden on Turkish society. This is because most do not speak Turkish, their lifestyle is completely different, and they are causing wages to decrease while domicile rental prices are increasing. Because all the land migration has gone through Turkey, the country has hosted over two million refugees, and has spent billions of Turkish Lira to aid them. While in Turkey, 35 thousand refugee children have been born. Only 200,000 out of 700,000 refugees have found work, and the same number of children are attending school. Because they do not speak the language and are not used to the Turkish style of teaching, school is difficult for them, and many turn to work, thus driving up child labor in Turkey. The government has opened the borders, but it is very difficult to examine the refugees to make sure they are not terrorists. Several bombings have occurred in Turkey, including major bombings in Ankara that killed over 100 people. Refugees from other countries are saying that they are Syrians so they can be granted refugee status. The government has been taking great measures to help as many refugees as it can, but many have turned to begging, and many more are living in massive camps where the conditions are hard.

Syrian refugees' camp in Cappadocia, Turkey. Source: Fabio Sola Penna, Creative Commons
Syrian refugees’ camp in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Source: Fabio Sola Penna, Creative Commons

The United Nations is calling the refugee crisis the “greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times”. As time passes, this situation creates problems not just for Turkey, but also for the refugees themselves. When they leave for Europe, because they are coming from Turkey rather than from Syria, the refugees are referred to as “migrants”. Because of these issues, Turkey has moved to close its borders, an act Zeynalov calls “shameful”.

The last speaker, Dr. Andria Timmer, a cultural anthropologist and lecturer at CNU, explained why the refugee crisis has been handled so poorly. Even though this is not just a European crisis, Europe brought the issue to the forefront of Western media coverage. So far, there have been an estimated 800,000 asylum seekers in Europe. In 2013, the European Union passed a law known as the Dublin Regulation, which states that all refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter. This regulation was partially suspended in 2015, however, because Southern and Eastern European countries were being overwhelmed with asylum applications. Most asylum seekers are trying to go to Germany, who made a public declaration that it would give jobs to refugees who came to the country. The best route for the refugees to Germany was through Hungary, whose government did not want so many asylum seekers traveling through their borders. The government created a biased survey regarding the situation, and the Hungarian people said they did not want refugees in their country. On September 15, the Hungarian government built a fence to stop refugees, and as a further preventive

Flag of Hungary Source: Roland Toth, Creative Commons
Flag of Hungary
Source: Roland Toth, Creative Commons

measure, dubbed Serbia a “safe country”, and made crossing the border from Hungary illegal. Migrants coming from “safe countries” are not considered refugees, and are viable to imprisonment. However, the Serbia-Hungary border closing caused tens of thousands of refugees to move into Croatia in a matter of days, so the Hungarian government reopened the border. Yet the government still opposes the refugees, and has played on the people’s fears of Muslim extremism and has compared the refugees to Roma, who are looked down upon in Hungary and other European countries. Central European countries have attempted to establish quota systems for refugee intake, but Western and Eastern European countries have opposed these measures. Very recently, Germany has decided to lift its suspension of the Dublin Regulation, and with Da’ish’s terrorist attacks in Paris, member states will most likely push for tighter EU border control. The situation looks bleak for the refugees.

Regardless of your political opinion on the matter, it cannot be denied that there are millions of innocent refugees who are merely attempting to escape a horrible situation in hopes of having a better life. Though governments may not be doing as much as they can to help, humanitarian aid in Europe has been effective. This aid does not have to be limited to Europeans, however. There are ways that students here at CNU can become involved in helping these people. The American Turkish Friendship Association is currently putting on a blanket and coat drive for Syrians who will be experiencing a harsh Turkish winter. If you wish to donate, you can visit http://helpsyrianrefugees.us/syrian-blanket-coat-drive/ for more details. Often, I hear students ask how they, only one person, can have an impact in a world of 7 billion people. Through aid such as this, young people like us can save human lives, bring hope to a terrible situation, and make the world a better place, which ultimately is what a CNU Captain is called to do.

On behalf of the Reiff Center, I would like to thank these panelists for speaking about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.