The gut-wrenching image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who, along with his mother and brother tragically drowned while fleeing to the Greek island of Kos, has shocked the world and left many with their conviction in humanity shaken. Aylan was one of the millions of Syrians who fled their country, which is in the midst of a civil war that shows no signs of abating.
A Syrian man carrying a child (left) scuffles with a Hungarian nationalist in front of the Keleti train station in Budapest on Friday (September 4, 2015). Minor skirmishes broke out at the Keleti train station. Photo - AP/PTISince the beginning of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in March 2011, 310,000 civilians have been killed (accounting for approximately 1.3 percent of Syria’s population). As a result of the conflict, the expanding security vacuum has allowed miscellaneous rebel groups, including the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front, to assert control in the northwest and southwest of the country.
The group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) now controls vast swathes of territory in the hinterland and areas bordering Iraq and Jordan, while Kurdish forces control a stretch of territory in the north, east of the Euphrates River.
Over 4 million Syrians have fled their country since the conflict began four years ago. Wealthy Syrians and those with means have already moved to safer pastures. Others have poured into neighboring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Iraq. Turkey now runs the most number of camps for Syrian refugees (22), and accommodates nearly 2 million Syrian refugees (as of August 2015).
Among Syria’s neighbors, Turkey and Jordan, with strong central governments, are best placed to deal with the refugee crisis. Lebanon’s weak government, however, is ill-equipped to deal with the nearly 1.2 million Syrians who have sought refuge in their country. Indeed, these Syrian refugees now form a quarter of Lebanon’s total population.
With there being no hope for a cessation of hostilities among the warring parties, the more desperate in Syria have attempted to flee to safety to Kos by undertaking a perilous journey via the Mediterranean Sea. Over 300,000 Syrians have attempted to escape the horrors of the civil war through this route. As of May 2015, an estimated 1,800 Syrian asylum-seekers have drowned attempting the journey across the Mediterranean.
The impact of the influx of large numbers of refugees from Syria into Europe could have mid- to long-term consequences that ought to be carefully analyzed. In a 1997 assessment of the impact of refugees on host countries, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identified that a large influx of refugees could (a) cause inflationary pressures and depress wages, (b) strain local administrations by diverting limited resources to keeping refugees alive, alleviating their suffering and ensuring their safety, and (c) impact the security and safety of society, through increased incidence of crime or other social problems.
Per UNHCR data, the number of Syrian asylum seekers in Europe has skyrocketed from about 91,000 in January 2014 to 350,000 in July 2015. And even though there has been a concerted effort to pump more money to allow host countries to cope with the crisis, current funding levels remain woefully inadequate. Per UNHCR data for August 2015, current funding levels address only 37 percent of the projected requirement.
Europe itself is in the midst of an economic crisis. Budget deficits across Europe remain high and unemployment rates continue to hover around the 10 percent mark. For Greece, the influx of close to 50,000 Syrian refugees will further strain it politically and economically. The announcement that Germany and Austria will accept refugees from Syria will add to prevailing economic pressures in the Eurozone.
From a geopolitical standpoint, the large and increasing influx of Syrian refugees into Europe now puts the U.S. and its European allies in an unenviable position in Syria. Neither Russia nor Iran, which back the Assad regime, have accepted any refugees from Syria and thus will happily play the long game until concessions from the U.S. are forthcoming.
Worse, the U.S.’s own allies – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – on whose account the U.S. launched an intervention into Syria in the first place, have steadfastly refused to accept any refugees. Lest we forget, the Saudis threw a fit in 2014 over America’s response (or lack thereof) to the Syrian crisis. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan went so far as to warn of a “major shift” and indicated that he planned to “limit interaction with the U.S.”
One year into the U.S.-led Syrian intervention, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, all three of whom currently preside over the UN Human Rights Council, have been conspicuous in their absence among nations accepting refugees from Syria. An official in the UAE offered the incredulous explanation that the UAE does not accept Syrian refugees because “it is in the long term interests of the refugees to be close to their homes, so that it will be easier for them to return” after the war.
We are unfortunately nowhere near the end of the crisis in Syria. With so many actors and divergent interests at play, it is not even remotely clear what an endgame in Syria might look like or whether any one actor has the ability to bring about a cessation of hostilities in that country. Ultimately, offering asylum to Syria’s refugees might have perhaps been the most humane thing to do, but it could turn out to be a double-edged sword for Europe.
Rohan Joshi is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution, focusing on Indian foreign policy and strategic affairs. He is a regular contributor to Pragati - The Indian National Interest Review and The Diplomat.
He tweets as @filter_c