The plight of Syria's refugees - racism, poverty, and imprisonment

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Three years of war in Syria have created a major refugee crisis. At least 2.3 million people have been forced over Syria's borders. Britain, France and other European governments are happy to fuel the war with money and weapons, but less generous when it comes to accommodating these refugees. The entire European Union has offered refuge, under a UN plan, to only 12,000 people – 0.5% of the total displaced. The vast majority are living in Syria's neighbouring countries. Those seeking to escape from these overcrowded and deprived situations face the militarised borders of the EU, immigration prisons, hostility and racism.

Middle Eastern refugee crisis

Over one million refugees from Syria have arrived in Lebanon, a country with a population of only 4.5 million. The Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is becoming a permanent settlement. It is now the country's fourth largest city, and refugees have added 9% to the population. Turkey has registered 600,000 Syrian refugees, who have been given sanctuary but no legal right to work. Iraq and Egypt, both embroiled in their own political and military crises, have also taken huge numbers. These five countries account for 97% of the total. Conditions for refugees are increasingly dire, with a lack of clean water, food, and suitable shelter. Problems have been compounded by one of the Middle East's worst ever winters, with snow falling in Cairo for the first time in 100 years.

Refugee crises are nothing new in the region. Palestinian refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are suffering again as the effects of the war in Syria hit their permanent refugee camps. The Yarmouk camp in Damascus has become the focus of fighting, with residents facing starvation as the camp is besieged by the Syrian army. The UN estimates that 2.2 million Iraqis fled their country between the imperialist invasion in 2003 and 2012, with around one million ending up in Syria. Most have now fled back to Iraq. Lebanese communities uprooted in the 1975 civil war, creating an exodus of one million refugees, now host an equivalent number of Syrians.

Imperialists shut the door

About 64,000 Syrian refugees – 2.4% of the total – have sought asylum in Europe. 60% of these have applied in Sweden and Germany. Since September 2013 all Syrian refugees claiming asylum in Sweden have been granted permanent residence; however refugees can only claim asylum once in Sweden and face a long and dangerous journey across Europe first. If they have been registered in another EU country, Sweden will send them back.

In October 2013 the UN issued an urgent call for countries to house 30,000 of the most vulnerable refugees. By 1 January, only 15,244 places had been pledged worldwide, with Germany accounting for 10,000. France, Syria's former colonial power, offered just 500. Following pressure from the UN and NGOs, on 29 January, the British government finally announced that it would accept around 500 of the most vulnerable refugees, but still refused to join the UN agreement. In parliament, Theresa May said that she would look into using frozen Syrian government assets in British banks to pay for this.

Fortress Europe

EU border police Frontex constantly patrol Turkey's borders with Greece and Bulgaria, arresting or expelling would-be entrants. 23,000 refugees arriving from Turkey were arrested in Greece in 2013, with Syrians the second-largest nationality. In December 2012, Greece completed a 6.5 mile barbed-wire border fence, costing €3m, sealing its land border with Turkey. The Evros river makes up the rest of this border, and migrants often drown. According to German NGO Pro Asyl, border police are performing illegal 'push-backs', returning migrants without registering them.

Refugees in Turkey are locked in huge immigration prisons. Between January and July 2013 Turkish police arrested 14,559. According to Turkish lawyer Levent Dinceli: 'Very few people are sent the legal way. It is either the push-back method or they regroup these people in detention centres; then send them back to Turkey with boats. These boats are not safe. Putting people in these boats is also pushing them to their death.' (Guardian, 7 December). Those who get through are often forced to negotiate Second World War minefields. Greek fascist party Golden Dawn is calling for new land mines along this border.

Whilst the British press and government were whipping up hysteria about immigration from Bulgaria, Bulgaria was itself reacting to an influx of migrants. In December 2013, Amnesty International drew attention to the desperate conditions of refugees in Bulgaria, with Syrians making up the largest national group. Bulgaria's immigration prisons are overcrowded, with one at 198% capacity. Refugees are 'held in appalling conditions, sometimes for months on end. They lack access to food, sanitation or basic medical care. They are also at risk of arbitrary detention'. Bulgaria has recently built its own 32km border fence. Racist attacks in Bulgaria are on the rise, including the fatal stabbing of a 17-year-old Syrian. A recent poll states that 62% of Bulgarians are against hosting refugees. The UNHCR recommends that no EU country returns failed asylum seekers to Bulgaria.

Calais hunger strike

In October 2013, 65 Syrians who had managed to reach the French port of Calais staged a hunger strike demanding asylum in Britain. In their press release they highlighted the absurdity of asylum law: 'We have the right to claim asylum in England, but how do we get there? There is not a legal way to cross.'

The ruling class of Britain and other imperialist countries claim to care about the suffering of Syrians, making large donations of aid to the UN, NGOs, and opposition organisations. In reality, they are in up to their necks in the war, offering humanitarian concern as justification for every new initiative to destroy the Syrian government. When the refugees of this war arrive at their own borders, this concern and compassion is exposed as hypocrisy. The drive to militarily and economically dominate the Middle East is supported by racism in the imperialist countries. Desperate refugees from wars in the region are an unwelcome reminder of the human cost.

Toby Harbertson