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Most Syrians want to return to their homes, but many of them will stay in Europe for a long time

08 September 2015 / 19:09:30  GRReporter
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Anastasia Balezdrova

The refugee flow from the Turkish coast to the Greek islands, mainland Greece and from there to Western and Northern Europe is increasingly intensifying. Another 4,000 Syrian refugees arrived at the port of Piraeus today and they will probably take the same route. According to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 7,000 refugees arrived in Macedonia yesterday alone. "There are 30,000 refugees on the Greek islands, 20,000 people being on Lesvos alone," organization spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said at a press conference in Geneva.

She called on Europe to secure a guaranteed resettlement system for the Syrian refugees and appreciated the decisions of Britain and France to receive part of them. At the same time she stressed that it would be necessary to build reception centres in Greece and Hungary.

Experts believe that the refugee flow from Turkey to the Greek islands will continue in September and October and will significantly decrease after November, when weather conditions will worsen. Then they will most likely be directed to the land border between Turkey and Bulgaria.

As stated by international law assistant at Athens Panteion University Angelos Syrigos in an interview with GRReporter, the fence that Greece has built on the border with Turkey in Evros has stopped immigrant flows. "But if passing by sea becomes difficult or impossible for some reason, the flows will turn to the land border with Turkey," he said.

Mr. Syrigos how could Europe counter the refugee wave?

Europe should address the issue. Currently it relies on rules that were established 11-12 years ago in very different conditions. When the Dublin I Regulation was adopted, which then became Dublin II and Dublin III, the major problem was related to the fact that a person could file an application for refugee status in several countries. Now he has the right to apply in only one country, namely the first country of arrival. This rule is detrimental to the peripheral EU countries such as Greece and Italy.

But the main long-term problem is its consideration. That is, we take for granted that a number of people will want to arrive in Europe for financial reasons. I am talking about economic migrants. This cannot be avoided. People will try to come. It is therefore necessary to take measures for cooperation with the countries from which they come. At the same time, a basis to receive a number of them should be created, as the fact is that Europe needs work force.

Furthermore, there is another group of people, like the Syrians, who are forced to leave their homes together with their families in search of a place to settle. This flow is due to the war in their country. The ambitious goal is to stop it. But if Europe were to be more practical, it should see what it could do with Syria’s neighbouring countries.

Currently there are around 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and 1.3 million in Lebanon, where the population is 4 million. If Europe does not help these countries to deal with the problem, it will inevitably face it too. The conditions there are harsh and the people want to come to Europe.

I was recently in Turkey and saw their living conditions there. A small percentage of them, around 15-20%, are housed in old barracks, where the conditions are quite good and the rest are on the street. They are washing car windows, begging... Turkey is full of refugees from Syria who are trying to survive.

Therefore, Europe should help Syria’s neighbouring countries where these people are to deal with the issue.

What do you think will happen to the refugees who are already in Europe? Could we believe that they would go back when the war ends and the conditions there would allow them to do so? Or would they prefer to stay in Europe, where they would have settled in the meantime?

The war in Syria has continued for four years already. Many of the refugees will return there but many of them will stay in my opinion.

The longer the war in Syria continues and the infrastructure is destroyed, the more difficult it will be for the people to go back there. I think that, so far, most of them would like to return. However, they have nowhere to go - their homes are destroyed, there is no electricity, water, there is nothing. Therefore, my opinion is that the Syrians will remain in Europe for a very long period of time. I have talked with many of them and I can say that the majority of them are not leaving Syria in search of a better place to live. They are leaving it because they are forced to save their families and want to do so.

Besides Syrians, however, a large number of people are not refugees but economic migrants. According to data from the last days, the ratio between potential refugees and economic migrants in the inflows of illegal arrivals in Greece is 75-25%.

The attitude towards these 25% of economic migrants should be different from that towards refugees. They should be returned to their countries. Greece’s experience shows that returning them is very difficult, especially because the countries of origin of these people are not interested in receiving back their citizens. The European Union should exert pressure on these countries, logically stating, I will put you in trouble for not receiving them. If you receive them, I will provide some things for you.

What is the responsibility of Muslim countries that seem to do nothing for the refugees from Syria?

I am not a Muslim but if I had to choose to go to Saudi Arabia or Germany, I would certainly choose the latter. These countries could not be identified as suitable places to which refugees would set off.

Shiites and Christians cannot go there because they are firmly Sunni. Sunnis are leaving Syria expelled from the Islamic state, which is largely financed by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region. The situation is very confused and we can accept as a fact the unwillingness of refugees to go there.

Iran is a totally different case, primarily because of religion. Furthermore, it is a Shiite country without a common border with Syria. Moreover, the Iranian economy has not been doing well in recent years because of the embargo imposed by the West in response to the country's nuclear programme. Indeed, the standard of living is quite high, society is quite developed compared to others in the region, restrictions on human rights are much more moderate than their extreme manifestations in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive cars, for example. However, Iran is not a country where a person would easily go, in view of its deteriorating economy in recent years.

We must not forget the "urban legends" that are spread among refugees. A widely spread notion is that countries like Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands are paradises. During the crisis involving the refugees who were protesting in Syntagma Square in November last year we tried to explain to them that they would not automatically obtain refugee status upon arriving in Sweden. We told them that they would have to submit applications which should then be considered and that the climatic conditions there would be difficult for them. They seemed slightly surprised because they had created a highly idealized notion of these countries. Therefore, the widespread tendency among them is to be able to go to northern Europe, which they consider a paradise.

Do you think these people can integrate into European societies?

This would be very difficult. But we have to divide the different categories.

Let us start with another group of immigrants, namely the Afghans. They come from a society that has no contact with Christians or people of another religion. As a result, they cannot understand the way of dressing of women in the West and the norms of behaviour established in Western society. It is extremely difficult for these people to integrate.

Syrians come from a multi-religious society. Although Shiites and Christians were a minority in it, they lived together. That is why they are more tolerant towards other cultures. However, their integration will continue to be difficult and will cause serious problems in European societies in the long term.

Do not forget that racist phenomena have recently become apparent in a very tolerant society such as that of the Netherlands. This shows that the country has opened to cultures that are not compatible with its own culture. This leads to a parallel existence and to an inherent conflict at some point.

Syrian refugees are already in Europe. How do you think things will develop from now on?

From the moment they become refugees, Europe is obliged to grant them asylum and protection. This will continue as long as the war in Syria continues. This crisis will not last forever.

Then a division will have to be made between the people who have managed to, or who are willing to, integrate and the rest.

With regard to economic migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, the attitude towards them should be quite different. The system that was in force in Greece until this January should be applied in this case, namely to accommodate them at reception centres and to return them to their countries with the assistance of the International Organization for Migration.

Therefore, my assessment of integration difficulties refers to refugees. Assumingly, economic immigrants should be returned to their countries.

An international human trafficking network is operating behind the refugee wave. The cases of Bulgarians involved in it have recently become more frequent. How should it be opposed?

The border between Bulgaria and Greece has many mountain regions. The people who are moving in this region know how to transfer the victims of such trafficking through them.

This phenomenon is largely logical. Let us look at the participants: police data indicate that they are Syrians, some of whom have lived in Greece for years and others who have arrived recently. Kurds who speak Kurdish with many Syrians are also involved as well as people from Bulgaria and Macedonia, who transport them from one border to the other. This scheme is illegal but logical, because there is a demand.

The fact is that it involves TIR truck, buses, taxi owners. It is clear that they will be available in the presence of such large flows of refugees and people who are determined to pay.

What a taxi driver in Athens told me a few days ago is significant. Syrians got into his taxi in Piraeus and told him that they wanted to go to the border. He replied that he could take them there against the sum of 650 euro and did so. At that point, I thought that it would have been more logical to take them to the bus station to board a bus and go to the border for a much smaller amount. However, the taxi driver had seen the opportunity to earn some money.

The question is how countries can cooperate to stop this network.

The situation in the Schengen Area has changed following the opened corridor Athens - Budapest. Bulgaria is not part of the Schengen Area but it is an EU member and border controls are pretty loose.

Generally, I think that Europe will have to review the whole system in the coming months. And since freedom of movement is a key pillar of the EU, I sincerely hope that no restrictions will be imposed.

I am saying this because at an EU summit in June 2014 a group of countries such as Germany, Austria, the Netherlands expressed a clear will to impose restrictions on the movement of member states nationals. I hope there will be no such changes, because this will be a negative development for both Greece and Bulgaria. And for the European idea ​ as a whole.

The USA is the subject of much criticism, for not taking action against the Islamic state on the one hand and for not receiving refugees from Syria on its territory on the other. Are there grounds for these criticisms?

The US has the advantage of being separated from the places where these problems are occurring by two oceans. It is interested in the events but on the other hand, it has its own problems with immigration from Mexico and Latin America in general.

The problem here is European and we must not forget Europe's responsibility for some of the countries. For example, the problem in Libya began as a result of a European initiative. France, Italy and Britain led the operation to remove Gaddafi from power. All this led to the presence of a non-state, with 2-3 governments, confronting groups and so on. In the case of Libya, the USA was initially opposed. Of course, it took part in the operation at some point.

I mean that Europe must acknowledge its responsibility and deal with its own problems. I remember the typical example of Bosnia. The US argued that "the Bosnian crisis lasted for years and we had to come to end it with the Dayton agreement, because you did nothing."

The fact is that the European Union has problems. The Greek crisis has brought to the fore the main one which is the economic problem, followed by the political problem, namely what we want from Europe, the banking issue as to whether there will be a banking union, how it will operate, etc. Europe has made very serious steps forward but has not yet solved the fundamental issues.

Henry Kissinger’s words continue to apply. In 1994, when the last phase of the war in Bosnia began he said, "The problem with Europe is that at 11:00 pm, when you hear the first shot, you do not know who to call but you know in the US."

Now you know who to call in Europe. The issue is that you have to call more than one person.

Regarding the Islamic state, it is largely the US’ responsibility as it is bombarding the positions of the jihadists. Of course, the question is whether this is enough and how the Islamic state in general has become so powerful.

Tags: SocietySyrian refugeesEconomic migrantsEuropeGreeceIllegal humantrafficking networkBulgaria
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