Pictures of women and children huddled together in crowded boats or in pup tents in a stinking muddy field in Indomeni, Greece or pressing againt razor topped fences are routinely seen on television and social media. So what have we achieved since the picture of Alan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross from Turkey to Greece galvanized the world and prodded the heads of state in Europe to wake up and belatedly act?
Last year about 1.5 million people entered Europe from the war-torn countries of Asia, mainly from Syria and Afganisthan. They were initially welcomed with open arms, especially in Germany. But stresses and strains were soon apparent in the European Union, mainly on how and where to settle the asylum seekers. Some countries (Germany and Sweden) were taking in a higher proportion than others. To complicate matters, the refugees had a distinct preference for Germany or Scandinavian countries like Sweden. Given a choice to settle in other countries, they would refuse and continue towards Germany. Further, it is almost impossible to separate genuine refugees from war zones from economic migrants simply seeking a better life. The migrants most often do not carry the requisite documents since they are fleeing from war zones with hardly more than the clothes on their backs. The number of border officials handling the paper work are too few in number to handle the flood of desperate humanity. In spite of all its economic woes and slow growth, Europe is still heaven to many in Asia who are being bombed, shot or raped on a daily basis and only a few miles of sea separate Turkey from Greece. It is too tempting and they will do everything in their power to reach the country of their dreams. A few or even a thousand policemen cannot stop a million desperate refugees.
Europe is caught between a rock and a hard place. The early welcome for the refugees soon evaporated as the number of immigrants kept on increasing plunging Europe into an existential crisis. This led to the increase in popularity of right-wing extremist groups with dire consequences in local elections. To her credit, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has been very supportive of taking in more refugees, but her party, the Christian Democratic Union was dealt a severe blow in recent elections in the three states of Baden-Wurttemberg, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saxony-Anhalt.
The EU-Turkey Deal
So, to prevent or at least slow down the flood of refugees, Europe did a very questionable deal with Turkey. Briefly, Europe agreed to:
- Increase aid to Turkey, up to $6.6 billion
- Fast track discussions of Turkey joining the EU
- Allow visa -free travel for Turkish citizens
All this is dependent on Turkey meeting certain requirements and benchmarks, but it is clear that Europe caved in and Turkey holds the upper hand. However, this will not solve Europe’s problem. It may cause, at best, a slow down in the stream of refugees, assuming Turkey keeps its part of the bargain. It may not, Turkey has human rights issues of its own and its citizens may use this opportunity to migrate to Europe. As I wrote in an earlier post A Physics Solution to the Refugee Crisis in Europe: A Different Perspective, migration is as old as the history of human civilization and the drive to live a better life is too great for petty obstacles like guards and border fences to block. They will find other ways to get to Europe e.g. from Libya, because the alternative, staying behind, is far worse.
The real solution is to stop the war and carnage in Syria. Once you take the pressure away from migration, giving the citizens a chance to lead safe, meaningful, productive lives, they will stay home. Who does not want to be with friends and family?
How can that happen? Let’s analyze the situation in Syria. There isn’t just one war there, but several interrelated ones. First, there is the war between Alawite Assad and his mainly Sunni opponents. Second, is the Shia-Sunni conflict, a small part of the larger regional conflict spearheaded by Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Third, there is ISIS versus the others, internecine squabbles between the many groups fighting Assad and fourth, there is the rivalry between USA and Russia.
But Russia unexpectedly withdrew most of its forces from Syria, a wise move. The Russians seem to have learned from their experience in Afganisthan and our experience in Iraq. They have avoided a protracted, costly and bloody war. This will put more pressure on Assad in the upcoming negotiations. We may have to negotiate with ISIS, they are a new reality on the ground and have demonstrated amazing tenacity in holding territory and finding ways to fund themselves. We negotiated with the Taliban when it was necessary, so why not with ISIS?
In the end, it has to be a regional solution, the Syrians along with their neighbors will have to decide their future. We need to realize and accept it. We may have to stop demanding that Assad must go now. He may have to, some time in the future. But we should learn from our experience in removing middle eastern dictators, it often yielded unexpected results. Let us not forget what happened in Iraq, Egypt and Libya once we removed Saddam Hussain, Mubarak and Gaddafi. The map of the middle east may change, it was drawn by Western Powers with the break up of the Ottoman Empire and did not take account of the aspirations of the local people nor their religion, ethnicity and age-old rivalries.
Looking to the Future
Only when peace and prosperity return to war-torn states will the flood of refugees stop or slow to a trickle. That is good. The best and brightest will always seek opportunities to use their talents and that is a net gain for mankind. Only then will the picture of children in tears at a border crossing be replaced by hugs and smiles. That is a day we can all look forward to.
Ranjan Mukherjee is a scientist and writer.