The plight of the more than 4.8 Syrians who have fled the war in Syria has generated a wide variety of responses from the citizens and governments of receiving countries, from systemic neglect and confinement to far-flung potential solutions.
This week, French President François Hollande announced the plan to move 9,000 refugees from a camp in Calais, northern France, to reception centers across France.
The move followed months of clashes between Calais residents and French authorities. The camp, controversially nicknamed the “Jungle” after an in-joke originally told between refugees, has negatively affected the economy of Calais and triggered protests by residents, who early in September blocked tunnels and roadways to demand action be taken about the camp.
It has also become a symbol of the crisis facing European countries as they struggle to accommodate an influx of new arrivals. While European countries have received small numbers of Syrian refugees compared to states bordering Syria, especially Jordan and Turkey, the recent wave of immigration has provoked anxieties around terrorism, cultural change, and economic malaise in an already-troubled continent.
Germany, once lauded for its tolerance of immigrants and its welcoming attitude towards refugees, has since seen a growth in anti-refugee sentiment. The country’s “open door” policy towards refugees, which began late last year, was canceled in November after spending only a few months in effect.
Street protests and increasingly negative public opinion towards immigration triggered a political backlash for chancellor , whose policy faced challenges both from the growing German far-right and from within the ranks of her own party.
Organizational mayhem and administrative overwhelm brought a rapid end to the policy. Today, it is believed that more than 360,000 Syrians are living in Germany, most of them members of the Kurdish ethnic group.
France has faced similar problems, with the country seemingly unable to allocate or organize its resources to provide shelter and security to its growing refugee population. The Calais camp, which mainly consists of refugees attempting to enter the United Kingdom through the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel, became a focal point for the refugee crisis after forced evictions were carried out in 2015 by French authorities.
The everyday life of Syrian refugees in Europe is typically plagued by material insecurity and (often insurmountable) legal barriers to work and relocation. Stigmatization of refugees and growing Islamophobia have contributed to a hostile atmosphere and a lack of political resolve in recipient countries which further isolates the refugees, many of whom were doctors, lawyers, or entrepreneurs before fleeing war.
The squalid conditions of the Calais camp have provoked international controversy and criticism, and multiple bulldozing attempts have upended the lives of many of the camp’s inhabitants. But despite the harsh conditions, many f
ear that those who leave the camp will still not achieve sufficient housing and security, and may still be deprived of the chance to one day integrate into French society.
Multiple attempts to coordinate policy among different EU member states have failed. Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland in particular have shown hostility towards the idea of allowing refugees to enter their countries, and xenophobia has increased despite the relative absence of refugee populations in these countries.
Anecdotal accounts of the life of refugees living in European reveal the struggles of attempting to form a new life from scratch in an unfamiliar country, often without any local native language skills. Psychological stress from uncertain asylum status can cause depression and anxiety in young people who are otherwise eager to build their lives. And large news items, such as the New Year’s Eve sexual assaults in Germany and the Bataclan shootings in Paris in November, can trigger backlashes against refugees, who often take the brunt of the blame.
Yet as with previous waves of immigration (legal or illegal), recipient countries have much to gain from new arrivals. Their skills, perspectives, and youth can help make up for the areas where European countries’ natural demography falls short. And, as economists point out, the increased strain on public services is more than made up for in tax revenue. Helping provide for and integrate refugees could also bolster Europe’s soft power by underlining its commitment to personal and economic freedom.
So as the Syrian war enters its sixth year and Calais finally seems on the verge of being dismantled, the ball is in Europe’s court. While it is unclear whether European states will individually and collectively rise to accommodate refugees, how they respond will certainly have a major impact on the lives of the thousands of Syrians living within their borders and on how strongly the world thinks Europe still feels about opportunity and equality for all.