Privileged American thoughts about the Syrian refugee crisis

Before I get started here, let me just get some qualifiers and caveats off my chest. I’m not a journalist, I come from a comfortable life of privilege, I didn’t study political science, and I’m no more informed about the intricacies and nuances of the Syrian war and refugee crisis than anybody else who reads the news. That being said, there are a few other things I need to get off my chest.

“Refugees” vs. “migrants”

First and foremost is terminology. Rhetoric and semantics are always powerful tools because they set the tone for the content that’s being conveyed. Words have emotional weight, and when you’re talking about a conflict that is highly political and highly emotional, the words you use are inevitably going to imply some kind of judgment. It’s hard, if not impossible, to talk about any conflict – particularly a war – without giving away some indication of whose “side” you’re on.

Let me be clear and upfront about where I stand: the word I’m going to be talking about here, and the word we should all be using when talking about the Syrian war and the vast, overwhelming majority of families entering Europe is not “migrant.” It’s “refugee.”

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention a refugee is:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

Refugees have actual legal rights and protections that migrants do not. Trenton and I? We are migrants. We moved to a new country because we felt like it and were looking for something different and better. Refugees are fleeing because of fear of persecution, and per international law, once a person is recognized as a refugee, they have the right to protection and a fair amount of social welfare. Don’t take my word for it. There are tons of great sources of information about the critical differences between the two.

Remember learning about squares and rectangles? Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square? You can think about the same Venn diagram situation with the terms migrant and refugee. All refugees could first be considered migrants, but not all migrants can be considered refugees. You actually have to file paperwork to be considered a refugee.

Sure, of course some of the people entering Europe right now are migrants and won’t ever be considered refugees. And, a lot of the people coming from Syria haven’t yet filed for asylum in the countries they’re in (more on that later). So to be safe, a lot, like A LOT, of media sources are primarily using the term “migrant.” Because it encompasses both types of people and until a person can be recognized as a refugee and has actually gone through the paperwork process of legally seeking political asylum, everyone crossing the border into Europe could theoretically be a migrant. Everyone is a migrant until some of them are allowed to be considered refugees.

But all of this is just the bureaucratic delineation of official paperwork and government policy. We know for sure that the people coming out of Syria are refugees, and calling them migrants dilutes responsibility. European government leaders who aren’t inclined to help are going to want to use the term “migrant” not only because it shifts focus away from humanitarian empathy, but also because it releases them from their legal responsibility to care for refugees. They don’t have to do shit for migrants.

Calling them migrants now also sets a particularly strict expectation for who will be granted refugee status later. Refugees can’t be sent back to their countries if their lives would be in danger, and the countries where they hold refugee status are required to grant them social welfare. What should be common sense and human decency is getting squeezed out. People are starting to get a little squirrelly about who should and shouldn’t be granted refugee status, particularly in the economically stretched countries where a huge crush of people from Syria are first arriving.

Syrian War

I’m not going to try to summarize the entire story of the Syrian civil war here, but I really recommend this article from the BBC. It’s simple and quick, and lays out the key elements. In an oversimplified nutshell:

  • Pro-democracy (think Arab Spring) uprising evolves into violent civil war
  • Irrefutable war crimes have been committed
  • Chemical weapons have been used
  • Russia and Iran have been backing the government regime led by President Assad
  • The US, UK and France have been backing the opposition, and were recently joined by Turkey.
  • Support for the opposition has started to lessen as increasing numbers of violent radicals are joining the rebels, who are splintering into subgroups themselves.
  • In sum, it’s all chaos and shit’s fucked.

The UN estimates more than 220,000 people have been killed and 840,000 wounded in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011. That’s the most recent statistic I’ve seen (it’s still being used in news articles as recent as this week), and it came from March of this year. I’m sure you’ve heard people talk about the disconnect that comes when death tolls rise into the thousands and hundreds of thousands. In those numbers, individual deaths get blurred into a massive, amorphous statistic, so here’s the math:

  • In four years of conflict, 575 people per day have been wounded in the war, and 150 people per day have been killed.
  • In 2010, Syria had a population of about 20.87 million. It was 17.65 million as of July 2014, with the report estimating the number of refugees at 3.3 million by the end of 2014.
  • Factoring in the number of people killed and the number of people fleeing the country, that’s 17% of the population gone in 4 years. 

“Those who are overwhelmed cannot offer shelter to anyone”

Yesterday I saw some graffiti in Amsterdam. I was on my bike and couldn’t take a photo, so I’m paraphrasing, but it basically reiterated the sentiment that’s been buzzing around lately: Europe isn’t in a position to help other people before Europe can take care of its own citizens.

From an inside-out perspective, the refugee crisis is happening at one of the worst possible times. The economy in Europe is still limping along (remember when everyone was talking about Greece a few months ago?) and nationalism seems like it’s still rising. Islamophobia is rampant and people keep talking about the need to find compromises that are “fair.” As if we’re trying to establish the rules for a brand new board game instead of navigating a real tragedy that is actually happening right now in the real world.

Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, wrote a thing where he tries to explain and defend why Hungary doesn’t want to accept refugees into their country. He starts off denying the existence of a refugee crisis; instead claiming that this is a “mounting wave of modern-era migration.” He claims that thousands are “clamoring” at the border (true enough), that they’re driven by “economic motives,” and that they’re not refugees. Sure, the economy in Syria is in the shithole, but life expectancy in Syria has also dropped from 76 years old in 2010 to 56 years old at the end of 2014. How shitty does your life have to be before it’s considered persecution? Fuck.

Orbán tries to dilute the urgency of the crisis by examining the scope of European immigration as a whole, and tries to make some sensible arguments in the middle about the Schengen area and the pressure on the outlying countries to protect that area, but then wraps up at the end of his statement by talking about his sincere concern that “European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian.”

This is undoubtedly my own emotional bias shining through, but no matter how frequently people try to paint the story of the refugee crisis in economic terms, there always seems to be a rotting core of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

Setting aside the fact that Hungary is rejecting asylum requests, there is a reason refugees from Syria (or anywhere else for that matter) don’t want to stay in Hungary, Turkey, Greece or Bulgaria. Some of the refugees have the gall to want the best life for themselves possible, and are trying really hard to make it to countries where they are welcome and where their families have a greater chance to thrive. Germany has become a victim of its own success, in a way, and many people are trying to make their way over to take advantage of Germany’s solid economy and welfare system. Germany is obviously suffering a bit as infrastructure and resources are being stretched, but Angela Merkel continues to extend generosity and is setting the standard for pragmatically and reasonably trying to do the best her country can do with the situation as it currently exists.

I understand the frustration of domestic issues that are being neglected to deal with foreign affairs, but again, this is not a board game, and the stakes are not fair. For Europeans, this is not a case of deciding whether or not to get involved. At the end of the day, Syrian refugees are coming to Europe and it doesn’t really matter if we want them here or not. The question now is how do we cope?

The huddled masses

There were two things that inspired me to spend all day writing this ranty, uninformed manifesto. The first was the issue of semantics, which I think I’ve about exhausted even my own patience examining. The second was an uncomfortable realization about my own prejudices and xenophobia.

There was a Syrian refugee living in Germany who recently posted an IamA on reddit and there were a few things that jumped out at me. First, he called himself an immigrant. He was granted asylum (meaning he is a refugee with official refugee status and protection) in Germany and calls the situation a “refugee crisis,” but he still introduced himself in the post title as an immigrant. Interesting… I have an idea about why, but first let me get to the other thing I noticed.

The second thing that jumped out at me was a comment about the exceptionality of his English, the fact that he arrived by plane (“months before the recent exodus”), and seemed well-educated. I was instantly grossed out by this comment; why is it so unbelievable that a Syrian refugee is educated and speaks English? But then I had to reckon with the fact that there is a part of me that is guilty of this presumptive thinking too. When I think of “refugees,” the depressing truth is that the first image in my head is of not a well-educated, intelligent, English-speaking person with access to plane tickets, let alone reddit.

I could unpack the relationship between English-speaking and “otherness” a bit more, but I think you know where I’m going with this.

I’m kind of disgusted with myself, but as I said, it’s part of the reason I felt like I had to write this. And I think it’s part of the reason the guy on reddit said “immigrant” instead of “refugee.” “Refugees” need protection and invoke pity, they have very little agency of their own, and it’s easy for the subconscious (for my subconscious, anyway) to lump them into a faceless mass of chaos, uncleanliness, and poverty. It’s easy to assume that their lives and the complexity of their experiences are so far removed from my own that we really aren’t the same at all.

So if you need a little humanity refresher, I really suggest you read his post. And remember that there are hundreds of thousands more like him. Smart, educated people with hangnails, allergies, favorite songs, and well-formed opinions caught in a really, really shitty situation. If you’re like me and it takes noticing his impeccable English to engage with his humanity, at least it’s a jumping off point for some self-reflection, if nothing else.

Lastly, and the guy on reddit addresses this too, is the too-often-repeated comment that the refugees are behaving badly and being impolite. I’ve read it all over the internet and seen it from people on TV. Aid workers and locals keep commenting about how “ungrateful” the refugees are. That they’re angry, have picky preferences about their food and water, and shout at aid workers. For the sake of argument, let’s assume this is true just for a moment. As the reddit guy says candidly; “they’re assholes.” Refugees can be assholes. Syrians can be assholes. People can be assholes. Everywhere I’ve traveled in my limited life… assholes.

This portrayal of the refugees in camps as ungrateful assholes is another disturbing example of dehumanization. Not only don’t we allow for the existence of assholes among refugees (should we add a behavioral code of misconduct to the Refugee Convention?), but we suggest that their bad behavior is a reasonable excuse for why they shouldn’t be given their human rights.

Chances are they’re tired, hungry, scared and are possibly missing family members and friends. If they’re acting like assholes, I think we could probably find it in our hearts to understand and forgive the lashing out that comes with emotional distress. And if not? If they’re always assholes, even in the best of times? Those assholes are still fleeing death and war, and are entitled to their human rights and our empathy.

And finally…

If you’ve read this far, thanks for sticking with me.  I know there are problems all over the world that need our attention, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is one of them. This is an important situation with not a lot of immediate hope for improvement. It’s super easy for me to sit in my bathrobe and tell everyone how we should be running the world, but this is how I process. This is how I cope. I hope I’ve encouraged you to do a little thinking, see the humanity in the numbers, and if you’re able, here are some of my favorite organizations that are doing more than blogging to alleviate the crisis and that could use your financial assistance:

Médecins Sans Frontières


Save the Children

International Rescue Committee

The UN Refugee Agency

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