First a comparison. On March 6, 2013, the Australian Andrew Harper, of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), gathered a group of journalists in the Zaatari camp, in Jordan, 15 kilometers from the border with Syria. There, Harper stated the following: “We have reached the millionth refugee.” That was the number of Syrians who had left their homes and crossed the border to flee the violence. One million, two years after the revolts began against the Bashar al-Assad regime that plunged the country into civil strife. The offensive launched by Russia in Ukraine on February 24 reached that same figure in just seven days. The Syrian conflict took two years, compared to a week in Eastern Europe ―the number of displaced people outside of Ukraine now exceeds 2.6 million―.
The x-ray of the refugee crisis in Syria is far from the Ukraine. The one in the Arab country was not a crisis that greatly affected Europe until the summer of 2015, four years after the violence broke out. Let’s go a little further back. The citizens who left their homes in the first months of the clashes between Syrian rebels and El Asad’s army, between 2011 and 2012, did not generally have the objective of leaving the country. Twelve months after the first riots in the Syrian town of Deraa, triggering the military repression, a UNHCR spokeswoman acknowledged in conversation with this newspaper that there was no “avalanche” of refugees. “People are reluctant to leave,” she said.
Most of the Syrians who left their homes were internally displaced (200,000 in March 2012), they did not cross the border crossings. The aerial bombardment and artillery fire did not come overnight; They were in crescendo —Russia began its intervention together with Damascus in September 2015—, pushing citizens to, first, move to the countryside and, second, try to reach the border, where it was difficult to get there—after the aerial fire, the infantry arrived with a vileness that did not distinguish between civilians and uniformed men. Problem, the Syrian infrastructures were far from those of Ukraine which, especially through its rail network, has managed to open the way for those fleeing the Russian invasion. Second, the reception conditions in the neighboring countries were not as favorable as those now expressed by the EU for the Ukrainians. Three possible destinations: tents in reception camps, a temporary home for relatives or paying rent in the best of cases, with rising prices.
Migratory flows undoubtedly move out of necessity, but also due to expectations of improvement in the destination. And in the Syrian case they were very poor. Francesco Pasetti, a researcher at the CIDOB analysis center, points out a sociodemographic detail to explain the reception this time of people arriving from Ukraine: “The Ukrainian migrant group is used to moving within the EU territory. Between 2014 and 2019, 3.5 million Ukrainians received a residence permit from EU Member States, most of them temporary in low-skilled sectors.
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Despite the difficulties, the Syrians gradually passed through the border crossings into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. As this newspaper was able to verify in visits to the camps on the border, the majority of Syrians maintained the idea of returning to Syria, at least in those first years of war. That longing faded. The violence did not stop and the neighboring countries exhausted their reception capacities. The war in the north, on the border with Turkey, intensified with the appearance of the Islamic State. The 2015 battle of Kobane, on the Turkish-Syrian border, left a huge hole through which thousands of civilians fled. Ankara decided to open the door to this flow to the Mediterranean and it was then that Europe became a fundamental destination.
It was also at that time that the Syrian war drew closer to Berlin, Stockholm, Rome, Madrid… Four years had passed since the start of hostilities. “The confrontation between Europe and Russia clearly marks the position of the EU at a strategic and political level”, continues Pasetti, “but also at a symbolic and identity level. Ukraine is Europe, Syria is not. This is ‘our’ war, that was not”. On September 2, 2015, Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian from Kobane, was found dead on the Turkish coast. He was the symbol of a migration drama that mobilized the EU with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm. The head of the German government expressed the willingness of her country to welcome Syrian refugees.
It was there that expectations about the European promised land finally grew. Undoubtedly a so-called effect -wrongly reviled-, together with many others, as this newspaper was able to verify when accompanying the displaced through the Balkan route. To questions about why they were traveling at the time, many responded: “Because Merkel said so.”
Four and a half years after the hackneyed Syrian Arab Spring, in that month of September 2015, the EU closed an agreement for the distribution of 160,000 Syrian refugees arriving in Greece and Italy, the main ports in the Mediterranean Sea. Two years later, barely one in five had moved legally to the rest of the EU. The compromise failed with three countries leading in default: Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. The EU Court declared their refusal to take asylum seekers illegal and deliberate.
The first two did not take in any of the refugees that they were assigned according to the distribution. Today, Poland and Hungary, which share a border with Ukraine, lead the list of European countries in receiving those displaced by the war launched by Russia. “As we have seen in the media, also by political representatives”, affirms the CIDOB researcher, “there is a story and a moral judgment that is very different from the one we had after the 2015 crisis: now it is about ‘us’ , not ‘others’, these people are ‘our real refugees’.
Around 6.6 million Syrians have fled their country in the last decade due to the war. The vast majority, 5.6 million, have remained in neighboring countries.
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