Who’s to blame for the Syrian Refugee Crisis?

Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek island Lesbos in an inflatable boat from Turkey last month. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek island Lesbos in an inflatable boat from Turkey last month. (c) Agence France-Presse

What started as a domestic political issue of Syria in 2011 is standing as a refugee crisis at the doors of the European Union today. It shows how far integrated and interdependent our world has become and how cautious we should be about the developments in the wider region. Nevertheless, recent public calls for a European solution to the Syrian refugee crisis are misplaced: Europe is neither the reason of this crisis, nor it can be a solution to it. Regional powers in the Middle East should take up the leading role on this issue and launch a humanitarian campaign to provide asylum and assistance for the millions of conflict-stricken Syrians.

Unfortunately, today, there is no clear public understanding yet of what triggered the crisis in Syria, which has led to conspiracy theories that some vague outside forces are guilty for the public uprising and subsequent collapse of the state in Syria. In reality though, there are a lot more sadly reasonable explanations for the Syrian crisis, which has to do with environmental factors, fast growing population and poor governance.

Officially, the ruling party in Syria is still the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party that came to power through a coup d’état in 1963. From economic standpoint the first years of the Ba’ath party rule was very successful. In the 1960s Syrian GDP per capita grew 80% and then peaked during the 1970’s with 336% of total GDP growth[1]. Political alignment with the Soviet Union turned very beneficial for the new Socialist government of Syria. The Soviet Union became the biggest export destination for Syrian agricultural products, oil and minerals such as Phosphate rock.

Economic successes paralleled with global improvements in public health care, led to a population boom in Syria. Traditional Syrian families had 4-5 children, who were seen as extra working hands in the family farmhouses. Agriculture accounted for almost one-third of Syrian GDP, thus many Syrians were motivated to have more children. However, then the economy slowed down, but the population growth did not. Traditional and conservative Syrians look down on either using contraception or generally any attempts to limit a family size.[2] Consequently, population of Syria grew from 4 million in 1950 to 22 million in 2010, which turned too heavy of a burden for the government to manage.

Number of Syrians who belong to the age group of 15-24 grew from 2,5 million in 1990 to 4,6 million in 2010, which meant that the Syrian government had to create 400 thousand new workplaces annually.[4] It was a very challenging task for the country that suffered from rampant corruption and lack of proper free-market mechanisms. This burden came especially heavy for the Assad regime, during the Syrian drought of 2006-2010.[5] According to meteorologists the drought and high temperatures during this period were unprecedented in the recorded history of Syria, where winter rainfall decreased by at least a third.[6]

In a country where almost 90 percent of fresh water is used for agriculture harvests, such drought played a devastating role for the economy. Close to 800 000 farm households were left out of business and nearly 1,5 million Syrians migrated from regions to the cities. In March 2011, economically devastated, politically oppressed, but stimulated by popular revolts in the neighboring countries Syrian citizens went out on the streets in big cities to demand political and economic reforms. Unfortunately, instead of yielding to popular demands Assad regime retaliated by shooting at its own people and the events snowballed into a Civil War from there.

So, contrary to popular opinion in some Middle Eastern countries, Syrian crisis is not a mystical plot of the West, and there are more reasonable explanations. However, lack of international consensus on Syria contributed to the protraction and even escalation of the conflict. As Assad’s army continued to kill its own people many countries around the world including the Western thought he should leave, but others like Russia and Iran supported the Assad regime, as they didn’t want to lose an ally in Damascus.

As the conflict protracted and more Syrian citizens fell prey to Assad’s army, Western countries as well as rich Arab states in the Gulf started secretly arming the Syrian opposition groups. It was no secret that some of the opposition leaders that fought against Assad were Islamist militants. So, the Western states were trying to identify and arm the moderate forces, but very often more radical Islamist groups recaptured and took over these weapons supplies inside Syria.

By 2013 a Salafi extremist group from Iraq coalesced with some of the radical opposition forces in Syria and proclaimed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (a historic term that refers to the geographical area in the Middle East that includes Syria as well). By July 2014 Assad regime had control over only one-third of Syria, while another third of the country was ruled by the ISIL.

It is a real nightmare for many Syrian citizens: if the Assad regime was bad, the ISIL turned to be even more horrifying. While close to 330 000 people have died in the conflict, nearly 12 million citizens, more than half the population of Syria, have been forced to leave their homes: 7,6 million have been internally displaced and 4,1 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries.

Table 1: Syrian refugees registered by UNHCR[7]

Total Population 22 million
Internally displaced 7, 6 million
Refugees 4,086,760
Registered by UNHCR Total Population
1. Turkey 1,938,999 75 million
2. Lebanon 1,113,941 4, 5 million
3. Jordan 628,887 6,5 million
4. Iraq 248,503 33,5 million
5. Egypt 132,375 82 million
6. Libya 24,055 6 million

Oversaturated and undersupplied the refugee camps in these countries are stretched far beyond their capacity to absorb any more newcomers. Today, close to 2 million Syrians are based in the refugee camps in Turkey, while every fifth person on the territory of Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. However, there are still millions of desperate families inside Syria that are selling their last possessions to find a one-way ticket to a safer country.

As a consequence the Syrian crisis is spilling over to the European continent. Since January 2015 more than half a million asylum seekers have arrived in Europe, which makes it the biggest migrant crisis of the continent since the World War II. By the estimates of the United Nations in average close to 8000 refugees arrive in Europe every day and that number is likely to grow.[8] Large majority of these refugees are from Syria.

Even migrants from other poor Middle Eastern countries claim to be Syrian, as 87% of those granted asylum in Europe are Syrians.[9] Initial welcoming reaction of Germany and some other European states, has created an unreasonable hope for millions of refugees across the Middle East for a better life in Europe. Most of these asylum seekers arrive in Southern and Eastern borders of the EU, but they want to travel to Northern and Western European countries, that spend more than 350 EURs per refugee per month.

Germany has taken by far the biggest share in Europe as its going to absorb more than 800 000 refugees by the end of this year.[10] However, there is still a bigger demand for asylum in Germany, while for obvious economic reasons there is only a limited number of refugees the country can take. According to Mr. Christian Bernreiter head of the district government of Deggendorf in Bavaria, Germany will spend approximately 60 000 EUR annually per unaccompanied minor.[11]

In addition, German chancellor Angela Merkel together with French President Francois Hollande lobbied for a controversial plan to share 120 000 refugees among the EU states. Adamantly opposed by Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, this resettlement plan was approved by majority vote of the EU interior ministers on 23 September 2015. On top of the quota plan to resettle 120,000 refugees, European states had already agreed to take 40 thousand refugees earlier in May 2015. Also, United Kingdom that abstained from the EU quota plans will take 20 000 Syrian refugees over the course of the next 4,5 years.

Table 2: EU quota plan to relocate 120, 000 Syrian refugees[12]

1. Germany 31,443
2. France 24, 031 9. Austria 3,640 16. Lithuania 780
3. Spain 14,931 10. Portugal 3,074 17. Slovenia 631
4. Poland 9,287 11. Czech Republic 2,978 18. Latvia 526
5. Netherlands 7,214 12. Finland 2,398 19. Luxembourg 440
6. Romania 4,646 13. Bulgaria 1,600 20. Estonia 373
7. Belgium 5,564 14. Slovakia 1,502 21. Cyprus 274
8. Sweden 4,469 15. Croatia 1,064 22. Malta 133

However, despite all these efforts EU is still being criticized for not doing enough towards the resolution of the Syrian refugee crisis. There are numerous NGO’s and humanitarian organizations that advocate for a bigger European share in the resolution of the crisis. Even the UNHCR spokeswoman Carlotta Sami said “The relocation plan in itself will not be sufficient to solve the crisis. It’s just 120,000 over two years. Considering that as of today almost 480,000 people have arrived [in Europe this year by boat], and 84% are coming from refugee-producing countries, this is clearly not enough. The EU states will have to … increase the numbers.”[13]

Back in December 2013, Amnesty International wrote that “The EU has miserably failed to play its part in providing a safe haven to the refugees who have lost all but their lives.”[14] Such humanitarian calls ignore the fact that every euro that EU spends on Syrian refugees has a very high alternative cost. For example, Angela Merkel has to explain to German farmers, students and other citizens, why their taxpayers’ money is spent on foreign immigrants and not on them. Especially noting that rich Arab states in the Gulf that are geographically and culturally much closer to Syria have done far less for the refugees than Europe.

This year the same Amnesty International has reported that “from Asia to Europe, large wealthy countries have turned their backs on Syrian refugees. All six Gulf countries, Russia and Japan have not offered to resettle a single refugee”.[15] This position was also supported by the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Keven Roth, who shared the following tweet[16]: “The way that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states aid Syrian refugees:”

HRW tweet Syria

There have been several reactions to the accusations regarding lack of response by Arabic states. In early September 2015 Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf region at the UNHCR told Bloomberg that “there are roughly 500,000 Syrians living in Saudi Arabia, though they are not classified as refugees and it isn’t clear when the majority of them arrived in the country.” [17] Later, Guardian reported a claim by a Saudi Arabian official that information about the kingdom’s lack of “response to the Syrian refugee crisis is “false and misleading” and it has in fact given residency to 100,000 people as war rages in their country.”[18] In another official statement Saudi Foreign ministry claimed that the Kingdom has received around 2.5 million Syrians since the beginning of the conflict.[19]

Such disparity in the reported numbers makes it difficult to believe any one of them. Even if we look at the financial assistance, the Arab states have offered far less than European countries in humanitarian aid for the Syrian refugees. Since, the beginning of the crisis EU has spent more than €4 billion in humanitarian aid for Syrians.[20] Additionally, during their last round of meetings in Brussels, EU leaders pledged another one billion euros to UN agencies aiding Syrian refugees in the Middle East. While assistance offered by the rich Arab states altogether is only 2,6 billion euros so far.[21]

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and United Arab Emirates alone account for more than 1/3 of the global petroleum reserves. Average per capita GDP among the six Arab states on the gulf, namely Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, is around $43,164, while the same number for EU is only $36,317.[22] So, why should not these countries that are geographically and culturally much closer to Syria, contribute more towards the resolution of the crisis?

For Europe that has not recovered from Eurozone crisis, granting asylum for a large number of foreigners is going to be not only an economic challenge, but could easily create issues regarding social integration and even security. According to the surveys of the Pew Research Center close to 74% of Muslims in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) prefer Sharia Law to civilian Constitution, and only 51% of the respondents said that Sharia should apply only to Muslims. Considering that most of the asylum seekers are from the MENA region, European societies might feel some tensions as they try to digest this new influx of refugees.

German security services have already warned that Islamic extremists are trying to recruit the Syrian refugees in Germany.[23] Also, Tobias Plate, spokesman of German Interior Ministry, said that nearly 1/3 of asylum seekers coming to Europe have forged their passports and IDs, as they pretend to flee Syrian Civil War. Consequently, the security services will need to double their efforts and conduct thorough background check on every person, to ensure that there are no ISIL infiltrators.

After all, in theory it would be great if Europe could resolve the Syrian refugee crisis, but in reality it is neither fair nor economically viable to have such expectations from EU states. Syrian citizens fleeing their homes to find a safer place is a human tragedy and the humanitarian campaigns to solve the crisis should transcend any cultural, religious or geographical barriers. Without a larger international effort the current refugee crisis cannot be solved. One just hopes that the generosity of Europe to accommodate such large numbers of asylum seekers will inspire the rich Arab countries in the Gulf as well to contribute more towards the solution of the growing crisis.


[1] Syria, Country Study Guide: Strategic Information and Developments. Vol. I. Washington DC: International Business Publications, 2013. p. 124

[3] Sands, Phil. “Population Surge in Syria Hampers Country’s Progress.” The National. March 6, 2011.

[4] Бологов, Петр. “Война на перекрестке цивилизаций. 10 причин, почему именно Сирия.” Slon Magazine, 18 Sept. 2015. https://slon.ru/posts/56638

[5] “Did Climate Change Help Spark The Syrian War?” Columbia University: Earth Institute. March 2, 2015.

[6] Schuttenhelm, Rolf. “The Syrian Drought of 2006-2010 Fits in Climate Trend of Lower Precipitation and Higher Temperatures.” Bits of Science. September 14, 2015.

[7] “Syria Regional Refugee Response.” UNHCR. October 1, 2015.

[8] “Europe Gets 8,000 Refugees Daily – UN”. BBC News – Europe. September 15, 2015

[9] Faiola, Anthony, and Souad Mekhennet. “Nearly a Third of Migrants in Germany Claiming to Be Syrians Aren’t from Syria.” The Washington Post. September 25, 2015.

[10] “Ordinary Germans, Not Their Politicians, Have Taken the Lead in Welcoming Syria’s Refugees.” The Economist. September 12, 2015.

[11] http://www.welt.de/regionales/bayern/article143892728/Hohe-Kosten-fuer-unbegleitete-minderjaehrige-Fluechtlinge.html

[12] Peralta, Eyder. “European Union Approves Quota System To Relocate 120,000 Refugees.” NPR. September 20, 2015. Accessed October 1, 2015.

[13] Traynor, Ian, and Patrick Kingsley. “EU Governments Push through Divisive Deal to Share 120,000 Refugees.” The Guardian. September 20, 2015.

[14] http://www.amnesty.ca/news/news-releases/fortress-europe-syrian-refugee-shame-exposed

[15] Snowdon, Kathryn. “The Rich Arab Nations That Aren’t Doing Anything To Help Syria’s Refugees.” The Huffington Post UK. September 4, 2015.

[16] https://twitter.com/KenRoth/status/639127974512603136/photo/1

[17] Abu-Nasr, Donna, Vivian Nereim, and Deema Almashabi. “Syria’s Refugees Feel More Welcome in Europe Than in the Gulf.” Bloomberg.com. September 4, 2015.

[18] “Saudi Arabia Says Criticism of Syria Refugee Response ‘false and Misleading’”. The Guardian. September 11, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/12/saudi-arabia-says-reports-of-its-syrian-refugee-response-false-and-misleading.

[19] “EU Pledges Aid for Syrian Refugees.” Al Jazeera English. September 24, 2015. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/eu-pledges-11bn-agencies-refugees-150923182915943.html.

[20] “Syria: Echo Factsheet.” European Commission. September 14, 2015. http://ec.europa.eu/echo/files/aid/countries/factsheets/syria_en.pdf.

[21] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/revealed-what-the-west-has-given-syrias-rebels-8756447.html

[22] “GDP Per Capita (current US$) | Data | Graph.” The World Bank. Accessed October 4, 2015. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD/countries/AE-SA-KW-QA-EU-OM-BH?display=graph.

[23] Huggler, Justin. “Islamic extremists ‘trying to recruit Syrian refugees in Germany’”. The Telegraph. September 10, 2015.

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