Escaping the Conflict: The Syrian Refugee Crisis Explained, hosted by AMSSA


AMSSA (Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Service Agencies of BC): “Strengthening Diversity in BC”. AMSSA is a provincial association of organizations focused on immigrant settlement and integration, diversity and inclusion. It has been providing support to the settlement and diversity sectors since 1977, with over 70 member agencies and over 100 partner agencies. Dr. Dan Hiebert teaches in the Department of Geography at UBC. His research interests are international migration and the relationship between national security, cultural diversity and human rights. Since 2010, he has served as co-chair of the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Group on Immigration and he is the founder of a new initiative, The Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society. In a recent AMSSA webinar, Professor Hiebert spoke on “Escaping Conflict: The Syrian Refugee Crisis Explained”.

Professor Hiebert starts with an outline of the risks involved for refugees leaving Syria and heading towards Europe. In the first 10 months of 2015 there were 593,432 refugee arrivals in Europe by sea and 30,103 dead or missing. The pathway with the largest number of deaths (2,814 as of 15 October) is the pathway from Libya/Tunisia to Italy, about a 150 mile journey full of risks.

The Syrian conflict has shifting boundaries and territories of control and Dr. Hiebert points out that there is no ‘endpoint’ in sight, “there is not even any idea of what a resolution might look like. It is an extremely complex interaction of different forces and objective with extreme devastation, leaving large areas uninhabitable that were previously densely populated”. Out of a population of around 22 million in 2010:

  • 250,000-300,000 have been killed (which may be a low estimate)
  • 1 million have been injured
  • 6-7 million have been internally displaced (“we outside know almost nothing about the situation of these people, except that they are in distress”)
  • 5 million have fled the country
  • 5-8 million people are preparing to flee (“it is estimated that it will be a 3-5 year horizon on this further emigration”)

Dr. Hiebert notes, contrary to the emplasis placed by the media on the situation as a European crisis of immigration, the the largest impact is for the countries directly adjacent to Syria, particularly Turkey.

As of 2015, Turkey is the world’s largest refugee host, with 2.5 million refugees entering Turkey by the end October 2015. The 25 refugee camps set up near the Turkish border with Syria, with capacity for 275,000 people, are now full. These camps are designed to be temporary (e.g. you can’t hold a job and there are no adequate education opportunities available) so, wherever possible, people move on quickly from the camps. There are now over 2 million refugees in Turkish cities, with Istanbul alone having 400,000. Those who can, mostly able-bodied adults, move on to the European Union (EU), leaving behind the very old and the very young, posing a significant challenge for Turkey. 55% of the refugees in Turkey are under 18 years old, over 600,000 are school age, and already 70,000 new babies have been born to the refugees currently living in Turkey. Moreover, Turkey does not have the capacity to readily incorporate the refugee children into their educational system. Professor Hiebert’s sources report that the country only has the infrastructure to handle 10% of the current numbers, and the refugees are Arabic speaking, whereas the Turkish school system is designed to operate in Turkish, meaning that a Turkish as a Second Language system will have to be set up from scratch.

While the standard of the refugee camps in Turkey is high compared to other places in the world, with purpose-built structures, rather than tents, and a good standard of cleanliness, they are purely residential. There is no infrastructure to provide employment; they are not real cities in that sense. Professor Hiebert notes that the cost of caring for the refugees in Turkey to date is staggering: US$7.6 billion spent so far; the cost of running the camps alone is US$300 million per year.

Dr. Hiebert references a new research paper by Murat Erdogan, Director of the Migration and Politics Research Centre at Hacettape University in Ankara, the first extensive public opinion survey done of the general Turkish population in response to the Syrian refugee situation in their country (August 2015). Dr. Hiebert notes that the survey demonstrates that, whilst the majority of Turkish citizens are willing to offer temporary accommodation to the Syrian refugee crisis, they are not inclined towards offering a longterm response, and there is strong resistance (over 80%) to offering Turkish citizenship to Syrians who are in the country. (In the Turkish system, citizenship is based on blood relationship rather than on residency.)

Dr. Hiebert goes on to say that there is increasing anger in Turkey at what is perceived to be the EU position on Turkey:

  • You MUST keep your eastern border open – it is your humanitarian obligation
  • But you must also close your western border (and we will build walls…)
  • So, “it’s up to you…”
  • The EU is offering financial incentive to Turkey to restrict the northwards flow of refugees out of Turkey, in response to which Turkey is increasingly restricting movement of Syrians within Turkey and exiting to the EU.
  • In return, Turkey is seeking very large funding from the EU with increasingly complex political maneuvering occurring.

Dr. Hiebert also notes the imbalance between the EU and Turkey in terms of capacity. The EU has a population of 508 million, with an annual GDP of $18,460 trillion, and receiving around 1 million Syrian refugees. Turkey has a population of 75 million, an annual GDP of $800 billion, and is processing 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

Sweden was the first European country to offer a significant response to the Syrian crisis, offering Syrian refugees permanent residence as early as 2011, with Germany making a similar offer soon after. Germany is currently receiving the largest number of refugees of any European country. They had anticipated 800,000 in 2015, but had already received over 1 million asylum seekers by late October. However, Dr. Hiebert explains that Germany, like Canada, will engage in a process of refugee determination.

When Dr. Hiebert spoke with a senior German government official in September, they were anticipating a 35% success rate, based on the last two or three years, meaning that they will probably keep around 350,000 asylum seekers this year, but they will be rejecting and deporting around 650,000, leading to one of the largest repatriations ever seen from Germany, which will be both complicated and expensive. They also plan to invest 6 billion euros in accommodation, health and education for the accepted refugees, including building 350,000 new social housing units in 2016 and the same again in 2017. The social cost to Germany of incorporating the refugees and the resources required are enormous. “’At least half of the refugees who have come to Germany have mental health problems because of trauma suffered in war or during their dangerous escapes,’ said the chamber of psychotherapists” (Medical Press, 16 Sept., 2015).

There has already been a political backlash over refugee arrival and settlement in Germany which, Dr. Hiebert comments, has significant implications for the current German governing party at the next elections. Moreover, action by the two main European receiving/transit states (Italy and Greece), calling for redistribution of refugees across EU states, and the two formalized agreements of May and September, 2015, have led to a backlash of EU anti-refugee mobilization, including member state actions against refugee movement and admission, as well as populist responses. Borders have been closed by several of the transit states, forcing refugees to move through a narrower and narrower corridor into central Europe.

In Canada, we process three categories of refugees:

  • Government Assisted Refugees
    • Selected overseas with help of UNHCR
    • Financially supported by the federal government
    • Broad system of support (through mandated transport loan, where accepted refugees are required to pay back transport costs)
  • Privately Sponsored Refugees, an unusual situation that is allowed by very few countries in the world, allowing sponsorship by groups of 5 members or more, or organizations, who are willing to take on the costs of assistance that would normally be met by the federal government
    • Private equivalent of above
    • Mostly undertaken by faith groups
    • Often involves a form of extended family reunion
  • Landed-in-Canada Refugees
    • Asylum claims made from within Canada by people who have made their own way to Canada
    • Processed by Immigration and Refugee Board

Over the period from 1989 to 2013, refugee numbers have been gradually declining in relation to other immigration categories for Canada. Every year in November the government Immigration minister provides a position statement on immigration for the coming year. The situation was complicated this year by the change in government, which has led to a repositioning of quotas.

The original commitment to 1,300 (divided roughly equally between public and private sponsorship), made straight away by Canada when the Syrian crisis first broke in 2011, was increased in 2013 to 11,300, to be admitted between 2014-2017. As of October 2015, approximately 2,500 Syrian refugees had been processed and landed in Canada.

In a national survey held in Canada in September, Dr. Hiebert notes that the responses were 25% expressing belief that Canada is taking in too many Syrian refugees, 34% expressing belief that Canada’s response has been about right, and 36% expressing belief that Canadas is taking in too few Syrian refugees. In an Ipsos survey in September on handling of the Syrian refugee crisis by the three major parties, 38% indicated support for the Conservative policies, 32% support for the NDP proposals, and 30% indicated support for the Liberal proposals. On a follow-up question, 60% were opposed to the Liberal plan of admitting 25,000 refugees immediately into Canada.

The election promises made by the incoming Canadian government included:

  • 25,000 government-sponsored refugees immediately (by the end of 2015) at an estimated cost of $100 million.
  • Continued open process of private sponsorship
  • Increase Canada’s contribution to UNHCR (the UN processing agency) by $100 million.

UNHCR and the National Association of Settlement NGOs in Canada support the new target, but have requested a longer processing period of 14 months (end of 2016) to achieve the target in order to make better-informed decisions.

Finally, Dr. Hiebert concludes that the scale of the conflict is beyond most people’s imagination and the displacement is huge. The likelihood is that Syrian refugees will become permanent residents of their host countries, in significant numbers. He says, “A new diaspora is forming, of over 10 million Syrians living permanently outside their home country.” He notes that, while the surrounding regional countries are currently coping, signals are worrying for the medium-long term, and that international solidarity is very weak. He predicts a likelihood of major changes in upcoming elections in EU countries, as populist response to refugee ingress hardens.

Canada is now in the mix of durable solutions, in responding to the UNHCR request for resettlement of 25,000 government-assisted refugees. Dr. Hiebert also thinks there is the possibility of a major private sponsorship effort, similar to that seen during the Vietnamese refugee crisis 35 years ago. He feels that it still remains to be seen whether Canada will become a significant player in the Syrian refugee resettlement process.

His ultimate assessment, however, is that we are nowhere near a ‘global solution’ to a problem that has large global implications.