What might one day be remembered as the Great Syrian Migration for its scale, or the Syrian Exodus for its epic and tragic character, is currently referred to as the European migration crisis. The proto-genocidal war in Syria, and even the pressures of four million refugees on Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey are by any measure more critical than the challenges to Europe’s immigration and integration policies. However, these problems were easier for the global north to dismiss as part of a chronically benighted and distant Middle East. There has been some media controversy over this Eurocentric framing of the issue and how to refer to these asylum seekers. Al-Jazeera announced a policy decision to avoid the word “migrant” and exclusively use the word “refugee,” as flight from war zones creates de facto refugees. Under the spirit of the 1951 Geneva Convention, the fact of displacement generates refugee status until proven otherwise. Most North American and European mainstream media outlets continue to use the term “migrant,” assuming that it is neutral and descriptive, and that legal refugee status will be confirmed, de jure, by an asylum court or other formal national or international process. There are important legal implications depending on the word and assumptions used; those judged to be refugees have a path to asylum and legal status, while economic migrants are subject to deportation. The displaced people themselves often prefer not to be labeled and categorized.
As this subject is discussed in the English-language media, the core of Syrian refugees is joined each week by people fleeing Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh and recently even Iran and Lebanon. Refugees and migrants from other zones of war and poverty are joining the caravan to Europe, sometimes even claiming to be Syrian to gain an edge in the quest for asylum. Falsified Syrian papers are available for purchase from the same smugglers selling rubber dinghies on the Turkish coast. These non-Syrian refugees and migrants are pushed from their homes by inequality, fear and insecurity and lured by promises of freedom, tolerance and prosperity.
The material facts of war and poverty and the ideals of peace, prosperity and dignity are intimately linked, and the resilient refugees and migrants are forcing them into the same frame of reference. The recognition of a legal category of “survival migration,” in which people who flee from circumstances of environmental change, livelihood collapse and state fragility, or “existential threat for which they have no domestic remedy,” may be the key to institutional accommodation for a wider range of circumstances. Until new norms are put in place, people fleeing to Europe are more likely to be assigned to a limbo of “subsidiary protection.” This allows Geneva Convention refugee status to be forestalled by policy decisions of member states (much as Geneva-protected “enemy combatant” status was displaced by “terrorist” designations in the last decade).
Liquefaction — the process of a solid being rendered liquid — may be an apt metaphor for the destruction in Syria since 2011. Liquid also alludes to the watery fate of the nearly 3,000 who have drowned in the Mediterranean this year: an average of six every day of the migration. A more useful metaphor might be the financial liquidation and termination of an enterprise and conversion of its assets to cash at a loss. Unlike formal bankruptcy, raw liquidation moves from clandestine looting of assets to arson attacks (as in the regime slogan, “Assad or we burn the country”) followed by stockholders’ panic selling, resulting in the opportunistic acquisition of critical infrastructure by bottom feeders when blood literally runs in the streets. The desperate liquidation of a recoverable portion of Syrians’ lives enriches networks of human smugglers and their deep-state partners, leaving the bulk of immovable assets to a collection of thuggish actors from ISIS to regime supporters at the local, regional and global levels.
A national fire sale is taking place in Syria. With government and now Russian aerial attacks rendering massive swaths of the urban landscape uninhabitable, the wanton destruction of private property in the form of real estate (Syria’s primary form of wealth), the devastation of agriculture, and even attacks on public markets, the infrastructure of Syrian society is being torched. The government is propped up by Russian and Iranian reinforcements, now beginning to jostle for position vis-à-vis resource fields, pipelines and harbors. Extremists vie for territory, tribute bases and limelight. Barrel bombs and passports go for $300 apiece. Even ISIS cashes in (on an industrial scale), selling archaeological treasures that are not built into the landscape.
The brain and body drain is far worse. The Assad regime has killed the majority of the quarter-million people who have died in the civil war. An Amnesty International investigation revealed that the “state profits from widespread and systematic enforced disappearances amounting to crimes against humanity, through an insidious black market in which family members desperate to find out the fates of their disappeared relatives are ruthlessly exploited for cash.” Inflation and a lack of employment, except in the military and militias, have made life unbearable.
Just as the process of Syria’s destruction can be compared to the liquidation of a company, the effects of the refugee crisis in Europe resemble fracking, forcing pressurized liquids into rock and shale to crack them open to extract oil and gas. Syrians and other refugees and migrants are following ferry lines, roads, trails and railroad tracks north and west. When they are trapped in unseaworthy boats, blocked by fences, corralled in camps or forcibly redistributed by European regulations, there will be a contest between their resilience, determination and energy and the brittleness of the stressed structures. Wherever they are resisted becomes a potential cracking point for the fragile institutions of unified Europe. European solidarity continues to be challenged as different countries react to the migration independently. Twenty-eight different solutions, most of them defensive and xenophobic, can split the Dublin and Schengen accords apart. The ideal of a united Europe grows weaker every day. The circumstances forcing value out of Syria can destabilize Europe, challenging its fragile structures, already weakened by the 2015 north-south debt crisis.
As the migrants move towards an unknown future, they take heart from proclaimed enlightenment values, their own sheer numbers and the shared humanity of their fellow travelers. Stories of conscience and empathy abound as people distinguish themselves by acts of solidarity and compassion. Thousands of people, even in the least hospitable transit states, provide food, water, clothing, first aid and kindness. Volunteer drivers, in contrast to smugglers, take families uncompensated to Germany. The sick, elderly and disabled are wheeled and carried across the continent. Technology and goodwill allow many of the lost to find their families, and the best European administrative practices allow families to be reunited in safety. If the human potential flowing into Europe is channeled into paths to peace, dignity, work and integration, it will make Europe richer, more diverse and more flexible. If that potential is blocked, concentrated, segregated and antagonized, its energy will continue to form cracks, not just in supranational structures but also the national fabrics of Europe, by exposing and exacerbating cultural contradictions.
Neither liquidation nor fracking is a natural process. They are man-made engineering techniques designed to break down structures. The people coming out of Syria and into Europe are not a flood threatening to overwhelm the bastions of civilization. The temptation to see them that way, to demonize them as the source of danger, exacerbates a key crack running through modern enlightenment culture: that between universalism and xenophobia. It also distracts from the next phase of the bloody restructuring of the Middle East that weaponizes human misery and energy.