Ben Margulies

Of the many challenges Europe faces at the end of 2015, perhaps none has generated more political discussion and contention than the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly fleeing conflict in Syria and elsewhere  Between January 1 and September 30, 2015, more than 710,000 migrants entered the European Union, according to the EU’s border agency Frontex. This exodus has thrown European immigration policy into chaos, created new divisions between member-states, and between the EU and its non-member neighbours, and exacerbated domestic tensions throughout Europe. In November and December 2015, a wave of terror attacks on several continents, often linked to the Islamic State or Al Qaeda and its allies, further heightened tension around the refugee issue.

While the politics of the refugee crisis has been in constant flux during the past few months, amid increasingly sharp disputes between policy-makers and political parties, the role of already existing immigrant diasporas has been somewhat overlooked, even as these groups have mobilised as European societies face the challenges of war and migration. The crisis has brought to the fore how similar the difficulties experienced by refugees and conflict-generated diasporas have been at different times and in different places. The ERC Starting Grant Project “Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty,” an ongoing research project at the University of Warwick, hosted a public event on the topic of the refugee crisis in November 2015, examining the challenges Europe is facing, the role of diasporas in aiding and advocating for refugee populations and their states of origin, and how diasporas might participate in post-conflict reconstruction. The experience of these diasporas, the nations they come from, and those that host them can be a crucial source of knowledge and experience as Europe comes to grips with the immense human suffering produced by the Syrian conflict.

The scale of the Syrian exodus is vast, and it is increasingly clear that it cannot be contained by Syria’s immediate neighbours, which are already overwhelmed by millions of people in flight. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counts nearly 4.3 million Syrian refugees, as of early December 2015, includingnearly2.2 million refugees who have sought shelter in Turkey, more than a million in Lebanon, and more than 600,000 in Jordan. Nearly a quarter of a million have gone to Iraq, which is itself a major source of cross-border refugees, according to the UNHCR. That only counts Syrians outside the country; the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimated in July 2015 that 7.6 million Syrians are now internally displaced persons (IDPs), against the backdrop of Syria having hadabout 22 million inhabitants in total at the start of the decade.  The crush of numbers has strained these front-line states beyond their ability to absorb more refugees: According to Dr. Nadejda Marinova, Assistant Professor at Wayne State University, Turkey recently closed its doors to refugees, and Lebanon and Jordan in the process of doing so. Turkey does not grant asylum to Syrian refugees, either – only temporary protection. Lebanese authorities did not want to accept international funding to build camps to allow refugees to stay. The underlying motivation was a fear that this might entail a permanent settlement of refugees, as has been the situation of Palestinians living in camps in Lebanon for generations.

Moreover, the situation that the refugees find in their host county in the Middle East varies greatly. Lebanon, for example is already a fragile state with its own sectarian conflicts, where foreign and domestic policies are closely entangled. It has failed to elect a new president more than 500 days after the end of the previous one’s term in 2014, and even garbage collection is currently in a state of crisis.

Nor is Syria the sole source of refugees. Iraqis and Afghans made up the second- and third-largest national components of  refugee entries into Germany in 2015; nearly 80,000 Afghans alone applied for asylum in Europe in the first half of the year. Some 5,000 Eritreans flee their oppressive homeland each month.

Nor is it necessarily easy to distinguish between refugees and “economic migrants” who are crossing borders to seek better material circumstances. To quote Matthew Gibney (2004), “The attempt to escape situations of famine and below subsistence poverty are obviously economic reasons for migration. Yet they are every bit as violent and life threatening as political or military causes of departure … Moreover, in many states political instability and civil war are often inextricably associated with – if not the direct result of – underdevelopment.” Dr. Camilla Orjuela made a similar point at the Warwick public event, noting that many Sri Lankan Tamils fled because the civil war made feeding their families impossible, and that they often sought work in the Arab Gulf States, where almost all immigrants are officially economic migrants.

In Europe, host-states have taken radically differing attitudes towards the mass migration unfolding across the continent and its neighbouring seas. Many Eastern European states have reacted with hostility. Hungary temporarily prevented many refugees from progressing onwards to Austria and Germany, and has gone so far as to build fences on its borders with Serbia and Croatia. Its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has spoken of the threat the refugees pose to “Christian Europe.” In August, Slovakia said it will only accept Christian refugees.  According to Dr. Maria Koinova, a reader in International Relations at Warwick and principal investigator of the ERC Diasporas and Contested Sovereignty Project, this uncharitable reaction reflects the failure, at least in part, of Eastern European states to overcome the legacies of the Communist era and truly embrace liberal credos of tolerance, pluralism and the rule of law, despite pressures from the European Union to accommodate identity-based diversity for the past 20 years.  On the other hand, many post-Yugoslav states, such as Serbia and Croatia, have been much more welcoming to Syrian refugees in transit, and their peoples feel affinity and solidarity with the refugees, as people in these countries retain memories of the refugee flows generated by the wars of the 1990s. Serbia has been praised for the warm welcome it has extended refugee arrivals. As a Croatian Red Cross volunteer told The Guardian, “Twenty years ago there was a war here, and lots of Croatians had to go outside the country. And when they did, they were helped. So you can say that we have some kind of understanding,”

In the more established democracies of Western Europe, attitudes towards refugees have varied considerably, from the extremely liberal policies followed by Germany, Sweden and Austria to Danish efforts to discourage refugees from attempting to claim asylum in Denmark. Indeed, the Danish government proposed a bill in December 2015 allowing the state to confiscate jewellery and other valuables (graciously excluding wedding rings) from refugees to defray the costs of maintaining them.  On the other hand, Germany admitted nearly 965,000 refugees in the first 11 months of 2015, with some early arrivals in September greeted by cheering crowds. Austria opened its borders to refugees as well (who were mainly in transit to Germany), not long after demonstrations demanding the humane treatment of refugees And even after the Paris attacks in November, France indicated it would still accept 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years.

But there has also been a backlash. Even before the main crisis struck, Norway, whose government includes the right-populist Progress Party, was in talks with Eritrea to return asylum-seekers whose claims in Norway have failed.  Even in the more welcoming countries, the sheer scale of immigration has forced some restrictions; Sweden felt compelled to announce in late November it would cease offering permanent asylum from April 2016 and restrict family reunification. In the meantime, populist and far-right have enjoyed spikes in support driven by the refugee crisis, from Sweden and Austria to the Netherlands (where Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom is now polling in first place) and most notably, France, where Marine Le Pen scored nearly 28 percent of the vote in regional elections in early December. On the street, Sweden has seen arson attacks against refugee housing, as has Germany.

The refugee issue has also altered EU relations with neighbouring states. The EU has reopened stalled negotiations on visa-free access and EU accession with Turkey, while giving Ankara €3 billion, in hopes that Turkey will deal with the refugee crisis on Europe’s behalf and stem the flow of migrants westward. Some audience members at the public event argued that this relationship has unfortunately reduced the Syrian refugees to mere political bargaining chips.

Various diasporas in Europe, often comprised of previous waves of Iraqi, Syrian and other refugees, can and already have mobilised to affect European foreign and asylum policies. Some diasporas are serving as channels for aid and assistance: At the Warwick event, Dženeta Karabegović, a PhD fellow at Warwick, explained how Bosnian ex-refugees have mobilized their contacts in states of refugees’ final destinations in Scandinavia and asked them to personally take care of those who share their former fate, particularly Syrian families who had been passing through the Balkans.  Other emigrant populations have organised to influence their host states’ foreign policy stances towards Syria – for example, the Syrian diaspora has conducted anti-Assad protests in Germany. These sorts of mobilisations have a long historical tradition, going back to 19th-century diasporic support for independence movements (in the Irish and Greek cases). More recently, Sri Lankan Tamil diasporas have been active in advocacy relating to the Sri Lankan Civil War, which ended in 2009, advocating for refugees and calling for judicial investigation and punishment of wartime human-rights abuses.

These diasporas could be vital in future reconstruction projects, and in promoting reconciliation in their homelands, providing financial support, expertise and liaison with European governments in their host states. Many European government ministries and the European Commission maintain formal links with diaspora civil-society organisations. In Finland, the government works with diaspora groups on a programme of medical education exchange. Diasporas also provide vital economic support through investment and remittances.

With no end in sight to the Syrian war, it is increasingly important to critically examine the ways that European states treat those millions who cannot return to their homes, and how the immigrant communities already present in Europe respond to the refugee crisis. Diasporas can be valuable partners in encouraging the humane treatment of refugees. They can also be eventually crucial to reconstructing Syria and other war-torn lands when these conflicts are finally resolved.


Ben Margulies is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick.

Image: Josh Zakary CC BY-NC-ND