Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 14, 158,456 people from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Bangladesh and sub-Saharan Africa arrived on Greek shores by sea. They experience the Aegean the same way. They’ll experience Kos slightly differently.
As global attention finally focuses on the scale and horror of the Syrian refugee crisis, arrivals are frequently divided along national lines by the authorities, Greeks and even by the arrivals themselves. What has emerged is sometimes perceived as a de facto caste system, with “official” Syrian refugees getting limited preferential treatment, compared to those who are on the move for as many reasons as there are migrants.
Persecution isn’t limited to a single nationality. Fleeing persecution can be one reason among may to leave, so many new arrivals feel their needs are being unfairly neglected. It’s causing problems.
Last week, things got ugly down by the police station, as they often do. Amnesty International said 15 to 25 people used bats to attack people who were waiting for their papers. A server at the restaurant next door says they shouted, “Respect to refugees! F— the rest!”
Watch the train wreck.
Sidestepping for a moment the rather obvious question of why those suddenly clamouring to open Canada and Europe to this human tsunami showed little or no concern when millions of these same people began to pack refugee camps in the Middle East when Syria’s civil war erupted more than four years ago, the unprecedented mass migration now underway poses long-term challenges that must be considered.
Among the questions: How do you quickly and fairly discern who among these travelers actually were in extreme peril in Syria and elsewhere and therefore are genuine refugees, and who among them are economic migrants trying to jump the global queue and get papers to remain in the West forever?
Equally vexing, how and where can you safely and prudently process the applications of people who grew up in the epicentre of global terrorism? And, beyond that, what effect will the emptying out of Syria have if many of those who choose to remain are the fanatically radicalized Sunnis bent of waging jihad against Shias, Israel and the West? …
My personal journey into this cauldron of trauma, despair and opportunism began three years ago in the dust and dreariness of the Zaatari Refugee Camp, situated in Jordan but close enough to the Syrian border that it was (and still is) possible to sometimes witness air strikes and to hear artillery fire.
Zaatari was just a few months old back in 2012 and there was no question whatsoever that those whom I met there were genuine refugees. Every one of them had horrific tales to tell about the barbarities that they had witnessed in Syria and awful new stories about life in the camp, where rape and other crimes were already present and many girls in their early teens had been kidnapped or sold into marriage.
The people I met then and during subsequent visits to Zaatari, as its Spartan tents and sea containers multiplied to accommodate more than 80,000 souls, were largely from hardscrabble, war-wrecked cities such as Daraa and Aleppo. Many of the Syrians I recently encountered in Morocco, Spain’s African enclave of Melilla, the Greek island of Lesbos and southern Sweden could not have been more different.
These refugees were much better educated, and open about how they were on the move not because their lives were at imminent risk but because they sought to take advantage of the current upheaval in Syria to improve their lot.
Many of them acknowledged they were from parts of Damascus that had seen little violence (although recent reports have the Islamic State moving closer to the city centre and shelling is not uncommon in even upscale neighbourhoods) or that they had been removed from the violence several years ago when they reached the safety of refugee camps as well as cities and towns in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Unlike some of those in the camps, they often spoke good English, were armed with the coolest top-of-the-line iPhones, wore brand-name sneakers worth hundreds of dollars and had the means to pay smugglers $5,000 a head and more to reach Europe. A surprisingly high number among them were doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers and businessmen.
Virtually none of them wanted anything to do with southern or eastern European countries. That is, many in this wave were not desperate refugees – although there was clearly desperation in how they had risked their lives and those of their children for the chance at a far more prosperous life in the West. But as their focus was almost entirely on reaching northern Europe, they were, in effect, country shopping.