Syrian refugees: Competing narratives may confuse

Much has been made in recent weeks of the Syrian refugee crisis. Millions of Syrians are displaced after years of drought and civil war. Today, President Obama announced the United States will increase the annual immigration of Syrian nationals from 1,500 to 10,000 over the next year. Doubtless he will catch flack from the usual suspects even though some religious groups have called for as many as 100,000 refugees.

What is causing this, why so many, where are they going, and what are their motives? Depends on who you ask.

In June 2013 Joshua Hammer noted in a brief Smithsonian Magazine article:

In Syria, a devastating drought beginning in 2006 forced many farmers to abandon their fields and migrate to urban centers. There’s some evidence that the migration fueled the civil war there, in which 80,000 people have died. “You had a lot of angry, unemployed men helping to trigger a revolution,” says Aaron Wolf, a water management expert at Oregon State University, who frequently visits the Middle East.

Voice of America’s David Arnold explains the trigger

Two-and-a-half years ago, a group of children in the Syrian city of Dara’a triggered one of the bloodiest conflicts in the 21st century when they painted some anti-government graffiti on a school wall in the ancient farming community.


The children were quickly detained and tortured, leading to widespread protests in the city that were met with harsh repression.  The government’s brutal response led to a nationwide revolt that has now stagnated into a bloody stalemate with no end in sight.

By 2009 more than 800,000 Syrian farmers had left their lands, the result of drought, and water mismanagement.

Peter H. Gleick, writing in Weather, Climate and Society, a journal of the American Meteorological Society, adds:

The devastating civil war that began in Syria in March 2011 is the result of complex interrelated factors. The focus of the conflict is regime change, but the triggers include a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors, the erosion of the economic health of the country, a wave of political reform sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Levant region, and challenges associated with climate variability and change and the availability and use of freshwater. As described here, water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions.

Eventually an estimated 177 million-acre feet of water disappeared, resulting in the second-largest aquifer lost in the entire world. (An image search reveals photo after photo of the parched land.)

Even with this natural devastation compounded by human mistakes and ineptitude, there was no refugee crisis. According to this Vox chart from UNHCR statistics people did not begin to flee Syria because of the drought. The drought drove farmers to the towns and urban centers. The civil war drove them out of the country.

In other words, the refugee crisis was not caused primarily by migrants looking for economic development.

As of August 19, 2015, there were more internally displaced persons (IDPs) still inside Syrian borders than refugees who have left the country. (Source: European Commission on Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection)

Syria IDPs refugees

I don’t think anyone is arguing the sheer number of refugees will not be a problem. Nor is anyone ignoring there are other factors, in addition to the Syrian civil war, behind the refugee problem. Even Al Jazeera gets that. Fraser Nelson expresses another view in the UK Telegraph. Some kind of military intervention at the root of the tree is asserted, and will almost certainly happen at some point.

Forbes does a good job of demonstrating the raw numbers alone do not tell the entire story. A country faces economic turmoil if the number of refugees per capita overwhelms it. The countries in the world with the largest number of refugees per capita are 1) Lebanon, 2) Jordan, 3) Nauru, 4) Chad, and 5) Djibouti. Turkey is the largest refugee-hosting nation numerically with 1.59 million, but that’s in a population of 79.4M. Lebanon has 1.15M refugees among a population of only 6.18M people.

Neither Turkey, Germany, Austria nor Great Britain are as close to being challenged as the countries closest to Syria. The majority of Syrian refugees to date are not trying to cross the Mediterranean on inner tubes; they are in countries closer to home. So when critics ask, “Why aren’t Muslim countries doing anything?” The answer is, “Many are.”

This is from Syria almost 3 years ago. No Marshall Plan for Syria, only more fighting.

What do you do when the building is gone, the water is gone, the food is gone, and all you have left is the hope of another country? Either stay and die or try to forge a better life. Or just save the one you have.

Through a mutual friend I heard of an expat in Hungary who is working near one of the refugee centers. She met a family whose three-year travel had taken them through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Hungary. These are not the kind of folks hoping to take over the Western world.

People fleeing from civil war, running for their lives. Individuals and families. The old and the young. The pregnant.

That’s one narrative.

Another narrative is that the refugee crisis is an attempt by Islamic extremists to destroy Western civilization by overwhelming the economies of multiple countries at once. Or, these folks fleeing in rafts aren’t “war refugees” but “economic migrants.” Under the guise of fleeing war they risk life, limb and loot seeking wealthy countries to fleece. Despite the constant warnings of ISIS sending whoever to do whatever wherever to whomever this does not appear to be the case at this time. Bavarian (Germany) Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann, in a debate in Der Spiegel, admitted that out of 200,000 asylum seekers last year in his country (including thousands of Syrians), not one of them had perpetrated a terrorist act.

In other words, more terrorist acts have been committed by Americans in Chattanooga, TN, than by immigrating Syrians in Germany.

If Syria isn’t exporting ISIS fighters, who is leaving? Besides entire families, higher education in Syria has all but collapsed forcing professors and students into internal displacement or other countries for safety. From a 2013 paper:

The general climate of insecurity has led to the internal displacement of university students and academics. University students and academics are also present in the refugee populations that have fled Syria into neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. The collapsing nature of higher education inside Syria and the attendant internal and external displacement of faculty and students is a generally unacknowledged and unmet component of the larger civilian Syrian humanitarian disaster.

Meanwhile the political progeny of Andrew Brietbart went to great lengths to argue the globally famous photo of a young toddler on a Turkish beach was staged; as if “Accuracy in Media” is their new tag line. What if it was? Perhaps they would feel more assured if one of these drowned toddler photos had gone viral instead. Talk about missing the beach for the sand.

That many of the “refugees” may be “migrants” is an angle worth exploring. Nelson, cited above, argues the increasing wealth of the world’s poor makes mobility possible.

So the Great Migration is a side-effect of perhaps the greatest success of our times: the collapse in global poverty. The Washington-based Center for Global Development recently set this out, in a study drawing on more than a thousand national censuses over five decades.


When a poor country becomes richer, its emigration rate [the number of people leaving] rises until it becomes as wealthy as Albania or Armenia are today. This process usually takes decades, and only afterwards does wealth subdue emigration. War is a catalyst. If conflict strikes, and the country isn’t quite as poor as it once was, more of those affected now have the means to cross the world. The digital age means they also have the information.

So, yes, people seeking a better life do leave war torn areas. The same happened during World War 2, which is why the EU compared the current crisis to that one rather than African famines the 1980s, or a general theme of upward mobility. Despite the ability to leave by the millions, Syrians weren’t doing so until after the war started. This fact should not be ignored to emphasize an “anti-refugee” narrative.

One writer emphasizes some refugees are dressed well, have their cell phones, and some have their credit cards. They should leave those things behind for ISIS, the Assad regime, the Free Syrian Army, Hezbollah, or whoever else of the many factions are involved in the fighting? Others make the sea crossing with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The two videos below demonstrate well how these narratives play out. The first was posted as an example that Syrian refugees are problematic, ungrateful people, causing problems in places like Hungary. The second is from the same area, and uploaded to YouTube by the same Hungarian TV company. The contrast is stark, but even in the first one, amid some people who are angry and frustrated, there are others who are calm, polite and grateful. Also worth noting is the police are neither armed nor alarmed.

Some reject food and water, others take it

Another side, also from Hungarian TV

Although this one will not embed, it is worth watching: One woman’s strength is helping refugees in Macedonia. Not all refugees are riotous complainers. Numerous articles and videos reveal most are not.

What is a follower of Jesus to do?

As usual it is necessary for us to try and get the entire story. Syrian immigrants, whether refugees or migrants, like most others, have not exported terrorism. Will some who wish violence eventually make it ashore? Almost certainly. Are they the majority? No. And, let us not forget, the same security apparatus that tracks terrorists worldwide hasn’t gone to sleep.

If the Christian scriptures are clear on anything they are clear on how we are to treat “sojourners.” In the Old Testament and the New we are encouraged, nay commanded, to take care of those who are needy, who are poor, bedraggled, the outsiders, you know, those huddled masses yearning to be free. If the Israelites’ hospitality toward strangers was to remind of their own captivity in Egypt (Lev. 19:33, 34), how much more should our hospitality toward strangers can remind us of our own captivity to sin. For this reason alone we should be glad Saudi Arabia has not been welcoming of refugees. There is a better chance they’ll make it to a country where the gospel can be presented to them.

God is not only interested in how well we love those who love us back. He’s also interested in how well we love those who are not loved, and who do not love us at all. The attitude of “the other” is not a basis for my own. God’s love for me has never been a response to my love for Him.

If there is a single truth to glean from this humanitarian crisis, and all others, it is this: Followers of Jesus cannot, for fear of what might happen, ignore what is happening.

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Featured image credit

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

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