Europe's Forgotten Refugees; Resentment Is Building among Refugees in Europe as European Governments Make It Easier for Syrians to Stay

By Gidda, Mirren | Newsweek, October 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

Europe's Forgotten Refugees; Resentment Is Building among Refugees in Europe as European Governments Make It Easier for Syrians to Stay


Gidda, Mirren, Newsweek


Byline: Mirren Gidda

It took Hagos Hadgu 11 traumatic months to travel from Eritrea to his new temporary home in a refugee camp in Sweden. Along the way, he made deals with smugglers, was held captive by terrorists and almost drowned crossing the Mediterranean. And in Libya, so close to the continent he believed would give him and his wife, Natsnet, refuge, he became separated from her. He doesn't know if she is alive or dead.

Throughout the ordeal, what kept 34-year-old Hadgu going was the hope of gaining asylum in Europe. But when he arrived in Italy, he was told by other refugees that getting to the United Kingdom--his preferred destination--would be almost impossible. Since then, and especially in recent weeks, he has come to believe that one thing above all others would help him find a new home in Europe: being Syrian.

Hadgu's sense that Syrians are increasingly being given priority over other refugee populations arriving in Europe as part of the largest migration of people on the continent since World War II is shared by many asylum-seekers. Statements and policy decisions by European officials and governments have compounded this belief that not all refugees arriving in Europe are being treated equally.

In Germany, which receives the largest number of asylum applications of any European country, officials are being increasingly explicit about policies that put Syrians at the front of the line. "Syrians have a prioritized procedure [in Germany] right now," Kira Gehrmann, a spokeswoman for the country's Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, tells Newsweek. "They don't need to attend a personal hearing. It is enough when they fill out a written form. Furthermore, they are being prioritized by our staff concerning the processing of their applications."

Following the death of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off the Turkish coast on September 2, many Europeans and their leaders expressed deep sympathy for Syria's refugees. The British government, for example, announced on September 7 that it would take in 20,000 Syrians over the next five years. In Washington, President Barack Obama told his administration on September 10 to prepare to take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, an arrival point for thousands of asylum-seekers, officials held a mass registration for Syrian refugees on September 7, in a bid to clear the growing numbers of asylum-seekers on the island. "Across Europe, Syrians are getting accepted more quickly," says Paul Donohoe, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, which is assisting refugees on the island. "Everyone knows that Syria is at war, and everyone knows what they are fleeing from, so that makes things easier."

In all refugee crises, various factors--including geographical proximity, economic self-interest and pressure from activists and politicians--help shape the decisions made by host governments about which nationalities to open their doors to. Europe is geographically close to Syria, and some of the EU's member states have direct involvement in the region. British air force pilots have been participating this year in airstrikes over Syria as part of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. On September 7, French President Franois Hollande announced that France would begin reconnaissance flights over Syria the next day. Once these were concluded, he said, "we will be ready to conduct strikes." Geopolitical reasons aside, Syrian refugees, who are often highly educated, are appealing to countries like Germany, which has an aging labor force.

Inevitably, prioritizing one group can mean neglecting others. While non-Syrian refugees must go through a lengthy asylum process, in which their claims are assessed on a case-by-case basis, they are watching Syrian refugees in some EU countries get asylum almost automatically. "If you feel that you're being ignored, or not being helped, or not having your rights respected, that will cause resentment," says Sherif Elsayed-Ali, head of refugee and migrants' rights at Amnesty International. …

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