When Refugees Went to Syria

The scale of Europe’s current efforts pales in comparison to Syria’s own recent history of housing migrants.

An Iraqi cab carrying refugees across the Iraq-Syria border in 2003 (Reuters)

The much-anticipated agreement about Europe’s refugee crisis, announced September 9 by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, couldn’t have come sooner.

Some 160,000 refugees with asylum status will be relocated from Italy, Greece, and Hungary to other member states using a quota system based on the countries’ respective population sizes, GDPs, and unemployment rates. Overall, about 450,000 refugees have asked for European asylum according to the latest official data.

The plan is hardly impressive when compared to ongoing and past efforts to aid refugees by other countries. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2014 the vast majority of Syrian refugees, or 86 percent of them, were hosted in developing countries. The European effort is dwarfed by the numbers of migrants and refugees housed in Lebanon and Turkey:

Europe’s efforts are also muted by Syria’s recent history of housing migrants. Before the civil war started in 2011, Syria’s open-borders policy, followed by other countries in the region (Turkey and Lebanon), made it the destination of hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from Iraq. At the end of 2010, according to UNHCR, over 1,300,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, of which 1 million were Iraqi, were housed in Syria—that’s over 6 percent of the country’s population at the time.

For a sense of comparison, if Germany were to provide asylum to 500,000 refugees and asylum-seekers this year, it would amount to 0.6 percent of the country’s population. The 450,000 asylum requests Europe has received represents less than 0.1 percent of the continent’s population. If 850,000 people cross the sea between this year and next as predicted, that would represent roughly 0.15 percent of Europe’s population. It’s worth noting that housing migrants in Europe is likely a more expensive endeavor than in, say, Syria, given the disparity in standards of living and socio-economic benefits available to residents. Refugees in Syria were not kept in camps, but their living conditions weren’t desirable. In European countries like Germany, refugees are being taken into reception centers and relocated to longer-term housing. Given the desperation of refugees in this crisis, it’s clear that just the basics will do.