Syrian refugees stuck in limbo: How can they create a social weight in Europe?

Edited by Enab Baladi

Edited by Enab Baladi

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Enab Baladi – Saleh Malas

Syrian refugees, who fled their homes during the decade-long war and sought asylum in Europe, are gravely concerned about some European countries’ forcible return policies. Syrian refugees pointed out that they do not feel safe enough to return to their war-torn country, including to regime-held areas, especially if al-Assad remains in power.  This is because they fear that they will be arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, or even executed by al-Assad’s security forces in retaliation for merely fleeing the country.

Those refugees also recalled the reasons behind fleeing their homes in the first place— al-Assad’s government’s human-rights atrocities. The regime indiscriminately bombed entire cities and villages, illegally detained persons, tortured them, laid starvation sieges, and imposed tough living conditions on its people. 

The armed conflict diminishes the ability of individuals to provide for themselves and manage their civil affairs, consequently affecting the ability of society to perform its production and development processes. Individuals, who feel vulnerable, insecure, or unsafe in areas of conflict or displacement try to form non-hostile groups in order to ensure the provision of services, interests, and other societal needs. These groups make efforts to influence local and international parties’ policies regarding their affairs to make a change in their interest.

Syrians in European countries are well-aware of the importance of civil society. Therefore, some formed civil society organizations in European cities. Others initiated the idea of establishing a Syrian-European union that includes all Syrians across the European continent.

Asim Sweid, a Syrian refugee residing in Denmark since 2015, said that when he first arrived in Denmark, he realized how important it was to have a place that could gather all Syrians scattered throughout the country. 

Therefore, Sweid and a group of Syrians undertook an individual organized initiative that aims mainly to establish a gathering point for Syrians in Denmark called “Finjan.” He added that Finjan organization is meant to be “ a Syrian home and an umbrella that brings all Syrians of Denmark together.”

Asim Sweid, who became a board member of the Syrian-Danish organization of Finjan, told Enab Baladi that the word “Finjan” is an Arabic word. It refers to a place that gathers a group of Syrian people to drink a cup of tea or coffee and have friendly chats.  

The organization provides a space within which all Syrians meet and hold discussions and debates by logic and reason on the issues that bring them together in Denmark, most prominently asylum.

These dialogues help to shed more light on how Syrian refugees integrate with their new society, “so that they do not fall into misconduct because they are not familiar with the culture of Danish society, and this could be an excuse to reinforce the idea of not welcoming refugees in Denmark,” according to Asim Sweden.

As an essential part of its activities, the organization streams documentary films revolving around issues of interest to Syrian refugees and resembling their life in Europe. The screening of the films is followed by panel discussions between the refugees. 

Sweid said that Syrian refugees are not welcomed in Denmark, in general by the right-wing opposition parties, for many reasons, including the rise of Islamophobia. They also fear that refugees might take over their work or study opportunities.

A void that must be filled

Several European countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, have started to cancel the temporary residence permit of refugees, prompting some Syrians to talk about the idea of establishing a Syrian community that includes all Syrian refugees in Europe to defend their rights there. 

Muhannad Malek, a Syrian scientist with a Ph.D. in cellular biology and oncology residing in Germany, proposed an initiative on his Facebook page about forming a Syrian-European Lobby (SYEPAC).

SYEPAC is a Syrian social club that brings together specialized individuals in order to represent Syrians in Europe, according to Malek.

This club is intended to serve as a center that influences the social, economic, and legal spheres that intersect with Syrians’ issues. SYEPAC is to represent Syrians in Europe and even inside Syria.

Malek said in another Facebook post that Syrian refugees are of zero value in Europe. By establishing a Syrian-European Lobby, Syrians will be able to develop relations with individuals who could make the voice of Syrian refugees heard on various issues in Europe, such as renewing residency permits, improving living conditions, and solving social problems.

European parliaments rarely discuss issues related to the Syrian community there, and if they do, it will be small talk, Malek said, in an interview with Enab Baladi. Therefore, “there is no direct discourse between this community and parliaments, and this space must be filled.”

According to Malek, the Syrian community in Europe has “no role in the international decision-making process” concerning the Syrian file. This means that a large part of the Syrian community with its various social components can contribute to the decision-making process.

According to a report issued by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion (ISI) in 2019, “Syria has been the country of origin of the largest number of asylum seekers in the EU every year since 2013.”

There is a desire on the European side to organize the Syrian community within an assembly that has its goals and a clear working mechanism. “Europeans have an interest in this regard,” according to Malek, encouraging real engagement in such initiatives.  

The unknown future, “a stick in the wheels of integration”

Muhannad Malek told Enab Baladi that Syrians in Europe are stuck in limbo. They fear the unknown future and what awaits them with any political change in Europe. The rise of a political party at the expense of another creates a feeling of psychological tension and puts “the stick in the wheels of integration.”

“Imagine if two million Syrians organized and agreed on a set of points that are common to all of them, with all their political and religious orientations, and their class, scientific, social, and financial differences. Instead of talking about your own problem– and most likely no one will listen to you–there will be someone talking about the problem of two million Syrians. Thus, the echo will be of the voice of the many,” Malek said.

Malek says that  Syrian people are not likely to compel a political solution to what is currently happening in Syria because “they are subjects, not actors.”

If there is a possibility to find a political settlement of the Syrian conflict, it is certainly the big actors in the Syria issue that will come up with it. “We actually want these big actors, no matter how beyond reach they are, to hear the voice of refugees in Europe.”

Well… What can Syrians do?

From Malek’s point of view, Syrians in Europe cannot solve a problem until they admit that they have one. In other words, Syrians need someone who can represent them and solve their problems because even those who have obtained citizenship in Europe hesitate or fail to take the initiative for Syria.  

Malek suggests that it is necessary to think of several assumptions to solve this problem by searching for mechanisms to unify the ranks of Syrians in Europe of all their different orientations, especially the political ones. 

A  group of individuals, “without blood on their hands,” preferably researchers, thinkers, advocates,  experts, pioneers, or people with good relations, should be selected to grow the idea of forming an assembly for Syrians.  These individuals have to set up an internal system for the Syrian assembly as well as its principles. Later, they have to organize the assembly by formatting specialized bodies to achieve the assembly’s goals. 

Errors always take place in group work. It is worth mentioning that the task of those in charge of this assembly is to admit that there are mistakes needed to be corrected to ensure that they do not recur. Besides, they have to find flexible targets that can be modified in the future to match changes in reality. “Currently, we are still in the third stage of the lobby formation, the phase of the meeting.”

The focus of the European-Syrian lobby will not only be directed towards European parliaments but will also include European Union governments and non-governmental institutions operating in Europe in order to intensify work in all directions.

Advocacy will be an essential part of the work of the Syrian-European lobby, for it is important to shed light on the Syrian community issues that the lobby seeks to solve before European entities, such as the European local media, public opinion influencers, and celebrities.

Overcoming clichés

Several challenges stand in the way of establishing the European-Syrian lobby, most prominently the cliché saying that “Syrians can succeed as individuals, but are prone to fail as groups,” Malek believed. 

This “lobby” is trying to bring together all Syrians, and here comes the second most prominent challenge; namely, the sharp political division within the Syrian society. “Many individuals do not want a monolithic lobby. The lobby aims to help Syrians whose hands are not stained with blood, regardless of their religious belief, political thought, or educational level. This is a big challenge,” Malek said.

The lobby might face another challenge. Malek is afraid that the lobby would be only a group on social media sites, and when it leaves the virtual space, it dies on the ground.

“The lobby is only a tool for organizing the Syrian people into one group and making their voice heard in the chambers of the parliament,” according to Malek. Therefore, the lobby will face the challenge of not turning  into a civil society organization whose mission is only to improve the living situation or help obtain residency permits or scholarships because that “is not within the powers of the lobby.”

Finally, Malek said that the lobby has to convince the Europeans of the idea’s credibility and that the lobby aims to work on issues that also concern the Europeans, such as immigration, terrorism, integration, and education.

Opinion poll

Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on Instagram in which about 333 users took part: 182 respondents believe that there is potential to establish a Syrian group in Europe that takes on refugee issues and their demands, while 131 users believe that this idea cannot be applicable. 

Mechanisms of constant presence 

After ten years of Syrians’ presence in Europe, many decided not to return to Syria. Syrian social researcher Talal Mustafa told Enab Baladi that Syrians residing in European countries have to come out of the temporary asylum stage. They have to think seriously about their permanent stay in their new societies by developing reliable mechanisms to ensure stability.

According to a research project by the Omran Center for Studies, many factors affect the ability of Syrian refugees to return to their country, notably the lack of “a safe environment.”  

According to the research paper, a safe environment in this context means that there should be an effective cessation of hostilities and limitations to the powers of security services, especially in the public life of all citizens. The fate of citizens shall not be controlled by security services, militias, or military factions spreading throughout the whole country.

Syrians must understand that economic, social, and political conditions in Syria are different from those in European countries of asylum. Therefore, Syrians must plan to increase their stability in the countries where they live with separate mechanisms, according to Mustafa, because it is difficult to find unified mechanisms due to the legal peculiarity of each country.

Several factors make any gathering of Syrians in European countries successful, the most important of which is the involvement of individuals who have expertise in areas covered by the gathering, provided that this expertise should be scientific. 

These gatherings must operate according to the laws of the country in which they will be established. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in its Article No. 21, grants the right of peaceful assembly.  No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

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