Formidable challenges lie ahead after world leaders pledged more than $10 billion to help fund schools, shelters and jobs for migrants who have fled the Syrian civil war, while the European Union and the rest of the world are still divided over how to raise money and share the burden.
At an aid conference in London on Thursday, leaders and diplomats from 70 countries once more agreed to take immediate measures to improve the process of integrating refugees into their societies in order to cope with the persistent stream of people migrating from the threat of death and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to British Prime Minister David Cameron, who spoke to the press after the meeting, the aid fund to help the millions of Syrians displaced by war and to try to slow the chaotic exodus of refugees to Europe "will save lives, will give hope, will give people the chance of a future."
However, according to leading international aid organizations, there is still a lack of "political action and ambition to resolve the crisis." Even though Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, welcomed the $10 billion, he told The Associated Press that this sort of humanitarian aid is always just a quick fix and never enough to resolve the issue completely.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 4 million Syrians are displaced and in search of refuge at the moment. War and unstable conditions persist in Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing another 3 million people from those countries as well.
Since the rapid increase of people taking the Balkan route in search of safety and a life worth living, Turkey and its neighboring states of Syria and Iraq have been facing the tremendous challenge of accommodating millions of refugees. However, most member states of the European Union have only opened their borders for transit, not for permanent residence. While Germany is the most well-known of the European nations for opening its borders to those who seek security, in its shadow, its smaller neighbor Austria adopted a similar policy of welcoming refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to its Ministry of Internal Affairs, about 90,000 people came to seek asylum in the little country in 2015 alone. That roughly amounts to 1 percent of the Austrian population. Innovative solutions had to be found in order to meet the needs of these people, which differ a lot from the Turkish strategies.
In 2011, the first Syrian citizens fled the Bashar al-Assad regime after anti-government protests were met with brutal force, and soon the conflict turned into a civil war.
The outbreak of violent events forced more and more civilians to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Due to its geographic location, Turkey was one of the countries people reached first, and it presented itself as a hospitable place, hoping that the conflict would wane soon. Central Europe would not become the main destination for Syrian and Iraqi refugees until years later, yet the development was foreseeable. NGOs and other humanitarian associations started warning the institutions of the EU and the governments of its member states long before officials took action. The fact that migration was developing new dynamics in a globalized world was largely ignored, that is, until the EU heard a knocking on its own door.
Thousands of people began to cross the Aegean Sea every day and subsequently passed the borders of Macedonia, Serbia and other Balkan states until they reached Austria, the final buffer before Germany. After Hungary erected a fence and started to reject migrant arrivals, the route changed to lead through Slovenia instead, forcing Austrian police to change the main checkpoint where arrivals were registered from the eastern to the southern border checkpoints. Arrivals peaked in September when up to 12,000 people crossed the border every day. The Schengen Agreement was factually extended to refugees as long as they followed the designated path, NGOs were finally allowed to supply relief and first aid along the roadside, and EU member states confined their actions to registering those who entered their sovereign territories instead of deporting them. Thus, the EU treaty Dublin III, which states that asylum seekers are obligated to request asylum in the first country of the EU that they set foot on, was disabled in an un-bureaucratic manner, relieving the EU-border nations.
State-funded support was only granted by some governments and mostly took the form of providing easier transit options. Only a select few actually agreed to offer the refugees shelter and protection.
In the specific case of Austria, an almost habitual decision was reached to imitate the policies Germany implemented, and so the small but considerably wealthy country agreed to grant all asylum applicants a regular court process as well as provide shuttle transit to the German border to those who wanted to move on to the Netherlands, Germany or Scandinavia. The Ministry of Internal Affairs ordered for military assistance from the Ministry of Defense in order to support regular law enforcement in this extraordinary task; emergency rule was never mandated, though. In the beginning, an enormous wave of volunteers decided to exercise social responsibility and started helping out at the border, in refugee camps and at the railway stations by distributing food and clothes and translating for government officials and social workers. NGOs such as the Red Cross, the Catholic group Caritas International and Protestant Diakonie faced the enormous challenge of creating the infrastructure for transit quarters and permanent housing options for those who decided to stay in the small republic in the heart of Europe.
In Austria, asylum seekers are entitled to be admitted to a basic care system that entails health insurance, shelter in an NGO facility (house rules must be obeyed), food or a representative amount of money, a small cash allowance and additional payments for clothing, education for children and access to culture (i.e., cinema or concert visits). Work permits, however, are only granted to those who either receive asylum as refugees according to the Geneva Conventions or those who are entitled to subsidiary protection.
Basically, once you enter this system, you wait. Other than in Turkey, where the majority of refugees are housed in private residences, in European countries most of the people are accommodated in houses that are tended to by social workers. In Austria, the biggest carrier of this responsibility is Caritas; in Germany they are mostly state funded. During the waiting period, advisers and social workers in these houses and camps organize access to language classes, education, legal advice, sports and other recreational activities, but such a wait is frustrating for those who want to work and start building a new life in Europe.
Turkey, for example, made plans to take measures against illicit work by enabling refugees to get a regionally restricted working permit, as was announced in January. Work in the informal sector frequently entails exploitation by the employers. People affected report being forced to work 12-hour shifts seven days a week for intolerably low wages. "Once the boss finds out you are from Syria, his facial expression changes. We are treated as third-class people here: First come the Turks, then the Kurds and then us. Finding work is hard, and even if you are employed, payment is uncertain. Sometimes, in the end, you don’t get paid at all,” a young man tells us.
Access to education is quoted as the main reason for people to travel on to Europe. "Before my father was killed, he visited Vienna twice. He told my brothers and me that the universities there offer high quality courses for free. I studied medicine in Damascus, both of my brothers majored in economics, but none of us could finish. My brothers-in-law already live in Austria with their families and we have uncles in Germany. Now we’re waiting for my fiancée to arrive here from Syria so we can cross the sea together." A frown accompanied his last sentence as he contemplated the dangers of attempting the journey on an inflatable raft.
Those who made it to Europe recall the dire situation in Turkey: "Staying in Turkey was a waste of my time. You can’t work for your future, you can only work to survive. It’s impossible to study and work simultaneously because the shifts drain you completely. So if you have some money left, you would rather spend it on the trip to Europe than investing in a business of uncertain outcome in Turkey," another young Syrian who currently resides in Vienna recounts. "In Europe you get money from the government, housing, documents, free education and free health-care. After six months in İstanbul, it became clear to me that I had to move on." And still, the situation continues to worsen.
February 06, 2016, VIENNA \ ISTANBUL