by (Guest Contributor) Pink Panther


The outbreak of the Syrian civil war during the Arab Spring of 2011 has created the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Over 3 million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. Only 150,000 refugees have been granted asylum in Europe. Yet, from the way many governments from David Cameron’s in the UK to the Australian government have reacted, one would think Europe was being over-run by millions of refugees. The British gutter press has demonized the people from Syria as migrants rather than as refugees, implying they are going to Europe by choice rather than because of the multifaceted sectarian bloodbath being fought there.

While these governments have reluctantly offered to resettle some people, they have only allowed in an insignificant number so far. This has resulted in a rare display of direct action-oriented people power, where thousands from Australia to Germany have spontaneously offered to take in Syrians. When German and Austrian immigration laws were temporarily relaxed on the weekend of September 5th & 6th, 2015, tens of thousands flocked into both countries, where they were greeted by cheering crowds.

Even here in New Zealand the hashtag #doublethequota took off as the public called upon Key to double the refugee quota so that people escaping Syria could be let in. At first, he refused to increase the quota but spontaneous protests around the country and petitions has seen them agree to take in an extra 750 over the next two years. However, as many experts in the sector have noted, this is still very low compared to the potential number that could be reasonably taken.

Let’s be honest, a major prolonged conflict such as that in Syria is not easy for other countries to deal with. As has often been the case in conflicts where large numbers of refugees have been created, the burden has largely fallen on countries that can least afford to look after them. It is estimated that 1.5 million Syrians are in Lebanon alone. The presence of so many is stretching both Lebanese resources and infrastructure to breaking point and inflaming already tense factional conflicts.

In Greece, which has been crippled by austerity, many islands have been overwhelmed by large numbers of refugees travelling either straight from Syria or via Turkey. This has put pressure on these places, many of which aren’t much bigger than Waiheke Island or Great Barrier Island, and created tensions between the islanders, the Greek authorities and the Syrian refugees who all want something to be done.

In Italy, Greece and Hungary there are calls for the European Union to do something, such as allowing more people into the countries that can support them or provide more resources for them.

As the situation gets worse the uglier side of some is coming to the fore with some British media commentators claiming many are ‘fake refugees’. In Germany the BBC has reported that anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic groups have been responsible for firebombing centres where asylum seekers are living (BBC, July 30th) with 473 attacks by extreme-right groups on foreigners being reported in 2013 alone (June 18th, 2014). The Hungarian government has called in the army to close their border with Serbia and to build a fence to stop the influx of those travelling from Greece to Hungary via Macedonia and Serbia. That not everyone is welcoming towards others should come as no surprise. There tends to be a range of reactions to such things and it is hardly surprising if politicians and factions among the elites take advantage of others misfortune to whip up support for their nationalist agendas. Fortunately as noted, they don’t have it all their own way.

Like any civil war, the origins of the conflict in Syria are complex but in essence it revolves around a combination of internal religious fragmentation, power politics, a scramble for scarce resources and the interference of regional powers and their big power backers as part of a global geo-political ‘game’. While not much is straight forward in such a scenario, one thing that should be, is the fact the problems were created partly from actors outside the country itself. That’s a starting point for saying that any response to the refugee problem has to begin with an admission of responsibility by outsiders. The problem is big so the response has to be widespread and co-ordinated.

New Zealand is a long way from the conflict but also has a role to play. It needs to scrap its refugee quota and let as many refugees enter this country as it is practical to do so. Refugees often make better immigrants because they appreciate what can happen when ethnic, religious or political hatreds tear apart societies more than most people. They are also less likely to be on welfare than any other group of migrants. Most importantly, refugees often bring with them the skills, experiences and qualifications our society claims we need. While it’s true some will struggle to adapt, if they are able to stay and make a go of it, they can do well. The second generation who grow up in a country can succeed provided they do not face discrimination.

We are in sympathy with the ordinary people on the receiving end of the conflict. Therefore we should be giving unconditional support to those who are fleeing state, ethnic and sectarian hatred and be willing to do whatever we can to help. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture. Offering a room to somebody would be a simple way to help but it would make a huge difference if followed up in practice and multiplied out across the population. Hundreds of people who rallied outside Parliament on September 10 and hundreds more on-line have stated they would open their homes to Syrian refugees if the government lets them.

It’s people power from the grassroots we should be getting behind. Will you?