The Second Syrian Refugee Crisis
JNS.org – The war in Syria is nearing its end. All the Damascus regime must do is seize control of Idlib province in the country’s north, the last rebel-held stronghold. The attack on Idlib, with Russian and Iranian support, is therefore only a matter of time — and in light of Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Moscow, we can assume Ankara won’t try to stop it.
Because a great many Syrians who oppose the Assad regime have found refuge in Idlib in recent years, we can also assume the war’s final stage will be its bloodiest, and will almost certainly force hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Syrians to seek in with their neighbor to the north — Turkey.
This time, however, the Syrian refugees could discover the gates are closed, as Turkey has already declared that it will not allow them entry. Ankara already has its hands full trying to get rid of the millions of Syrians already there.
The Turks are simply fed up with the Syrian refugees, approximately two million or so in number, whom they received with somewhat open arms just a few years ago. Turkish politicians — in step with a growing public sentiment that Syrian refugees cause trouble, spread crime and violence, and also take jobs — are now openly calling for their expulsion and for rapprochement with the Assad regime. In some places in Turkey, anger has devolved into violence against refugees, mainly targeting job seekers.
Turkey is not alone. Egypt too is seeing a groundswell of antipathy towards the refugees (there are 250,000 or more in Egypt). In Lebanon, the rising tide of criticism against the Syrian refugees, who have greatly burdened the country’s economy, has sparked tensions that have spilled over into violence. And finally, in Jordan, which throughout the years has taken pains to concentrate its 1.5 million refugees in camps in the country’s north, there are increasing calls to force them back to Syria.
The refugees were initially welcomed warmly by their host countries, the publics of which empathized with the uprising in Syria. The revolution was perceived in these countries as a fight by Sunnis against the Alawite sect, headed by Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Shiite Iran. But local interests, existential necessities, and the fact that the refugees are, after all, foreigners, ultimately trump good intentions.
The refugees are now learning that hospitality has an expiration date, and that when temporary refugees become permanent, residents’ attitudes tend to shift accordingly.
The Syrian refugees, however, have no interest whatsoever in returning to the cruel bosom of the Assad regime.
Syria, for its part, views these refugees as potential enemies because they hail from those areas that spawned and waged the revolt, and it also fears they will become an insurmountable economic burden. To be sure, Syria’s rapid population growth (which reached some 25 million people in 2011) was one of the main factors behind the revolution. Now, after nearly one-third of the country’s residents have become refugees, the population, in the words of Assad himself, has become “more homogeneous.”
The world has remained largely apathetic to this crisis. These refugees have already been abandoned once before, when the Assad regime slaughtered and kicked them out of their country, and now they are being forsaken yet again.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University. A version of this article first appeared in Israel Hayom.