Syrian Refugees – the Myth and Reality of a Brand
27 April 2016
By Amir Taheri
As some of us had expected the great European scare built around Syrian
refugees has already fallen out of the headlines, barely retaining a place in
inside pages. Why is this?
The flow of refugees has not slowed down, let alone stopped. According to
latest estimates by the United Nations, over 100,000 new refugees have arrived
in Turkey since last February.
What has happened is that Europe has factored in the immigrants' issue in the
complex and constantly changing mix of its political concerns. In some
countries immigration has become the number one issue of national politics,
even when no or few immigrants are involved.
Britain, for example, has pledged to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the
next five years and has so far only admitted 126. And, yet, fear of mass
immigration is emerging as a key factor in shaping the result of next June's
referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union.
In Hungry, which has said it won't take any refugees, the fear of ''a tsunami
of immigrants'' has become a hot topic. Nobel Prize winner for Literature Imre
Kertesz has even published a book on the subject. The book's title ''The Last
Refuge'' refers to Europe which the great Hungarian novelist believes
''Muslims are flooding, occupying, in no uncertain terms, destroying Europe.''
In Paris the magazine Valeurs Actuelles warns that France's national identity
is in danger, although the French have wiggled out of European quotas for
admitting immigrants. So far, a total of 1003 Syrian refugees have been let in
with promises of admitting another 3000 at an unspecified date.
Part of the scare is due to the activities of lobbies that want as many
immigrants as they could get away with. Dominated by left-liberal ideologies,
the European Union's huge bureaucracy is sold on the idea of open borders
inside the continent. Its ideological allies in several European political
parties and hundreds of NGOs go even further in support of open borders beyond
The massive welfare industry that consists of large segments of the
bureaucracy, and numerous charitable organizations often benefiting from the
public purse also favor mass immigration if only because immigrants form a
significant proportion of welfare recipients.
With the collapse of Communism as an ideology, those who share its view of the
world have fallen back on a new theme: equality. They no longer talk of the
dictatorship of the proletariat or even the public ownership of the means of
production, distribution and exchange. Instead, they urge regulation and
redistribution from the well-to-do to the underprivileged.
Economists like Thomas Picketty and Joseph Stiglitz have built a whole system
on the claim that there is less equality in Western democratic societies today
than there was a generation ago. To sustain such a thesis you need a steady
flow of poorer people who help bring down the statistical average of income
distribution. In other words you need to import poor people to prove your
Paradoxically, though ideologically close to the right, large segments of the
European business community also favor mass immigration because it ensures an
endless source of cheap labor that could keep wage levels as low as possible
in the same way as the supply of slave labor did in the Roman Empire.
Support for mass immigration comes from another surprising corner: moderate
conservative and Christian movements concerned about Europe's demographic
decline. In fact, German Chancellor Mrs. Angela Merkel all but publicly
acknowledged this before the ''Syrian tsunami'' started. She appealed to the
youth of other European counties to immigrate to Germany where they would be
welcomed and helped to achieve their full potential. Thus when she surprised
many by saying Germany would take up to a million Syrian refugees she was, in
fact, acting according to a well-thought strategy.
According to German experts, quoted by the weekly Der Spiegel, the federal
republic needs at least two million live births each year to avoid speedy
demographic decline and even ''extinction'' within decades. At the moment,
however, Germans produce only 700,000 babies each year, a quarter of them from
immigrant backgrounds. The demographic picture is equally grim for Italy,
Spain, Greece and Sweden.
For its part, Turkey quickly recognized the potential of the Syrian refugee
tragedy'' to further its own end. It was invited back to the top-table in
Europe, given a $6 billion golden handshake and had its years of regression on
human rights simply ignored.
Using the ''Syrian'' label to sell the idea of mass immigration to Europe was
a stroke of marketing genius. Here were ''innocent civilians'' fleeing from a
sanguinary despot backed by Iran's disreputable mullahs, the Hezbollah
mercenaries and later Vladimir Putin's death machine. Any European loyal to
his or her ''cultural values'' would support a policy of open arms to welcome
people in such a dire strait. ''We could not let Syrian children die on
Turkish beaches,'' became a mantra for the European liberal left. The head of
the Catholic community Pope Francis echoed the sentiment by denouncing the
idea of allowing the Mediterranean to become a graveyard of refugees.
But while people talk about ''up to 20 million Syrian refugees'' coming to
settle in Europe, the real picture may show something different. The official
data available shows that the tsunami may well turn out to have been more of a
spring shower, at least so far.
According to figures presented by the German government to the Bundestag, the
lower house of parliament, in 2015 the Federal Republic registered a total of
311,000 immigrants. Of these 99,290 were Syrians while Iraqis, in second
place, numbered 36,000. Iranians were in third place with 13,535 people. The
rest came from Afghanistan and over 20 other countries, most of them in the
African continents. In other words, less than one third were Syrians.
In the same year, the Federal Republic approved 30,000 demands for asylum. Of
these more than a third, 11,770, belonged to Kurdish-Turkish refugees. Iranian
asylum-seekers were in second place with 5776 approved applications. Syrians
came third with 5389.
Also in 2015, the Federal Republic granted temporary resident status to
155,208 immigrants. Of these 87 per cent belonged to the Balkan counters with
Serbs at number one receiving 30212 approvals. Kosovars were in second place
with 13,533. The Syrians were again in third place with 9,988. Finally, 37,220
refugees agreed to return to their original homelands with financial help from
To sum up, while the ''Syrian'' brand has been massively used for marketing
purposes, the number of Syrians offered refuge in Europe is nowhere near the 1
or 2 million figures bandied around. In fact, in 2015 many more Turks,
Iranians and Serbs were absorbed in Europe than Syrians. To be sure, Berlin
has a further 1.2 million demands for asylum, of which almost half are from
Syrians, to consider this year.
According to the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2015
five countries accounted for almost 80 per cent of all asylum seekers: Syria,
Eritrea, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even then the picture is more complicated than it appears. For example, the
number of Iranians registered as refugees by the UNHCR is just over 76000
whereas Turkey alone is host to 1.2 million Iranian ''exiles'' granted
temporary residence which is renewed every year. There is no such facility for
According to the charity Oxfam, western democracies have admitted 1.4 per cent
of those refugees, including a total of 67000 Syrians. The share of the US in
that is around 1800.
The moral of the story is that there are interest groups that wish to use and
abuse the ''Syrian refugee tragedy'' as a brand to serve their own political
purposes either to dismiss any suggestion that mass immigration poses a threat
to the European way of life or to hide the cowardice of western democracies to
deal with vicious regimes that drive their people out of their homes.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.