European countries have absorbed a large number of Syrian refugees to meet the growing demand for a safe haven. Refugees face massive challenges in transit and destination countries. Refugees who decide to make the trek to Europe risk their lives, often departing without preparing for the journey’s challenges. They put themselves at the mercy of notorious trafficking networks to seek a dignified life away from the horrors of war and poverty. Recipient countries that have agreed to accept them have not considered the impact that the loss of experts, local leaders, and intellectuals will have on Syria. The countries of refuge, though perhaps acting with good intentions, have instituted integration processes with nary a thought to the loss facing Syria as its elite class leaves the country and are absorbed into a new one.
The leading reason for Syrians leaving their country is the Assad regime’s barbaric tactics against armed opposition and civilians alike. The armed opposition, in turn, has brought war to villages and cities by unrepentantly seeking refuge there, failed to protect civilians from regime and extremist violence, and committed its fair share of human rights violations. Adding to that the Islamic State’s (ISIS or ISIL) control of vast swathes of territory and eagerness to commit atrocities, civilians find themselves with nowhere else to turn except outward. While rational for Syrians to seek refuge in countries that offer security and essential services, their migration will negatively affect Syria in the near- and long-term, particularly the country’s ability to reach a political solution.
Germany in particular, implements social integration policies. These policies aim to keep German society from self-segregating, integrating migrants who might otherwise fall prey to extremist recruiters. Replicated in countries across Europe, these policies give immigrants and refugees more comfortable lives, but assume that integration requires cutting one’s ties to his home country—a process necessary for its success. Refugees will gradually find themselves estranged from their home country, which may be necessary, given the horrific circumstances from which they flee. Over time, refugees will build new lives and develop stronger roots in recipient countries. Even if peace is built on the war’s rubble, it is unlikely that they will ever return.
Syria’s refugee crisis complicates the classic brain drain problem. At a time when Syria’s need is great, its elite class—those with advanced degrees and professional skills—are leaving. Although highly qualified in Syria, they find themselves unable to compete in their new countries due to the language barriers and higher average level of education in Europe. Without them, Syria lacks the core skill set needed for reconstruction. Their physical and psychological distance from Syria means they will be less able and willing to support a political solution. Their children will be even more estranged from Syria, making it even less likely that Syria will benefit from the skills they gain growing up in Europe.
The vacuum left in the wake of professionals and local leaders will obstruct efforts to negotiate local political deals and intensify local conflicts. Without local leaders to mitigate conflicts and work with armed groups, integrating what today is called commanders and armed groups—and tomorrow will be called warlords and gangs—into the local and national political system will be near impossible.
The migration also gives rise to fears of demographic change in Syria, especially in Hasaka province in northeast Syria where Kurds, Arabs, and Assyrians live in close proximity. A variety of political, economic, security, and cultural factors are causing many Hasaka residents to relocate. ISIS has also displaced many residents in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, and Hama—predominantly Arab provinces—and these Arab have come to northern Syria’s relative security. This population movement creates new ethnic frictions, especially without a national or local political solution to provide relief.
Sectarian violence also creates fears of demographic change. Sunni and Alawite alike have faced atrocities. Many of them have fled their homes, some remaining in Syria while others finding their way to neighboring countries or Europe. There are reports that the Syrian regime is resettling its supporters in areas it controls, even nationalizing families from other countries (including Iran) to change the demography of Damascus and its countryside. In doing so, the regime gains support from its followers and weakens the Sunni base of the armed opposition. Other reports also indicate that ISIS recruits and settles foreign fighters and their families in the regions it controls. But the long term costs inevitably mean increased ethnic and sectarian tensions.
As the war drags on in Syria and evolves more complex dimensions, the most ideal solution is to improve the conditions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraqi Kurdistan. They need more than job opportunities and humanitarian relief in and outside refugee camps. There must be a strategy to connect relief work with training and development. Bordering countries can utilize Syrian organizations that operate within their borders to bear some of the burden. States that actively work on the Syrian crisis—namely the United States—should mobilize efforts toward this goal. The expertise found within Western governments can be geared toward supporting refugees in these countries rather than waiting for them to arrive in Europe. Western countries can pressure the neighboring countries to be more accommodating with residency and work permits, especially since most Syrian refugees have faced difficult experiences in their initial country of refuge before making the decision to leave for Europe. In the long term, the closer refugees stay to Syria, the more involved in civil activities and the more likely they are to return.
Hundreds of thousands living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan are deciding whether or not to pack their bags. The harshness of winter might force a new wave of refugees to Europe. One solution is to increase humanitarian relief while supporting them with educational and development programs. By pressuring neighboring countries to improve refugee conditions and reduce restrictions, Western countries would greatly ease the refugees’ plight and ease the pressure on Europe, preventing the refugee crisis from further complicating the Syrian war.
Piroz Perik is a journalist and the chief editor of Char Magazine.