Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m scared.
I’m terrified, actually.
I’m terrified of what’s in store for our world in the wake of the Paris attacks.
I’m scared of the radical political agenda that’s backed by extreme ideologies and dangerous hyper-nationalism. I’m apprehensive about what my country might look like in the years to come; of what the so-called “Western”, democratic societies might turn into. I’m fearful that I’ll wake up one day and find myself saturated in a culture I don’t recognize.
No, it’s not the refugees of North America or Europe who have me pacing around my room, tripping over words and thoughts. And no, it’s not my Muslim neighbours that have me wondering about the future of our developed nations.
What I really fear is fear itself. I’m afraid of its power. I’m afraid of its potency, and the way it makes otherwise rational people act like mindless bigots. I’m terrified of the way fear brings out the absolute worst in humanity. I’m scared of waking up one day and realizing that we’ve all turned into hate-filled, petrified monsters.
What is Canada becoming? On Saturday, a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was set on fire. On Sunday, a photo of freelance writer Veerender Jubbal was altered to show the Sikh man with a bomb strapped to his chest and a Qur’an in his hands (did I mention that he’s Sikh? That’s an entirely different religion, by the way). On Monday, a Muslim woman was attacked by two men while picking up her children from school in Toronto. They called her a terrorist, told her to “go back to her own country” and physically attacked her.
I’ve had so many conversations in the past few months that have left me worried about the collective “soul” of humanity. I’ve heard people sighting “irreconcilable cultural differences” as reason to build barbed wire fences to block the vulnerable, defenceless people fleeing war and prosecution. I’ve seen heartless hand-waving and outright rejection of the UN Refugee Convention and the UN Declaration of Human Rights, both of which stipulate our moral and legal responsibility to embrace asylum seekers. Mostly, I’ve seen such a profound depth of ignorance, saturated, as ignorance always is, by blinding, debilitating, fear.
I’m by no means an expert on migration issues, and I won’t pretend to have a deep understanding of all of the geo-political and historical issues that have led to the Syrian war. But I’m passionate about dispelling prejudice, so I figured I might as well address this crisis in the small way I am able.
Below is a brief introduction to the Syrian refugee crisis, specifically as it relates to terrorist threats in Europe and North America. I’ve listed all of my sources for reference, and if you find any discrepancies or errors, please feel free to correct me; I’m always eager to learn and discuss.
What is a refugee?
The 1951 Geneva Convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
What is an asylum seeker?
The term refugee and asylum seeker are often confused. Essentially, an asylum seeker is simply someone who claims they are a refugee but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.
What is an economic migrant?
An economic migrant is someone who travels from one country to another in order to improve their standard of living.
In most cases, the asylum applicant must be on the sovereign soil of the country they are seeking refuge in before they can apply for refugee status. Although most developed states are a party to the UN Refugee convention, many are now making it increasingly difficult for refugees to reach their shores, in order to avoid their legal responsibilities to these vulnerable people.
How many refugees are currently in Europe?
Narrowing down the exact statistics for a displaced population is incredibly difficult, but I was able to find a few approximate numbers.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about 750,000 refugees have entered Europe this year (you can learn about all they’re doing to help here). The UNHCR reports a total of 681,713 Syrian asylum applications in Europe between April 2011 and October 2015. The Instituto Affari Internazionali stated that 644,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean since the start of 2015.
Its important to note that the true number is probably higher than this, as undocumented travellers can be difficult to track.
I was surprised by these numbers because they seem very low. I’ve seen the number 1.5 million floating around, expected to arrive in Germany alone. Turns out, this number was essentially fabricated by a right-wing German paper called the Bild, who cite a “secret” government document, which they refuse to elaborate on, even for the purpose of authenticating the source. Apparently, no one in the German government knows of such a document. They propose that the official number expected in Germany by the end of the year will be 800,000.
The BBC published an article with some interesting graphs about the number and demographics of the refugees in Europe. You can find that here.
In reality, the vast majority of Syrian refugees have found refuge in the four neighbouring countries, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Here’s a graph from the UNHCR outlining the distribution of refugees from 2011 to 2015.
Aren’t most of the refugees young men?
I’ve heard the assertion that the majority of Syrian refugees are young men, as if these characteristics somehow make them less entitled to apply for asylum.
According to the UNHCR’s statistics on registered Syrian refugees, 50.2% are female. Only 22.1% are males between the ages of 18-59.
However, if we look at the total number of refugees who have entered the EU in 2015, it appears that 65% of them are, in fact, men.
The only suggestion I have for this is that young men are the primary target for recruiting by extremist groups. If you were in that position (example: join ISIS or die), wouldn’t you try to seek asylum as well? It seems that the young men in these war-torn countries are in a precarious situation. If they stay in their country, they may be forced to join a terrorist group. If they leave, we may brand them as terrorists anyway. It’s a lose-lose.
How many of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe are actually economic migrants?
This is a question I have heard, a lot, and again, it’s difficult to find statistics. Some have argued that up to 95% of those seeking asylum are economic refugees.
The economist published an interesting article about the whole “refugee verse economic migrant” thing. You can check it here.
For the purpose of these statistics, a person must be from a country that has a “high recognition rate” in order to be included in the category of “probably a real refugee.” Essentially what that means is, the refugee has to be from a country where more than 50% of applicants are awarded some sort of protection by the EU.
According to the economist, Syria has a recognition rate of over 90%, which means that the majority of them are “real” refugees and not economic migrants.
But what about the connection between refugees and terrorism? I heard one of the Paris bombers was a Syrian refugee.
According to TIME magazine, the belief that one of the Paris attackers was a Syrian refugee comes from the fact that a Syrian passport was found close his body. Apparently, US intelligence has stated that this passport might be a fake because “the travel document did not contain the proper numbers for a Syrian passport and the name didn’t match the photograph.” The name and the photo were not known to the officials.
I’m not denying that the terrorist were radical Islamic jihadists. I’m simply stating that at this point, we have no evidence that they were members of the refugee population.
We do not need to create fear where it is not due, especially in North America, far removed from the land-access of potential “terrorists”. Here’s another article by the economist outlining why America should do more for refugees.
Actually, there has been research done that shows the more negative feelings a person reports towards asylum seekers, the more likely they are to express a fear of terrorism. Funny how those two things seem to be connected. Kind of a chicken and egg predicament, isn’t it?
I’m not trying to ignore the connection between radical Islam and terrorism. (If I feel up to it at a later date, maybe I’ll dive into my feelings about religion in general, or Islam in particular.) Nor am I trying to stipulate how European states should regulate the influx of refugees. I understand that this is an incredibly complicated issue, economically, politically and socially and I will not pretend to know more about these things than policy experts. If you’re interested in more information about solutions and policy suggestions, visit amnesty international here.
For now, I’m simply hoping to dispel some of the problematic information I’ve seen circulating online.
I know that many people are probably as scared as I am. I know we’re still collectively mourning the deplorable attack of November 13th on one of the most stable democracies in the world. It’s okay for us to be afraid, but it’s not okay for us to let the terrorists win. We cannot let them dictate how we control our borders and who we accept into our countries. We can’t let them harden our hearts to the vulnerable people seeking our aid.
There is a reason the stable democracies are held to such a high moral standard in the international community.
Let’s live up to those expectations.