An International Perspective on the Refugee Crisis

The Challenges of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

By Karina Kovalcik 

In March 2011, in keeping with the Arab Spring movement sweeping through the Middle East, there were prodemocracy protests in Deraa, Syria. The people were protesting the Assad Regime in a peaceful manner over the arrest and torture of teenagers who painted revolutionary signs on a school wall. The protests became so intense that the security monitoring the protestors opened fire on civilians. This added fuel to the revolutionary fire, and in July 2011 hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the street demanding President Assad’s resignation.

The regime used force against its people in an attempt to quell the uprising. This escalation polarized the opposition supporters and in an act of official defiance they took up arms to defend themselves. The country descended into a civil war, and by 2012, fighting had reached Damascus and Aleppo. Sensing vulnerability, many outside players have inserted themselves into the state, increasing instability. Since the government was too busy fighting the rebels to secure its own border, the Kurds, ISIS, Russia and Hezbollah have all invaded the region, hoping to tip the scale in their own best interests. According to BBC, the war is not solely about democracy anymore, but rather it has also manifested itself in a religious front where the Sunni majority (rebel group) is fighting a Shia Alawite sect (Assad regime) and the other actors have inserted themselves to also protect these interests ( Asare). Vox even goes so far as to posit it is possible that Assad, realizing he was losing control of his country, deliberately attacked the Sunnis to intentionally shift the conflict onto religious lines (Fisher). They claim Assad wanted to create a sectarian war to get the religious minorities on his side. He knew this would attract extremists to the rebel side (ISIS, Al Qaeda), which would align Western interests with him and his regime.  Russia supports the Assad regime. The Kurds are interested in establishing their own state, and ISIS wants to establish its own caliphate.

All of these contrasting forces have come together to create an extremely hostile warzone where no one is safe and the winner will be the one who inflicts the most damage to everyone else, regardless of civilian status. The Syrian civilians have been caught in the dangerous crosshairs of this conflict and been brutally targeted by all sides. The Assad regime has ruthlessly attacked civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons (Fisher). The US has threatened the Assad regime with intervention if they do not destroy their chemical weapons (Asare). This dangerous environment has been compounded by ISIS’s use of mustard gas against the Kurdish forces (Asare).  Facing this kind of high-risk, dangerous environment where by August 2015, 250,000 had died, it is not surprising that over 4 million Syrians have fled the country and 7.6 million have been internally displaced (Asare). Their very survival depends on their ability to escape Syria and the fighting. Once these refugees escape Syria, the question then becomes, where do they go?

While the majority of refugees have settled in the countries bordering Syria, a massive quantity are making their way to Europe and are camping at the borders of countries, just waiting to be let in. It is up to the countries to decide what to do.

The challenges in formulating a policy that addresses the main struggles in trying to manage the pressures posed by migrants and refugees all depend on each country’s respective end goal.

Germany’s end goal is to provide asylum to as many refugees as possible. Germany has this goal for two reasons. The first reason is because it is the morally correct thing to do. People are being targeted and are asking for help, so the just thing to do is provide assistance. A little less talked about is also the fact that this is an opportunity to improve Germany’s reputation. Given historical events, this is a moment where Germany can prove that it is a leading country full of humane people, willing to help those in need. The second motivating factor is a little more devious. As of May 2015, Germany had the lowest birthrate in the world (“Germany”). It is projected that, if the current rate continues, by 2030, the percentage of working age people in Germany will only be 54%, a number that cannot maintain Germany’s strong economy in the long run (“Germany”). Germany either needs to increase its birthrate, or supplement the economy with migrant workers. Considering the fact that of Syria’s 4 million refugees, almost half of them are children, absorbing the many refugees fleeing from Syria would provide a great buffer to the future of the German economy (“Syria Crisis”).

The main challenges that Germany faces in attempting to formulate policy lie predominantly in logistical aspects. The challenges include, but are not limited to, housing the refugees, paying for their care and education, and determining which refugees to accept, all while still accounting for the preferences and best interests of the German people. The quantity of refugees Germany should accept is a direct function of its economic ability to support these people. Germany will not be able to help refugees if it accepts so many it bankrupts itself and the country collapses.

The first challenge Germany faces is finding a way to house all the refugees. According to a German study translated by Newsweek, 76% of the municipalities in Germany said that the largest struggle in accepting the refugees is finding the space to house them (Ilsley). Germany doesn’t have the capacity for the quantity of refugees it is accepting. It really only has space to house 500,000 refugees, but there are currently 870,000 with expectations of a total of 1 million by the end of the year (Ilsley). Extra space is running out quickly. Many local authorities have stepped up to detail the extent to which the challenge is affecting the community:


…everywhere from aircraft hangars to former offices of the Stasi are commandeered as shelters and even ordinary Germans are being asked to take refugees into their own homes,[sic] Hamburg, Bremen and other cities have said they will seize vacant commercial property from its owners as an emergency measure. (Connolly)


All free activity halls are being utilized as well. It is representative of the true state of the lack of space when government officials start talking about seizing the private property of their citizens. Economically speaking, it seems that there may be a ceiling to the amount of refugees Germany can physically accept, and that she is already approaching that limit. German policy makers must be conscious to balance their demand for refugees with their ability to house them when formulating their refugee and migrant policy.

Policy makers must also be aware of the monetary limitations that the country faces when formulating migration policy. When refugees escape Syria and come to Germany, it is the responsibility of the German government and people to pay for the care and education of the refugees. This does not come at a cheap cost, and if Germany is not careful, she could seriously harm her own economy.

In order to determine how to optimize refugee policy and calculate how much care to provide refugees, Germany first needs to determine the current economic status of the refugees. The government must discover how much money and education the refugees have. In 2014 80% of Syrians lived in poverty, 64.7% of which were categorized as living in extreme poverty, meaning they could not get basic items or food necessary for survival (Syrian). The unemployment rate had shot up from a high 14.9% in 2011 all the way to an astronomical 57.7% by the end of 2014 (Syrian). Policy makers, therefore, need to account for the fact that a large quantity of their refugees are probably very impoverished and will require a lot of assistance. This challenge has hopefully been accurately accounted for in budgeting, seeing as approximately 40% of the German municipalities expect to spend $1.2 billion dollars on refugees, and Germany overall will end up paying $22.5 billion to house, feed and educate the refugees (Ilsley).

The education levels of the younger refugees also seems to be a challenge German policy makers will have to overcome. Approximately 50.8% of all school age children are currently not in school, and almost half of those students have lost more than three years of schooling (Syrian). Although this lack of education is clearly the consequence of growing up in a war zone, it still needs to be accounted for in budgeting because many students will require three extra years of education, effectively delaying the time at which they will be able to enter the workforce. In addition to the basic German education, all refugees will also need to take classes to learn German. This will maximize their ability to contribute to the economy. The massive increase in the population of Germany has stretched the public services very thinly. To account for the increase in population, Germany will need to add many new teaching positions as well as policemen and administrators at the BAMF (“Refugee”).

The next challenge policy makers face in molding policy is figuring out how to pay for these provided services. Angela Merkel has insisted to the German people that there will be no raise in taxes (Fluechtlings-Krise). She has cited that there is no need to raise taxes because Germany is in a good economic situation and has previously implemented a responsible fiscal policy. The Bundestag recently voted on the 2016 budget which accounts for 8 billion euros to be devoted to refugee care (“German”). This 8 billion euros will be coming from a budget surplus, and will not indebt the country, which keeps with a promise Merkel made to German voters 3 years ago upon reelection (“German”). While the costs to the national and local governments are astronomical, Chancellor Merkel obviously believes that it will pay off in the long run. It is projected that 175,000-335,000 additional Syrian workers will be added to the German workforce in 2016, which could be early proof that the refugee labor will support the German economy in the long run (Ulrich). Policy makers need to be wary of the challenge of correctly estimating costs, and the consequences that will occur if they underestimate the costs of caring for refugees.

Another struggle policy makers in Germany face is figuring out which refugees to accept. This must be a cost-benefit analysis of the skills a refugee will add to the economy, the costs he will incur, and which the economy can handle better. In a strictly economic manner, the most beneficial policy for Germany would be to only select the most educated workers. These workers can contribute right away and don’t cost as much. However, this would counter Germany’s goal to improve public image, so she must also accept those who are more vulnerable. However, if Germany only accepts those refugees who are most vulnerable (women, children, widows) then the burden on the economy may be too great. Therefore, German policy makers must find the correct balance of types of individuals to accept.

The last challenge German officials face in drafting refugee policy is accounting for the preference and best interests of German people. German officials have a responsibility first and foremost to the German people. This means prioritizing public safety by conducting thorough screenings of all applicants. There is very little that would hurt the refugee cause more in the public eye, than if the government did not correctly vet a refugee and the refugee attacked the German people. German officials must keep in mind that “Domestic mobilization around radical Islam…[is] a concern that is much more pronounced in European states such as France, Germany, and Great Britain” (Adamson 195). If an attack on German people were to occur, there would be even greater opposition to accepting refugees than already exists. Public sentiment in Europe is that many want to see less immigration.


As seen in the diagram, large amounts of people feel threatened by the immigrant population and fear the change immigrants will bring to their daily lives. Each country’s culture is very distinct and the influx of a massive amount of refugees will bring irreversible change to culture that frightens many. Adamson recognizes the sentiment in European countries and addresses it in terms of national identity:

“International migration processes call into question the cultural basis of a state’s identity… The challenge that migration flows pose to unitary conceptions of national identity has deep historical roots and continues to provoke political debate. (181)


This political debate, if left unaddressed, can manifest itself in violent outbursts. These outbursts have not gotten a lot of media coverage, but are represented by the hundreds of attacks that occur in Germany against refugee camps (Blickle). It is possible that this could lead to an escalation of violence and retribution from the refugees. Therefore, in order to maintain the safety of both the refugees and the German people, “future policy planning in the JHA area will thus not only have to set out realistic goals that take into account European economic constraints, but will have to push harder to connect with citizens, acknowledge their concerns, and weave a shared immigration narrative” (Collett 5). It is imperative to the long-term acceptance and incorporation of refugees into the social system/economy that both sides accept each other. If German policymakers do not account for the preferences of the people, it is possible that a social war will start.

Policy makers must also consider the decreases in quality that occur when the economic pool is flooded. Since German officials have a responsibility to the German people first, they must be wary that the costs do not decrease the quality of care offered to the German people too greatly. The decrease in quality of healthcare and education in Lebanon due to the refugees was very significant. It has projected costs between 1.4 and 1.6 billion dollars, or 3% of their GDP, to restore access to and quality of health and education programs to prewar levels (Cali 38). As seen in the diagram above, job fear exists in larger percentages in Europe. Based on statistics from Lebanon, these fears may, in fact, be legitimate. At the end of 2014, it was projected that 170,000 extra Lebanese people would be pushed into poverty and 220,000-324,000 unskilled Lebanese youths would be cut out of the market, doubling the unemployment rate to 20% (Cali 38). Although it is not too probable that this will happen in Germany (based on decreasing birth rates and therefore increasing availability of jobs in the market), it is a possibility that German policy makers need to keep in mind. It is also important to note that the increase in refugees can lead to an uptick in consumption. In Lebanon, it has been calculated that a 1% increase in the quantity of refugees accepted led to a 1.5% increase in the export industry (Cali 46).

The last question posed in the diagram highlights another serious challenge policy makers could face. What should policy makers do if the various refugee groups are not willing to incorporate themselves into German society or follow German Laws? Sharia law and German law, while they do overlap a bit, they also significantly contradict each other, which could pose serious issues. Overall, policy makers need to be extremely considerate of the wants and needs of the German people when implementing refugee policy because the consequences of implementing the incorrect policy may cause insurmountable problems

While Germany’s end goal is to accept as many refugees as possible, the UK’s end goal is to avoid the problem of managing refugee pressures entirely. The UK hopes to do this in two ways. Firstly, by fixing the problem at the root in Syria, and secondly by removing all pull factors that attract refugees to the UK in the first place. It is ironic, because attempting to avoid the challenges of dealing with refugees inherently poses challenges of its own.

The challenges of this approach include facing backlash from both the rest of the world and within your own country. The UK has been strictly enforcing the Dublin regulation. It has been deporting all individuals who came to the UK through improper channels, including those who have family willing to sponsor them (“Refugee crisis could push Britain out of the EU, Cameron warns”). Britain has agreed to accept 20,000 refugees over the next 5 years, which is almost insignificant compared to Germany (“Refugee crisis could push Britain out of the EU, Cameron warns”). These refugees will be selected by the UN and will only be taken from camps surrounding Syria, not from Europe (“Migrant”). This has met a lot of moral outrage both in Europe and within the UK. In an open letter signed by over 300 government officials, the former UK Supreme Court head, Lord Phillips, publicly condemned David Cameron for a refugee response that is “deeply inadequate” (“Migrant”). Another challenge that arises from the UK’s choice to not accept any Syrian refugees from Europe could be an increase in the instability of the EU. An increase in instability would seem to be detrimental the UK, but the UK has recently been considering leaving the EU anyway. According the Express, 51% of voters in the UK want the UK to quit the EU (Bates). David Cameron has promised the people a referendum by 2017. Therefore, if the instability of the EU becomes too great due to the refugee influx, the UK can just leave the EU and avoid the problem entirely. While this doesn’t seem to be too probable, it is still an option.

While it may seem that the UK does not care about the refugees at all, this is not true. The UK has been taking action to provide aid to the refugees both in the form of money and in the form of military action. The UK has already provided over 1 billion pounds in aid to Syrian  camps and an extra one million pounds in aid to various charities helping those displaced (“Migrant”). Prime Minister Cameron believes that the best route to solving the problem is returning stability to the region (Wintour). He asserts that the problem can’t be fixed by accepting more refugees. The RAF has conducted 2 airstrikes in the last week targeting ISIS airfields, infrastructure, and a truck bomb (“Syria Air”). The increase in British airstrikes in the last couple weeks can be seen as evidence that Prime Minister Cameron is truly attempting to help return stability to the region.

David Cameron is also attempting to avoid the challenges associated with the refugee crisis by removing all pull factors that draw refugees to his country. It is a dangerous trip that refugees take to escape Syria. Cameron has attempted to create reasons for the refugees to stay in the region, instead of risking their lives to come to Europe: “Once a relief response consisting of support structures, facilities, and amenities… that caters for[sic] the needs and welfare of refugees is in place, the refugee route becomes more inviting” (Stark 328). Cameron makes a clear distinction in the difference between helping refugees and openly encouraging them to make a dangerous journey that will only strain everyone involved. In order to minimize the strain on Europe, Cameron is pushing for other countries to provide more aid to camps in countries neighboring Syria, which would hopefully keep the refugees in the region (“David”). He has said Britain will not voluntarily take any of the refugees from Europe, insisting on selecting them from camps in the Middle East (Harding). While it is obvious from looking at the UK’s refugee policy that it does not want to accept many refugees, that does not mean that the UK does not want to help. It believes that the best course of action is fixing the problem at its root, instead of providing palliative care. However, an important factor that must be addressed is if this is even possible. The United States has been attempting this exact plan for the last decade, and it still hasn’t accomplished its goal.

The challenges that European governments face when formulating refugee policy are heavily dependent on each country’s end goal. Germany’s end goal is to accept as many refugees as possible. It therefore faces challenges associated with availability of space, availability of funds, and protection of its people. The UK’s end goal is to avoid these challenges entirely, yet still help solve the problem. It therefore faces challenges of how to help the refugees without accepting them into the UK. These countries differ in their approaches in that one wants to help alleviate the symptoms, while the other wants to fix the problem causing the symptoms. These differences in long run goals help explain the difference in approach each country has taken.





























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