How refugee debate misses the point

Story highlights

  • Europe now most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world, writers say
  • Many Syrian refugees finding it difficult to find work, they argue

Neil Boothby is Allan Rosenfield professor of forced migration and health, and Lindsay Stark is associate professor of population and family health, at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. The views expressed are their own.

(CNN)Closing borders to refugees is a common knee-jerk reaction to terrorist attacks, so it is not surprising that recent events in Paris are raising new concerns that the surge of Syrian refugees into Europe may facilitate the entry of terrorists. Yet closing borders to those fleeing the same kind of attacks that have been perpetrated against civilians in Paris and Lebanon this past month not only feeds into ISIS' divisive agenda, but suggests a misunderstanding of the refugee crisis.

Europe is now the most dangerous destination for irregular migration in the world, and the Mediterranean is the world's most dangerous border crossing. Yet despite the escalating human toll, more than 200,000 refugees crossed into Europe by sea in October alone. As European leaders have tightened their internal borders, Syrians have resorted to the use of smugglers and criminal networks to travel within Europe.
Why are so many Syrians risking their lives to reach Europe? Public discourse has centered on their being pushed by civil war and pulled by the promise of a better life. But during recent visits to the region, we found that migration is also being fueled by poor and deteriorating conditions in first asylum countries.
    Eighty percent of the 4 million Syrians who have fled their homeland since 2001 have sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. These countries are carrying a huge burden and are deeply affected by the presence of refugees, with little or often no work available. Despite this, the United Nations has cut assistance to Syrians in refugee camps. Earlier this year, for example, it dropped tens of thousands of Syrians from its food assistance program, igniting a large wave of secondary migration.
    Income is imperative for Syrians living outside subsidized refugee camps in Middle Eastern countries. But a quarter of Syrian refugee households in Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan are headed by females, in which children are often better equipped to work in informal labor sectors than their mothers. As a result, protection threats abound. After Syrian mothers sounded the alarm, a Jordanian organization we spoke with investigated teenage girls working as live-in domestics: one-third of the 28 girls identified in the first month reported being raped. Meanwhile, many Syrian parents are pushing their daughters into early marriage to avoid destitution -- 32% of Syrian marriages registered in Jordan in the first quarter of 2014 involved a girl under 18 years old.
    In Turkey, we hosted a workshop where Syrian doctors and nurses told us they are passing news back to relatives and friends via social media. "We exchange photos and messages every day," one unemployed doctor told us. "My brother sees we live in a shed and knows we can't work or send our children to school. If his family has to leave Syria, they will go straight to Europe." How should the EU and other global powers respond?
    For a start, they should increase financial aid to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan as part of a comprehensive approach to the migration challenge. In addition to augmenting national health systems, international assistance must target livelihood needs of Syrian families and their capacity to generate enough income to feed their children. The Danish Refugee Council facilitates a midsized cash transfer program for Syrian households in Turkey, including supermarket e-cards to help alleviate food insecurity. Cash transfers that address the diminished ability to put food on one's table are more cost-effective than traditional social welfare approaches.
    The Turkish government is proposing legislation to enable Syrian medical professionals to work in primary health care facilities. Similar legislation could be enacted for Syrian teachers and paraprofessionals to extend education to Syrian children, a second key to stabilizing refugee families and reducing secondary migration.
    Ultimately, giving Syrians more of a long-term future in Turkey would persuade many of them to remain there until it's safe to go home. And lifting restrictions on where Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon may work and learn, coupled with the provision of cash transfers, would make a boat trip to Europe less necessary, as well.