Christian Caryl

The Refugees Aren’t Fleeing Democracy

Russia and China are using the refugee crisis to tout the virtues of autocracy. So why are all the migrants heading west?

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The European refugee crisis is inspiring a lot of hysteria and overheated rhetoric. Right-wing populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban rant about a presumed assault on the West’s “Christian roots” by diabolical Muslims. Hand-wringing liberals worry that the inflow is on the verge of “breaking Europe.”

Yes, absorbing the 330,000 refugees — the majority from Syria’s horrendous civil war — who have crossed the borders of the European Union so far this year won’t be a cinch. But given that the EU has a population of 508 million, I’m thinking it will cope.

The craziest commentaries are coming from the world’s autocracies. “I consider that this crisis was absolutely expected,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin a few days ago. “We in Russia, and your humble servant in particular, several years ago said that there would be big problems if our so-called Western partners followed this mistaken — as I always said — policy.” He was referring, apparently, to European and American support for the popular uprisings against Arab dictators — particularly Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s closest friend in the region.

Putin’s buddies in Beijing are making the same argument. Earlier this week, a commentator for the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily informed the world that the real culprit behind the refugee crisis was none other than “Western democracy,” which he faulted for selfishly fomenting chaos and instability around the world. Many of his compatriots — or at least those who can get away with posting their opinions on the tightly regulated Chinese Internet — seem to agree. When did the refugee crisis start? “Ever since America, boasting of freedom and democracy, launched a color revolution in Syria,” wrote one.

That will come as news to President Barack Obama, who has — for better or worse — consistently resisted, until very recently, any sort of active role for the United States in Syria. Let’s get one thing straight: It was Assad who started this war, by cracking down on peaceful Syrian demonstrators who had zero backing from the outside world. And by far the most active intervener in the civil war has been Iran, which has sent weapons, cash, and troops across the border to help its client — even though it somehow never gets accused by its Russian and Chinese friends of interfering in Syria’s “internal affairs.” No outside force has more boots on the ground in Syria than Tehran (unless maybe it’s Moscow, which aside from propping up Damascus diplomatically and logistically has just admitted to stationing troops in the country as well).

All of which merely serves to underline a fundamental point. The 4 million Syrians who have left their country since 2011 are fleeing violence and tyranny. They’re fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs. They’re fleeing the terror of the Islamic State. They’re not fleeing democracy, because there isn’t any in Syria. Assad, backed by his dictatorial allies, has made sure of that — at the price of at least 220,000 of his own compatriots killed.

Just ask the father of Alan Kurdi, the little boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last week. The publication of photos of Alan’s tiny corpse triggered a global storm of indignation — also among those ill-informed Chinese who somehow managed to blame his death on the Americans. His family are Kurds from Kobani, the Syrian town that has been heroically fighting off attacks from the Islamic State (with some recent assistance from U.S. airstrikes). I guess you could accuse Syrian Kurds of “undermining stability” by resisting their genocidally minded enemies — just as you could say the same of those Syrian protestors who refused to submit to extermination by Assad. What the Kurds of Kobani really want (like most other Syrians, I suspect) is the ability to govern their own affairs and to live free from threats of violence, by whatever regime.

Most Syrian refugees are congregating, as refugees from civil conflicts tend to, in the countries immediately adjacent to their homeland — in this case Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, all of which have done a heroic job of accommodating them. So why have so many Syrians opted to make the long and hazardous trip to Europe? Why don’t they stay in the countries closer to home?

I think everyone knows the answer: They’re seeking a better life. And it is Europe — prosperous, open, and above all democratic — that offers it.

Syrian refugees could just as easily try sneaking into Saudi Arabia or other Persian Gulf states, which, on the face of things, boast a standard of living comparable to Europe’s. But conspicuously few are choosing to do so — presumably because they know that the Gulf monarchies have zero interest in offering them (whether co-religionists or not) any hint of political rights. The same, of course, applies to Russia or Iran, Syria’s putative allies, both of which are geographically far closer to Damascus than anywhere in Central or Western Europe.

In short, if you give people — Muslims, Buddhists, or Presbyterians — a choice between authoritarian “stability” and a chance to be free, they’ll usually take the latter. I would argue that this is true even when their primary motivation for emigrating is economic.

(Trivia question: How many Chinese voluntarily opted to emigrate from the allegedly stable, wealthy, and meritocratic People’s Republic in 2013? Answer: 9.3 million — many of them opting for places like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Sort of puts that refugee crisis in a different light, doesn’t it?)

To be sure, the tragedy of Europe’s new migrants is broader than that of the Syrians. It’s striking, for example, how many of the current refugees are coming from Eritrea, one of the world’s harshest dictatorships. (A large number of those who have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats are Eritreans.)

But do those Russians and Chinese have at least a point? After all, the mix of refugees does include some from Iraq and Afghanistan, countries where the United States and its allies have intervened to a dramatic and not always positive effect — as they did to a lesser extent in Libya, where the anarchy of the post-Qaddafi era has turned the country into a major jumping-off point for the flow of migrants to Europe.

Yet even the catastrophic American failure to help create viable democracies in these places doesn’t seem to have turned Iraqis and Afghans into seekers of Chinese- or Russian-brand “stability.” They are, instead, voting with their feet — daring to seek a new life in a part of the world where they know their fundamental rights are more likely to be respected. Even if they’re starting from the bottom.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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