Are Europe’s Syrians Still Refugees?

The migrants who fled the Syrian war now want real membership in their new home countries.

A family walks past the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees.
A family walks past the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in Berlin on May 18, 2018. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Through treacherous sea routes, after months or even years in cramped refugee camps, and after paying hefty sums to smugglers, more than a million Syrians arrived in Western Europe at the peak of the Syrian conflict. Ten years into the Syrian war, while active fighting has largely subsided, most Syrian refugees still don’t find it safe to return to their country. The oppressive government they fled in the first place is still in power, and most refugees fear they might be persecuted upon return for participating in protests, supporting the rebels, deserting mandatory military service, or simply for a bribe.

Over the years, many have also worked hard to integrate into their host countries. They have learned the local language, found jobs, and paid for themselves rather than being entirely dependent on state largesse. They have finally built a life in the kind of democratic nations they wanted Syria to be and cannot imagine leaving it all behind. Western European countries have provided some form of protection to most who arrived and, even though there are murmurs of gradual deportations, activists say legal protections stop the governments from doing so and from succumbing to pressure in this direction from the far right.

With Syria still under the Baath Party’s rule, it seems to be generally accepted in Europe that Syrians will not be returning home. Their continued presence and contribution to local economies, however, have led to a discussion over whether they should still be considered refugees or rather members of their respective European societies on par with other residents. Activists argue there is a need to speed up the process of granting them citizenship to put an end to their uncertain futures.

They say while the term refugee can be used pejoratively and perhaps isolates the whole community, it is a necessary legal category only to protect Syrians from deportation. But most Syrian refugees are hoping to assimilate as citizens into their host countries, and some have already joined electoral politics. It has been a decade since the Syrian uprising began in search of democracy, respect for human rights, and a decent life. Those uprooted are now chasing a political voice inside Europe.

According to a report by DIW Berlin, part of the German Institute for Economic Research, which advises various stakeholders on policy, half of the refugees in Germany who wanted a job in 2016 were employed by 2018. An overwhelming number of these refugees were Syrians. The report added that most refugee children have been integrated into schools and will become the future workforce of an aging Germany. Katharina Spiess, professor of family and education economics at the Freie Universität Berlin and a researcher at DIW Berlin who often advises policymakers on refugee issues, said that Syrians have integrated well into the German economy overall, but there is still room to integrate them better.

“Just five years ago our chancellor said ‘Wir schaffen das’ or ‘we can handle this,’” Spiess said. “That is not a long time to integrate everyone. And yet considering these people could not even speak German when they arrived, I would say Syrians are very well-integrated.”

She said the terminology surrounding Syrians in Germany should be carefully applied. “Refugees should not be addressed as refugees per se; they should be addressed, like we Germans, in the role they are playing in the society,” she said. “Such as—an employee, a parent, an unemployed person, and so on. They should be referred to as a refugee only when their refugee background is important. For instance, they are unemployed because they don’t speak German because they are a refugee. In the latter case, it helps them and the state to address a problem to integrate them better.”

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as a person who faces persecution on return for reasons including “political opinion.” Analysts say that while Syrians who were actively involved in opposing the regime face an imminent threat of persecution, others face it more generally. But since the Syrian government is notorious for randomly arresting returnees too, no Syrian can be deported in good faith. Moreover, Europe has refused to resume ties with Bashar al-Assad’s government, accused of committing crimes against humanity, and without intergovernmental cooperation cannot procure guarantees of the safety of returnees.

According to the guidelines by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN’s refugee agency, refugees must not be deported or forced to return unless a durable solution to their situation has been found. In other words, the alternatives for policymakers are voluntary return when refugees feel it is safe, resettlement in a third country, or when local integration is considered final once a refugee has been granted citizenship.

Although the protection granted by refugee status remains essential, the term itself is isolating Syrians into a bloc that the far right finds easier to attack. Many Syrians, too, hope to be acknowledged for their contributions rather than subsumed under a tag that is often used in a derogatory manner.

“I work in Germany, I pay tax in Germany, and I live here. I feel like any other German,” said Omar, a Syrian who made his way to Germany in 2016. Even though he spoke to Foreign Policy from Düsseldorf, a city in western Germany, he requested anonymity fearing that family members still in Syria might be harassed by the Syrian state machinery. Omar narrated a familiar story of escape from bombs and persecution by the Syrian authorities and how he found safety and a life worth living in Germany. He was granted refugee status soon after he arrived and his three-year-long residence permit has been renewed since.

But he doesn’t see himself as a refugee anymore. He has learned German, is employed at an automobile firm, and lives off his earnings. He said he is ready to be a German citizen and will apply for citizenship as soon as he finishes his sixth year in the country. “I strive to be an ideal immigrant and an ideal citizen,” he added.

Omar is just the kind of young man that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had in mind when she opened the gates to Syrian refugees in 2015. But at the time, the decision led to a rise in popularity for populist parties who portrayed the Syrian refugees as a threat. They accused Merkel of risking Europe’s security and social cohesion by letting in jihadists and economic migrants under the guise of refugees.

It is true that billions of dollars have been spent on refugees in need of urgent housing, food, medicine, and integration in their respective host countries in Europe. But 10 years into the conflict and five years since the Syrians’ exodus to the continent, the numbers of troublemakers are minuscule compared to those striving hard to become a part of European societies.

Ahmad, 33, is a Syrian refugee in Helsingborg, a coastal city in Sweden, who preferred to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing his legal status. He said he feels sad when he is referred to as a refugee even though he needs the protection granted under the category. “We were a well-off family in Deir ez-Zor in Syria and did not think of asylum at all,” he said. “But because of the war, I came here, and from that perspective, I became a refugee.” He said he is certain he would be arrested upon return for escaping military service, as happened to his brother-in-law who returned to government-held territory. In Sweden, Farhan has found a new life. He worked as a teacher’s assistant, as a salesman in a fruit and vegetable shop, and is currently training to be a train driver. “When I did not work, I received help from the Swedish government, but now I work and I pay taxes. That makes me feel like I’m a Swedish person or citizen like any other. I love this feeling. I also feel responsible and productive in this society. My goal is to be a Swedish citizen with a Syrian background.”

Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Berlin, drew out the dilemma facing Syrians in Europe. “On one hand, the term refugee recognizes that they didn’t have any choice, and that is why they came here,” Scheller said. “But on the other hand, when you talk to them, they seem particularly proud of their achievements and say they don’t want to be seen as refugees. They want to be recognized for what they do.”

Some experts say perhaps there is a need to coin another term, such as a humanitarian migrant—between a refugee and a citizen. Others warn against it and say it might make it easier for the far right to demand deportations. Denmark has already canceled the residencies of 94 Syrians by claiming they can be deported to “safer” parts of Syria. Last year, Germany lifted the ban on deportations purportedly to deport Syrians with a criminal background. Activists worry that governments might look for a backdoor route to deport Syrians and hence advocate naturalization of Syrians as the next step in their integration.

Villads Zahle, senior communications coordinator at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), said people cease to be refugees if they become citizens of the host country. In most European countries, refugees have paths toward citizenship under certain conditions, but it can be a long and difficult process. “For people who are settling in a country, it is also the only way to achieve full rights and, therefore, an important step in their process of inclusion,” he said. The new temporary protection statuses severely limiting rights for Syrian nationals in places like Denmark and Germany “hinders integration, prevents people from becoming active citizens, and parks them in a limbo of uncertainty.”

According to ECRE, in 2019 nearly 4,000 Syrian nationals were granted German citizenship, although the German government does not specify what proportion entered the country as refugees.

Wiebke Judith, the legal policy advisor at Pro Asyl, which is a refugee rights organization in Germany, said she expects a spike in citizenship applications from Syrians this year and the following year. Most Syrians who arrived in Germany would soon be finishing the required six to eight years of residency, have acquired the ability to speak German, and have knowledge of local laws.

She said the term refugee has legal significance even though it can become exclusionary over time. “Of course, we should not continuously define people by their legal status,” Judith said. “Especially when by staying longer in a country they become part of society. They should not be singled out because of their story forever.”

In Germany, the far-right political party Alternative for Germany, which exploited anti-refugee feelings to bolster its vote, has dropped from the first to the third position in eastern Germany, which has been a bastion of its support. In recent elections in the Netherlands, the center-right won most seats while the main far-right party performed poorly. Populist parties used the Syrian crisis for their own advancement, but it seems they are finding it hard to maintain that rise. Liberals have fought back and are now encouraging Syrians to apply for citizenship, to contest elections, and to become a political bloc in European countries.

Omar is delighted at the news that one refugee, Tareq Alaows, is not only on the verge of citizenship but is to fight elections in Germany on a ticket from the Green Party. “He is the pride of Syrians in Germany,” Omar said. “If one of these candidates could fight elections in Syria in a free and fair manner, it would be a dream come true. But Syria is not a democracy.”

In their endless quest for democracy, Syrians are now chasing it in Europe. It will take time, but they are not going anywhere and seem determined to undertake the journey from refugee status to full citizenship.

Correction, March 26, 2021: The original version of this article inaccurately represented a quote from Villads Zahle. It also misstates the proportion of naturalized German citizens who were Syrian refugees.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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