A massive summit on aid to Syria was hosted in London in early Feb 2016 – attended by David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State John Kerry. The UK government prides itself on leading the humanitarian effort to Syria, and hopes to prod other countries into stepping up their game. So what is the UK actually doing to help Syria, and is it really helping?
In the last few months, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Europe seeking asylum. Most of them are coming from Syria, although the majority of people fleeing the civil conflict there have remained in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
A number of countries, including Britain, followed Germany’s example of pledging to accept tens of thousands of refugees. Other states, like Hungary, have been doing all they can to put people off coming.
The reaction from the European public has varied from thousands offering refugees their homes to arson attacks on asylum shelters.
Some people have been confused though. How do we know all these people are really refugees?
To many people, this group of men taking a selfie having landed on Lesbos don’t look like typical refugees. Pictured in the Daily Mail, They look too well-fed, too well-dressed. Their iPads are way too charged.
A torrent of images and memes like this have flooded the web showing these men to be hulking body-builders. The problem with this meme, Vice tell us, is that these images are not actually of Syrian refugees and were not actually taken in Europe, but we’ll let that one slide.
Quite a few UK public figures have been asking the same question. In his column for the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens asked “You really think these crowds of tough young men chanting ‘Germany!’ in the heart of Budapest are ‘asylum-seekers’ or refugees’?
Boris Johnson commented in the Telegraph that the crowds of people trying to enter Germany “seem to be composed overwhelmingly of young, able-bodied men.”
The suggestion these two columnists are making is that these tough young men are not in fact refugees at all: They are economic migrants, attempting to slip illegally into Europe among the genuine refugees. They are not, the argument goes, fleeing war and persecution but simply looking for a more prosperous future. Basically – young strapping lads who want better jobs, not refugees with rights to asylum,
That’s quite a big conclusion to draw from just looking at people. But looks can be deceiving.
How do we know a refugee when we see one? If these guys aren’t real refugees, then who is?
A refugee is a specific legal category, defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention 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.”
Type ‘refugee’ into Google images and you won’t be too surprised by what comes up. The people in the pictures are mostly women and children, shabbily dressed, and often quite dusty. These are the kinds of images we are used to seeing when we hear about refugees.
This is why it is, to be fair, quite confusing when we see pictures like the well-built well-dressed young men taking a selfie with an iPad. They don’t seem too badly off…
However, young men are in very specific kinds of danger in a war zone. Military service of up to three years is mandatory for Syrians men aged 18.
Whether those who receive the draft do not support the regime or fear what will happen to them if captured by rebels, many have chosen to flee rather than stay and kill or be killed.
Four years into the civil war, these defections have left the Assad regime facing a manpower shortage, which only leads to further mandatory conscription, where the newly drafted can expect to be shipped to the front lines with little training.
Sanjayan Srikanthan, director of humanitarian policy at the International Rescue Committee told Buzzfeed : “There’s a common fear of being conscripted into fighting, regardless of which side that’s driving people to flee.”
Of course it’s not just about conscription. This all comes on top of the barrel-bombing and airstrikes which Syrian civilians, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, have found themselves in the middle of, and which have left many Syrian towns and cities completely destroyed.
Strapping young lads, or fighting-age men as they are sometimes referred to, might not look like stereotypical helpless refugees. But it is precisely because they are young, fit and male that they face conscription. This, on top of barrel-bombing or fear of the police, is why they choose to leave.
We cannot know who is a real refugee and who isn’t just by looking at them. You do not have to look helpless in order to be in need of help.
High profile players like Al Jazeera and UNHCR have led the way in insisting that the thousands of people arriving in Europe are refugees and not migrants.
The argument behind this was that the word migrant had become a dehumanising label that allowed governments to keep people out rather than let them in.
The groundswell that followed of European citizens insisting their leaders take their fair share of refugees was proof of how powerful a difference the word refugee made.
However, insisting that we call them refugees did not solve the primary problem of migrants being dehumanised.
On the contrary, it has given politicians and the media a licence to distinguish between crowds of people to pinpoint who was worthy of Europe’s help (the refugees) and who was not (tough young male migrants who were supposedly only posing as refugees).
Is this what happens when we start talking about two different kinds of people? In practice, the difference between a migrant and a refugee is often barely recognisable: Both are leaving intolerable situations.
What does a refugee look like? Explained: Anyone can find themselves in a situation where they have to seek asylum from war or persecution. We are used to picturing refugees as poor and desperate women and children, but war puts young able-bodied men in specific kinds of danger, like being drafted into the army of a regime they no longer support. However – this exercise of sorting between who is and isn’t a refugee can be dangerous. This is because it suggests that refugees’ lives are worth more than those of migrants.