The Wandering Syrians

The current exodus out of Syria is a modern epic. The scale of the destruction in Syria is hard to imagine. Out of a pre-war population of 23 million, more than half have fled their homes. Some 8 million are internally displaced. Nearly 4 million have left the country for Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Europe, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Approximately 250,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

One in four persons in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee. After initially welcoming refugees with open arms, that country has now closed its doors. Turkey and Jordan have built refugee camps the size of small cities. The Zaatari camp in Jordan now houses 80,000 refugees. Yet the capacity of many camps has nevertheless been exceeded, and many refugees live wherever they can among the local population, with friends, relatives, or in the open. Today in Istanbul it is impossible to walk down the street without bumping into Syrian refugees begging for their survival.

A relatively small, but growing, share of the total refugee population has made its way to Europe, usually by boat from Turkey to Greece and up through the Balkans to Germany or Sweden. Yet these refugees—a total of 681,000 between 2011 and 2015 according to the UNHCR, with some 450,000 entering in 2015 alone—have caused a deepening disarray in Europe. The steeply increasing number of Syrians, combined with a growing influx from other conflict zones, has overwhelmed Europe’s borders. European Union member states like Hungary have reacted unilaterally by building walls and fences along the EU’s external border, triggering fierce debate within the EU. Some, like Slovenia and Austria, have even attempted to build border fences between themselves and other EU states, in an effort to stop the flow of refugees that is overwhelming the systems in place to manage them. Scenes of Syrian refugees trapped in the Budapest train station and being forced to walk to Austria—a country that was, for the moment anyway, more welcoming—galvanized debate in Europe over how a union founded to protect peace and human rights had come to behave so inhumanely to refugees from war. Many believe the Syrian refugee crisis is a test of the soul of the EU, and of its very existence.

The Syrian refugee crisis has already damaged, perhaps irreparably, one of the four freedoms of the EU: the freedom of movement. Until this year, people moved freely within the so-called “Schengen zone,” where passport-free travel was the norm and border controls were nonexistent. Now, a combination of anxiety about the refugees and terrorist attacks by ISIS—one of the organizations that set these refugees on the move in the first place—have imperiled that fundamental liberty.

The Paris attacks last November added an additional…

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