As Europe embraces Syrians, a cooler reception for other refugees

Europe is trying to fast-track asylum processing for Syrians. But that could leave other equally persecuted refugees tarred as 'bad' or 'lesser.'

Francois Mori/AP/File
Refugees from Sudan walk in the Guillaume-Bude secondary school building in Paris last month. For now, Paris is letting associations convert some vacant public buildings like this Paris high school into emergency lodging for migrants.

Aboard the smuggling boat that Sudanese asylum seeker Napil Mahmod took from Libya in 2014 across the Mediterranean, all those who paid for passage were treated the same: the other Sudanese, Chadians, and Somalians, as well as Syrians, Eritreans, and Iraqis.

But now that he’s in France, where he applied for asylum in May, he can no longer say the same.

While Syrians fleeing conflict today have gotten public housing and French classes, he ended up in a tent camp in northern Paris, and only has shelter over his head now because he joined a group of asylum seekers in Paris who occupied an abandoned school building here in July.

Mr. Mahmod, sitting in his bedroom in the overcrowded, decrepit school, says that “War is war, whether in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, or Ethiopia.” Yet he says he worries authorities don’t see it that way – that the conflict he fled from in Darfur has fallen down the priority list along with the cases of the other Africans and Afghans housed in this school, renamed the Maison des Refugies, or House of Refugees.

According to Eurostat, Syrians represented the largest number of first-time asylum seekers in the second quarter of 2015. But the rest come from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Balkans, and from across Africa. And some worry that these groups are being left behind as Europe rushes to respond to the Syrian conflict, which has pushed record numbers into and across Europe this year. There are increasingly the haves and the have-nots: the Syrians who are broadly being welcomed here and the rest, who fare less well and whose welcome is far less warm.

“There is a dividing of the refugees, between good and bad refugees,” says Fuad Hamdan, who works on migration and intercultural education at the IG-InitiativeGruppe in Munich.

Real asylum seekers?

In technical terms, the cases of non-Syrian refugees in Europe stand the same chances, even if they are pushed back amid the numbers of refugees entering Europe and special provisions in some countries to speed up the process for Syrians, says Olaf Kleist, a research fellow at the Refugee Studies Center at Oxford University.

Still, the response in Europe, and its new focuses on returning economic migrants more quickly and using different processes for those from “safe countries,” could end up hurting prospects for those who deserve full reviews.

“Accelerated asylum processes for Syrians in order to get their status determined more quickly, that is good. But what is happening as well is accelerating the processes of those from the Balkans or ‘safe countries of origin,’” he says. That feeds the notion, he says, that “’they really are just after our money, they are not real asylum seekers,’” he says.

Europe remains deeply divided over the refugee crisis, with interior ministers putting to vote a controversial plan to relocate refugees among EU member states this week. The EU shored up some support for the plan by putting more emphasis on the more efficient return of economic migrants, a harder tactic that many say Europe is right to do. Even Angelina Jolie has supported the concept, to give priority to those fleeing for their lives. Among the migrants coming to Europe with refugees are those who don't play on claiming asylum, including some at the Maison des Refugies.

'All refugees should be treated the same'

The bloc is also planning an EU-wide list for “safe countries of origin,” whose asylum seekers will be more quickly processed – and returned. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, in a speech last week, said the concept is only a procedural simplification – that it does not take away the right for any individual to seek asylum. But many worry that it could hurt their chances for refugee status regardless.

In Germany, over a third of asylum seekers come from the Balkans. Their cases have been nearly universally rejected, compared to the far majority accepted for Syrian refugees – a fact that has been used to justify the new policies to streamline groups into different processes.

But those who work with migrants worry that the simplification hurts those with legitimate claims for asylum. Marcel Berlinghoff, a historian at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück, notes for example that many of those fleeing to Germany from the Balkans are Roma, who are persecuted and thus eligible for asylum.

The principle of speeding up applications for Syrians has broad support, and even from the asylum seekers of other nations. Hassan Bachif, a refugee from Libya who now lives in the school as his case languishes, says he doesn’t begrudge Syrian refugees the immediate attention they've received. “They’ve come with wives and children,” he says. “They can’t be left on the street.”

The words "refugees welcome" are painted in thick yellow paint at the top floor of the school – not distinguishing between nationalities.

But there is some concern among asylum seekers that the welcome is not universal. Amir Elnour Adam, who arrived in this school less than two weeks ago and came from Greece where he organized Sudan refugees for years, says the political persecution he faces at home in Sudan is just as dire as anyone else fleeing for their lives. “All refugees should be treated the same,” but it remains to be seen if they will be, he says.

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