War, exodus, odyssey, diaspora, wandering in search of a promised land – all this we know from the oldest literary and biblical texts. The Syrian exodus is an epic event. It is also a test of our era, our civilization. There have been other mass flows of people from their homes in recent decades but this is the first time that this is happening in full view of the whole of humanity. No one can claim ignorance. How we deal with the refugees will determine who we are and where we too are going.
As the Syrians march across the map, from their battered land to some hostel in the European north, we can see the virtues and weaknesses of our world – of every country, of the great powers, of our values, of each one of us. The picture is ambiguous: On the one hand there is a great effort to provide food, shelter and security to the wandering refugees; on the other, the international community is playing a macabre game in which it offers this help to those who survive superfluous dangers, such as the crossing from Turkey to Greece. Collective efforts toward real solutions are repeatedly undermined by national interests, whether this concerns an end to the war or the provision of asylum to refugees without their dangerous journey.
The United Nations, the European Union, individual countries, nongovernmental organizations and citizens provide as many services as they can. Turkey opened its borders and hosts more Syrians than any other country. But there is a darker side, too: Turkey’s early involvement in Syria’s collapse and the fact that it does not do all it could to prevent the refugees’ dangerous crossing to Greece. By allowing this, Turkey reduces the number of refugees on its territory and also determines European developments.
The EU has faced the refugee crisis with its usual lack of purpose. After pretending that there was no problem, it took half-hearted measures which forced each country to deal with the flood of refugees and migrants as it could (or as it wished). In Greece we see the usual marriage of state inadequacy and self-sacrificing volunteers. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia seized the opportunity to present itself as the guard of Europe’s gates, at Greece’s expense. Hungary, Slovakia and other former Eastern bloc members hewed their own path, rejecting an EU decision to share refugees among all members. Austria, after accepting a large number of refugees, joined the group that closes borders. Germany, where the number of refugees and migrants may reach 3.6 million by 2020, is being tested by the need to assimilate so many.
Only cool-headed analysis of the situation and collective efforts can protect the refugees, press Turkey into helping, and achieve peace in Syria. This is a huge problem, but the dangers from failing to solve it are even greater.