You do not choose to be a refugee; you are forced to be one. You do not leave your home and everything you have because you are seeking a better economic or social opportunity. You leave everything to escape violence, abuse, starvation, and even death. In some of the developed countries, refugees are seen as a threat to the economic, political, and social stability of the country. Developed countries of Europe and the US fear to welcome refugees, because they worry about potential terrorist attacks, disruption of their economy and unwelcome changes in demographics. In March of 1999, I was only seven years old when the war in Kosovo reached its peak. The war between Serbian military and the Kosovo Liberation Army began in the spring of 1998 after Serbia stripped Kosovo’s Albanians of any political and economic rights in the 1980s. By March 1999, after a year of fighting, around 850,000 people had been forced to flee the country. Most of these people moved to the neighboring countries of Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia.
Maybe because I was too young to understand what was happening, or because the brain tends to suppress bad memories, I do not remember that time very clearly. I do remember leaving our house early in the morning; since my family did not have a car, we took a bus from the center of the city. I do remember that people on the other aisle of the bus were crying because they saw, through the bus window, the Serbian military killing people on the road. I remember the black leather jacket I was wearing while walking across the border to Albania, and the television reporters interviewing people about their experiences in a temporarily set camp there. I remember riding in the huge truck, which had formerly been used to transport wood through the poorly constructed, dangerous roads of the Albanian mountains; I sat on the front seat with my mother and two sisters, while my dad and many other Albanians sat in the back.
My family was lucky, as we had cousins who lived in Tirana, the Albanian capital city. They offered us their house, food, love, and support. Since my dad worked for the United Nations, he continued working in their Tirana office, helping other refugees to settle in different cities of Albania. I had just started first grade back home, so I continued education in a local school in my cousins’ neighborhood. Every night, my parents would watch the news to learn what was happening back home. After NATO bombing began, we were uncertain about what was going to happen to those of us who left the country and to those who were still in Kosovo. Many people left for Germany, the US, and Canada, and the rest of us tried to lead a life as normal as possible in our new homes away from home. My family and I were fortunate to leave our country safely without experiencing the traumas that were so common for other people. We returned to Kosovo in July 1999. Over 1.5 million Kosovar Albanians—90 percent of the estimated 1998 Kosovar Albanian population of Kosovo—had been expelled from their homes. Tens of thousands of homes in at least 1,200 cities, towns, and villages were damaged or destroyed. There are accounts of summary executions at about 500 sites across Kosovo and 1,650 people are still considered missing. Serbian forces burned, destroyed, or exhumed bodies from mass graves in an attempt to destroy evidence of war crimes. An estimated 20,000 women and men were raped during the war.
What I will always remember of the war in Kosovo is the aftermath: the feeling of loss, a lack of security, normality, and an ever-present feeling of dependence. We had to start from the beginning by rebuilding our houses and creating a living. Institutions had to be established and a self-sustaining economy had to be built. But what I will also remember is how helpful and welcoming people in Albania were to us, how my first grade teacher would ask everyday how I was doing and if I needed anything, and how people would bring my sisters and me beautiful summer dresses, toys, and books. In these interactions, there was a sense of humanity that can be often seen in times of crisis and hardship. That is why it is incomprehensible and appalling to me to listen to all the xenophobic and racist comments being made by different government leaders towards the current refugees from Syria and other countries.
During the first half of 2015, large numbers of Syrian refugees crossed into European Union member states; the UN High Commission for Refugees had received over 300,000 applications for asylum by early August 2015. An estimated four million Syrians have fled their homes since the beginning of in 2011. Most of them have settled in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, but recently a large number of refugees have left their homes with the hope of starting a new life, or just seeking shelter temporarily, in Europe. More than 100,000 refugees crossed the European Union’s borders in July alone, and as of September 2015, it was reported that more than 8,000 refugees were crossing into Europe on a daily basis. Their first port of entry is often Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy, following perilous sea crossings. In April 2015 alone, up to 700 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean sea trying to reach Europe from Syria, and it was not until September 2015, when a picture of a small boy lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach went viral, that people started to demand an official action from the European governments.
The response of some European countries to this crisis has been half-hearted to say the least. While Germany has committed to take up to 800,000 refugees this year—1 percent of Germany’s population—other EU states have been more reluctant. Most of the Syrian refugees travel through Hungary to get to Germany; far from welcoming them, Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared that the refugees flocking to southeastern Europe should be prevented from entering the EU. To stop the human flow, Orban’s government is building fences along their borders and has even signaled a willingness to use force. By refusing to accept refugees because they are Muslims, he asserts that he is defending Europe’s “Christian identity.” He wrote for Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, a German newspaper, “those [refugees] arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims… This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity. Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian? If we lose sight of this, the idea of Europe could become a minority interest in its own continent.” Leaders of other Central European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, have expressed similar sentiments. In August, Slovakia’s Interior Ministry said that Muslims would not feel comfortable in a country without mosques. These states have opposed the efforts of Germany and France to agree on relocation of 120,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other European countries, allocating them to countries based on population, GDP, and rate of unemployment.
These statements show not only the politicians’ disrespect of the Geneva Convention, the proclaimed European Union values, and respect of human rights, but also a stunning hypocrisy. All these countries have experienced wars and other hardships in their recent history that resulted in mass migration to Western Europe and the US. This pervasive racism and xenophobia is difficult to grasp, considering the past hardships these countries themselves have experienced, and given the democratic values these nations claim to represent.
Fortunately, not everything is as bleak as it may seem. While the official governments of different countries have been going back and forth with statements and agreements, ordinary citizens have tried to help the refugees in all the ways they can. Stories of police officers in the Balkans borders who have tried to help the refugees on the road, citizens of Germany who have welcomed refugees in airports and train stations, and all those who have hosted them in their houses around Europe .
The polarized response of Europe has been the center of global media’s attention, mainly because these are the countries receiving most of the refugees. What the media ignores is the lack of response from other developed countries, namely the Gulf countries, the US or Russia. These countries have been reluctant to admit refugees because they see refugees as a threat to their countries’ stability. The Obama administration announced plans to increase the total number of refugees admitted to the United States from 70,000 to 85,000 by next year, and to 100,000 by 2017; a very small number considering that four million (registered) refugees have been displaced from Syria so far.
And for the Viktor Orbans of the world, if values like tolerance, openness, respect for diversity, freedom, and human rights are not good enough reasons to accept more refugees, there is vast research available stating that refugees bring economic growth and development. The influx of refugees can help European and other countries in various ways.
Firstly, Europe has a greater need for high-skilled workers, those with some advanced education, than for low-skilled ones. Research conducted by Giovanni Peri of the University of California at Davis and Mette Foged of the University of Copenhagen shows that refugees, due to a lack of fluency in their new country’s language, take up low-skilled jobs, enabling natives to move to jobs that require more skills. This shift allows for a specialization of workers, resulting in a more productive workforce and an expansion of businesses. “For economies, immigrants bring a push to specialization, and specialization increases productivity, and increases the size of the firm and the amount of jobs that you can create,” Peri says. Against those who claim refugees are taking jobs from domestic workers, this research shows that the economy does not have to be a zero-sum game and that in the long run.
Second, the populations of many European countries are aging rapidly. Germany’s population, for example, is expected to shrink from 81 million inhabitants currently to around 68 to 73 million in 2060. Since most of the refugees are young, they may provide a boost to the working age population that will help grow Europe’s economies in years to come. Moreover, in a major new report titled Development Goals in an Era of Demographic Change, the World Bank argues that the current mass migration happening throughout the world can be a major driver for the global economy in years to come. In a statement, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said, “With the right set of policies, this era of demographic change can be an engine of economic growth… If countries with aging populations can create a path for refugees and migrants to participate in the economy, everyone benefits…Most of the evidence suggests that migrants will work hard and contribute more in taxes than they consume in social services.” Rather than depending on the welfare state, refugees may end up making important contributions that help to sustain large welfare expenditures as the aging workforce retires.
In the short term, receiving a large number of refugees is undoubtedly challenging for all countries, regardless of the country’s wealth and political stability. Providing for accommodation, education, and jobs can temporarily disrupt the country’s social system. Nevertheless, it is the right and necessary thing to do, and in the long term it will likely bring many benefits to both the refugees and their new countries.
The Syrian refugee crisis is one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, and the developed countries cannot refuse to do anything about it. Whether because of compassion and humanity or because of economic benefits, it is our time to welcome and protect another 7-year-old girl who only wants to feel secure and learn the alphabet.