The Syrian Refugee Exodus Needs a Civil Society Response

The European Union, with its focus inward on the problems with Greece in the Eurozone, is being overtaken by a much deeper crisis.  A steady influx of Syrian refugees crossing the Mediterranean under hazardous conditions requires all Europe’s states to look beyond the Continent’s shores.  In the “Open Letter: Europeans Unite to Help Refugees,” posted by Social Europe on 6 September 2015, @Social Europe, 2015/09/open-letter-europeans-unite-to-help-refugees/, civil society leaders advocate a practical transportation initiative to allow refugees to enter the European Union legally rather than at the mercy of smugglers.

German citizens, who were concerned by attacks targeting refugee centers, continue to provide assistance to newly arrived refugees. Chancellor Angela Merkel articulated the federal government’s commitment as Germany expects to receive an estimated 800.000 refugees in 2015. As Italy urges more coherent Union policy making, the plight of the Syrian refugees in Europe defies national as well as regional integration solutions. The centrality of the family in these stories, particularly in the most recent tragedy of Aylan Kurdi’s death, illustrates the point clearly: the impact of more refugees across the Continent is a local concern regardless of the geographical entry point.

Today’s reality explains why Europe’s family picture needs a different frame. Laura Boldrini, the Speaker of the Lower House of the Italian Parliament, is cited by Roger Cohen in the New York Times, “When the Mediterranean is a cemetery, we need a Europe 2.0. Nobody can love this Europe today. It is time for a renewed push for a United States of Europe.” On the contrary, the exodus from Syria requires unconventional solutions by leaders who grasp the nature of migration in this century.

Our present reality is that millions more refugees in Europe impact on the lives of citizens within its borders in trans-local ways. A United States of Europe is not the construction to meet the demographic transformation of the Continent or the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Germany’s frame in the postwar era, the country’s way of seeing the world, is still a reflection of cultural, historical, and political experiences with National Socialism. As Anne Richard recalls in her Bosch experience,, Germany has acknowledged, in this new century, that it is an immigrant country.

Citizen acceptance of the German vocation as an Einwanderungsland requires leaders across its political spectrum to explain the ways in which immigrants are needed if a united country is to compete in 2030 as China rises. This awareness of the need for immigrants must be matched by an understanding of how local areas are transformed by the refugee experience given the federal nature of German parliamentary democracy.  As families migrate, different members are often separated. Refugee settlement in local communities is not likely to remain bound by the borders of the German state alone.

The acceptance of refugees in the millions over time must be anchored in trans-local democratic experiences displaying the civil nature of society. National policy-making that panders to Far-Right extremism or intergovernmental stalemates that paralyze European decision-making do not provide answers to human security concerns. Germany leads in that political decisions devolve to local as well as regional leaders. Local authorities are called to address misperceptions that arise as migration to Europe intensifies.

These leaders must respond in their immediate localities to the popular conviction, described recently by Professor Jacques Rupnik in Le Monde: “migration from the south today equals ‘Islamic suburbs’ tomorrow.” What is perceived as the failure of the postwar multicultural project must be contested in terms of democracy rather than rejected on the basis of technocracy. The involvement of the newest refugees in transnational social movements, in the economic, political, and social life of the local areas in which they live, continues to transform the democratic experience in Europe.

The Syrian refugee exodus brings to the foreground tensions inherent in the contradiction between nationalist popular sentiment that rejects postwar integration and multicultural experiences in society that Syrian refugee families are likely to encounter. Chancellor Angela Merkel read the shift in German public opinion as citizens began to organize their own volunteer initiatives to welcome refugees in the short-term to Germany. As other leaders decide how to address a crisis that is no longer simply Europe’s responsibility,, only a response from society that is civil may nurture a trans-local, democratic reflex as the humanitarian crisis expands.

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