Syrian refugees languishing in squalid, overcrowded camps in Turkey and Jordan are being told by European countries that they are simply too conservative to be given a new home.
In late August, the Volkskrant newspaper reported that the Netherlands has been denying entry to one in five Syrian asylum-seekers because they don’t conform to Dutch values, such as the belief in equality between men and women. “If you say there is no way my children are going into a mixed school class… then your file is marked and you don’t get in,” Paul van Musscher, the head of the police department that monitors migration and foreign nationals, told Volkskrant.
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The Netherlands’ refusal of Syrians on the basis of cultural difference marks a tragic failure in its commitment to international refugee laws. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees mandates ratifying nations to take responsibility for the most vulnerable in the world, and does not exempt countries that want to cherry pick their refugees based on cultures.
But the Netherlands is part of the wider trend in European countries establishing draconian “assimilation” tests or bulldozing ethnic enclaves in the name of integration.
France, rather than taking in asylum-seekers, has opted to flatten street-side refugee camps around Paris to make way for pedestrians. Denmark is moving to raze what it officially defines as “ghettos,” which are mostly migrant communities.
Countries that agree to integrate refugees from other cultures also subsequently agree to relinquish total control over culture and their identities. This fact cannot be ignored by instituting government assimilation programs that isolate migrant communities further, reminding them that they are the “Other,” even in their new home.
The hard truth is that many asylum-seekers from the Middle East and Africa have values that don’t line up European countries’ own and will change the face of the country slightly, a fact ignored by many center-left parties and overly emphasized by nativist movements that are on the rise in Europe.
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For example, a 2013 Pew Research poll asking Muslims around the world about their cultural values showed that an overwhelming majority think drinking alcohol is immoral, as are abortion rights, extramarital sex, homosexuality and gender-mixing. These cultural beliefs cannot be taught away in a government-led “assimilation” class, like the ones Norway mandates for many of its Syrian refugees. They are not reasons to send vulnerable people back into war zones or doom them to shortened lives in refugee camps.
SYRIANS WHO attend such classes often say they do not facilitate cultural understanding but are based on nativist stereotypes of Middle Eastern culture and serve to lecture them about how barbaric they are.
Moreover, by codifying cultural litmus tests on refugees, governments are establishing a sanitized version of their own culture that would disqualify many of its own native citizens, especially those in the far Right who do not believe in a woman’s right to abortion or in the humanity of non-whites.
Integration is a two-way street.
Rather than hosting lectures demanding Syrians disavow their culture and viewpoints, or outright denying them because they are too conservative, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, France and other countries ought to emphasize co-communal discussions and pathways to economic integration. Refugees may feel more inclined to accept European values if they feel like they have more stake inside European societies.
If their viewpoints are policed to the extent that they still feel like an outsider even in their new home, they will likely continue to feel alienated and seek out others who are like-minded, forming ethnic enclaves in the process. These communities are not causes of cultural difference, but symptoms of it. Demolishing them thus exacerbates rather than dissolves those tensions.
It is also tangibly dangerous, since these decisions to accept or refuse refugees based on abstract cultural ideals has the potential to save lives or throw them away.
Lebanon is already beginning to coerce many of its Syrian refugees back into the country. Turkey, which is currently facing a massive inflation crisis, may begin doing the same after the country begins to stabilize. If these Syrians, who have been waiting to be let into Europe, are ultimately denied for being too conservative, they will be shipped back into the hands of a dangerous, autocratic regime.
Many will be vacuumed up by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s security apparatus and be interrogated or tortured, as he has done to tens of thousands of Syrian dissidents.
European nations, in their attempt to spare themselves from cultural tension, are deciding that these Middle Eastern lives are simply too conservative to save.
Erasing these cultural differences, either by ignoring them and hoping for the best, or making them obstacles to being accepted as a refugee, betrays Europe’s legal obligations under international law, and will undoubtedly further its descent into illiberal ethno-nationalism.
The writer is a researcher and journalist based in Amman, Jordan, where he covers geopolitical and humanitarian issues in the Middle East.
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