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Changing expectations as real push factor for migration to Europe

Frank van Kesteren | 23 November 2015

The year 2015 marked the greatest influx of Syrians to Europe ever recorded. There is little doubt about the danger of the conflict in Syria as the main driver for emigration, but the motives to migrate to Europe can be debated. With the civil war in Syria lasting for five years already, the main question is not why Syrians have decided to seek refuge, but why they have decided to move to Europe now. The opportunities for a better life in Europe must be recognized as a pull factor, but one push factor should not be overlooked – the changing aspirations and expectations of a return to Syria.

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The previous years have seen mass fleeing of Syrians to particularly three of Syria’s neighbouring countries of Turkey (1.7 million people), Lebanon (1.5 million) and Jordan (600,000 refugees). It isn’t until only recently that larger numbers of Syrians have decided to further their journey to Europe. The increased use of the Eastern Mediterranean migration route is almost exclusively due to migrating Syrian refugees. According to UNHCR, approximately 425,000 Syrians have crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 alone. Despite new and increased border controls along this route, Syrians often make the journey anyway and sometimes through remarkable detours. The main question is why now?

Limited capacities of Syria’s neighbours

In fact, refugees’ decisions are usually driven by the push factor of insecurity and the pull factor of cultural linkages through transnational social networks and proximity to neighbouring (safe) countries. These two pull factors explain why initially the far majority of Syrian refugees moved to neighbouring countries. However, these pull factors are buried once the socio-economic opportunities in these culturally related areas are increasingly perceived as low.

In cooperation with the UNHCR, governments in these countries have developed relatively favourable protective spaces for refugees in terms of security, although many refugees depend on shelter offered by local populations outside the UNHCR refugee camps.

However, the lack of socio-economic opportunities in Syria’s neighbouring countries is the major reason for a continued journey to Europe. As outlined by Katie Kuschminder, very few Syrians in Turkey have the opportunity to develop a future for their families. The situation in Lebanon is even worse. This fragile nation is barely able to provide refugees with basic services through public institutions, partly because of the lack of a strong democratic state investing in infrastructure and social services. As a result, employment and access to healthcare are shrinking for both refugees and the local population. Most of them are residing in informal settlements and living almost entirely off of depleting savings.

In the meantime, particularly through Russia’s participation in the armed conflict, Syria is an even more dangerous country to reside in than before. Since Russia’s first airstrikes on 30 September 2015, an additional 245,000 Syrian refugees have been registered.  The combination of these two factors – unfavourable socioeconomic conditions in neighbouring countries plus the ongoing increased violence in Syria – help to provide an explanation for the mass crossing of European borders. 

Aspirations of refugees in Lebanon

Still, the question remains why Syrians decide to move to Europe now. A 2013 survey from the Beirut Research and Innovation Center (BRIC) on Syrian livelihoods and households in Lebanon provides an answer to this question. Most of the households interviewed were eager to immediately return to Syria when total peace would be achieved across the country. When asked about their future country of residence, 58% wanted to return to Syria, 22% preferred to stay in Lebanon and 20% wanted to move to a third country.

This supports the idea that the decision to migrate to Europe does not have to be rooted in a desire to live in Europe. When asked about future expectations, 52% of the respondents believed they would return to Syria, half of which said they would in less than a year. Merely 11% believed they would stay in Lebanon for more than five years. Thus, initially, many refugees residing in a neighbouring country would return to Syria when safe and able.

Changing expectations

Although some Syrians have indeed returned to their country of origin since 2013, this is the result of limited assistance in Lebanon and Jordan rather than future aspirations. The increase in the journeys to Europe is driven by changing expectations of refugees regarding a safe and prosperous future in Syria. Although they are foremost explained by the gravity and duration of the Syrian conflict, they are the direct result of changing expectations. The Syrian civil war has already lasted for five years and refugees are now increasingly realizing that the nation will remain at the very least ‘unstable’ for a while.

Similarly, there is an increasing realization that a future in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan is impossible. A 2015 survey of the Institut des Sciences Politiques confirmed that perceptions of Syrian refugees have negatively changed over their period of stay in Lebanon. When the survey respondents were asked to compare their current situation to the situation upon arrival, 45% stated that their situation has deteriorated and only 18% found an improved situation. These changed perceptions of a future in the Levant region, combined with the shared, romanticized idea of life in Europe, probably have led many to decide to move to Europe.

Call for an international outlook

Several European politicians have focused on discouraging immigration at the national level by limiting social services for asylum seekers. Sweden Democrats have even gone so far as to hand out leaflets in Southern Europe to point out that Sweden’s ‘wealth is gone’ and that there is no future for refugees there. These types of actions can only be characterized as highly naive as long as the real push factor for many refugees is not eliminated: a lack of opportunities in their home region. As future expectations are so important in a refugee’s decision to relocate, the prospects of a better future in Europe remain. The only effective options for European decision makers are to find solutions for the Syrian conflict and, at a minimum, to make substantial investments to provide long lasting opportunities in Syria’s neighbouring countries. 

Photo credit main picture: World Bank Photo Collection (via Flickr)