Syrian refugees must be part of the solution

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The Syrian conflict has made refugees out of nearly five million people. [Shutterstock]

The horrors of Aleppo continue to shock the world and the war has displaced millions. Syrian activist Mohammed Alsaud calls on the EU to involve the Syrian diaspora and the refugees themselves in efforts to tackle the issues at stake.

Mohammed Alsaud is an award-winning Syrian activist, trainer and social entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and chairman of The Young Republic organisation, which works with the young Syrian diaspora in Europe.

Over the past six years, five million Syrians have been forced to become refugees, and counting.  The number of first time asylum applicants in Europe increased from 563 thousand in 2014 to almost 1.26 million in 2015.

With the continuing brutal onslaught on Aleppo, the Assad regime has made clear it is pursuing a military outcome to the Syrian crisis and targeting civilians. The lack of decisive Western action to protect civilians during the conflict has taken innocent lives and catalysed the largest refugee crisis since World War II.

To solve the Syrian refugee crisis the EU will have to take a leadership role and work effectively with refugee and diaspora communities who can serve as agents of change.

There is no doubt European states should keep putting their efforts into addressing the root causes of the refugee crisis. The Syrian refugee crisis cannot be addressed in isolation; as long as this carnage in Syria is allowed to continue without consequence refugees will continue to arrive on European shores.

Protecting Syrian civilians from airstrikes would save lives and create the necessary conditions to slow down the refugee exodus, and give millions of Syrians hope for a stable Syria to return to.

But now, more than ever, addressing the root causes is not enough. The management of the refugee crisis from the EU has been confused at best. Most EU member states have taken an “every man for himself” approach to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Germany and Sweden have been providing a more coordinated and efficient response, fulfilling their mandate as defined in international law conventions and coordinating work with different actors such as civil society and humanitarian organisations.

Yet we still see harrowing images of families who had escaped war and survived the perils of crossing the sea left stranded on Greek islands, arbitrary detention of minors, and xenophobic rhetoric in the news.

With the EU policy framework and the European Agenda on Migration and the Action Plan on the Integration of third countries nationals, the EU has the means and the tools to address the refugee crisis, but requires the will.

Among the many ways the EU could and should face these challenges, there is one that has been too often overlooked – engaging refugee and diaspora communities as stakeholders.

In the EU-28, more than four in five (83%) of first-time asylum seekers in 2015 were under 35 years old and those aged 18–34 represented slightly more than half (53 %) of the total number of first time applicants.

Nearly 29% (three in 10 applicants) were minors (less than 18 years old). This age distribution was common in almost all the EU member states, with the largest share of applicants usually being those aged 18–34.

Therefore, the inclusion and participation of refugees, especially youth, in the decision making processes related with decisions that affect them is key for the development of long-term, sustainable, efficient and coordinated solutions.

Throughout Europe and neighbouring countries, self-organised refugee groups are sharing the burden of reception and integration, engaging with local communities and working on a range of issues. They are very often involved in resettlement and private sponsorship schemes, in integration programs and even in reception efforts.

They are usually well structured, even if managed on a voluntary basis. For example The Young Republic, a self-organised refugee organisation, supports young Syrian refugees in their democratic participation, civic engagement and social inclusion in their host communities in Sweden.

The EU, together with UNHCR, IOM and INGOs, should provide a space for refugee groups to be heard and participate in every level of the decision making in a continuous effort to find shared solutions.

In light of the recent EU Council meeting on migration, we want to tell EU heads of state and government that refugee groups are sharing the burden of reception and integration, are engaging with local communities, and are working on all issues from education to social inclusion.

We, Syrian refugees and members of the diaspora, want to be part of the solution to the refugee crisis. This includes embracing our responsibility to work alongside our host European communities to protect and instil values – democracy, freedom for all and rule of law – we have sought so desperately back in Syria. Participation is a human right and a pillar to a pluralistic and democratic society.

We are eager and ready to do our part to address this crisis. We have solutions that reflect the concerns and political objectives of those who are affected most. Syrians are best placed to determine policy about Syrians and Syrian refugees.

This crisis is our day-to-day reality and our involvement at every stage of the decision-making process as partners and experts needs to be a priority.

With no immediate end in sight for the Syrian crisis, it is of utmost importance that the member states carefully consider what they can do to protect, educate, and empower refugees, not only from Syria but from around the world, as experts and legitimate counterparts.