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Family and friends say goodbye as Syrian refugee voluntarily board buses returning to neighbouring Syria in the Esenyurt district of Istanbul Image Credit: AFP

It’s a crying shame that ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ have almost become dirty words from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Desperate families fleeing conflicts, violence or abject poverty have been dehumanised, turned into scapegoats and in some cases locked-up, treated worse than cattle.

The answer to stemming the tide is obvious but rarely comes under discussion in a world of ‘me-me’ states and muscle-flexing leaderships whose sole concern is benefit when they should be coming together to problem-solve. Rather than assist countries in turmoil to attain peace and economic growth, the powerful imposes sanctions or drops bombs, as Israel and Turkey are doing in Syria struggling to get back on its feet.

However one views the Bashar Al Assad regime, it’s the only game in town for the time being. Therefore, it is in the interests of not only Syrians yearning to return but also those countries where they have sought refuge to allow them to do just that, particularly when almost everywhere their presence has become a source of public resentment.

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Compassion for Syrian refugees is running out in many of their host countries where they were offered sanctuary. Turkey where 3.6 million Syrians were once welcomed as ‘guests’ is a case in point. A faltering economy and rising unemployment has created a hostile climate among sectors of the population angered by low-paid Syrians taking their jobs. Syrian-owned shops and other properties have been trashed by thugs in western Istanbul and in the south-eastern city of Sanliurfa.

The once trending hashtag “Syrians get out” and others in a similar vein is a reflection of a heightened public temperature. Istanbul’s new mayor is encouraging Syrians to return home citing security concerns. The authorities are responding with deportation orders. Some 1,000 men holding papers guaranteeing protection were recently dumped across the border against their will.

Lebanon burdened by at least 1,400,000 registered and unregistered Syrian refugees despite grave economic woes is also sending the message ‘no room at the inn’. Earlier this year, the country’s Supreme Defence Council announced summary deportations for Syrians arriving without documentation.

Anti-Syrian rhetoric on the part of Lebanese politicians bordering on hate speech is growing. The Free Patriotic Movement has campaigned to close businesses that employ non-Lebanese nationals including the distribution of flyers that read: “Protect Lebanese works and file a complaint about violators. Syria is safe for return and Lebanon can no longer take it.”

It’s worth mentioning that the mood in Egypt where there are no camps housing Syrians free to work and open businesses is very different. Syrians have assimilated into the society and are generally well-liked. Syrian restaurants, retail outlets, real estate developments and small manufacturing enterprises have mushroomed; Syrians have invested up to $23 billion dollars in their temporary homeland. 

When a well known Egyptian lawyer filed a complaint asking for their financial sources to be investigated there was a public outcry that lit up social media in their defence. Television presenters, parliamentarians and celebrities expressed brotherly love for the Syrian community in Egypt. The UNHCR has expressed its gratitude to the Egyptian government and people for the hospitality shown towards the refugee population. It is a pity that the kind of welcome Syrians in Egypt receive allowing them to prosper and contribute is rare elsewhere and virtually absent in many of the world’s developed nations.

The massive influx of refugees into Europe is altering the political landscape. In countries such as Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy refugees and asylum seekers are being blamed for the rise of far right parties and their racist ideologies that threaten the cohesion of the European Union.

Who could have imagined some years ago, that an Italian government would callously permit migrant men, women and children to drown in the Mediterranean rather than open its doors? Worse a new law that went into effect earlier this month threatens vessels carrying migrants with arrests, fines and confiscation. The law’s architect Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, a populist whose eye is firmly fixed on the top job, has told migrants in country to pack their bags.

That said I fully understand the concerns of those who feel swamped by foreigners draining their country’s resources and those who believe their national identity is at risk. But at a time when the post-Second World War world order premised on international cooperation is collapsing there is little appetite to give Syria — or for that matter Venezuela, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador and failed Sub-Saharan states — a helping hand. The overriding policy seems to be kick them when they are down and then complain when the hungry and the afraid have the affront to knock on the door asking ‘Please, can I come in’?

— Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.