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Refugees – this is just the beginning

How often do we want to let ourselves be surprised? How often do we want to say we didn’t know how many refugees were coming? Europe finally woke up in April when a boat with 800 people aboard capsized in the Mediterranean. But no one expected the hundreds of thousands who stand before the gates today. Because everyone refused to believe it. It was clear food and hope were dwindling in the Lebanese and Turkish refugee camps. And today? How many more will come to us? 

Hardly an hour from Beirut, in the Beqaa Valley, are where the first refugee camps can be found. Syrians who fled the civil war in their home country live in improvised tent cities around Deir el Ahmar, Zahlé and the Akkar district. There are satellite dishes between the tents, and many people there have access to the Internet. All of them see the images of the major refugee route in the direction of Europe. They also see the emotional scenes from Munich’s main train station, the applauding volunteers, the arriving passengers who are handed fruit, the children who are given teddy bears.  

According to the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), about 1 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon. Almost 2 million have reached safety in Turkey, about 600,000 in Jordan and 250,000 in Iraq. In all, more than 4 million people have fled from Syria to neighboring countries. And many of them are wondering how long they should stay there. "Actually," said a Syrian in Beirut, "anyone who still is here is nuts."  

The photo taken on a Turkish beach of drowning victim Aydan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy, deterred some Syrians in Lebanon from making their way to Europe, especially those with small children. But many others are ready to go or are already underway. The current price demanded by human smugglers for the illegal passage is $2,000. The journey via regular ship is from the northern Lebanese port city of Tripoli to Turkey. The ships have been booked days and weeks in advance. 

Wealthier Syrians, including many supporters of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, flee legally through Beirut to Turkey and make their way from there. Several newspapers have reported that escorts on these routes have to hold their passengers back from stealing the life vests. 

Non-governmental organizations increasingly are lamenting the exodus of their best employees in Syria: Doctors, psychologists and teachers are going to Europe because they can no longer keep themselves afloat financially. Or because they have no more strength and hope. It’s a vicious circle. If they leave, the treatment of people in Syria continues to worsen, which in turn strengthens the exodus. 

The Danish government has placed ads in Arabic in Lebanese newspapers; the ads aim to discourage emigration to Europe. 

But it’s actually the images from Europe that accelerate the departures. The primary reasons are the increasingly worse situation in Syria and the heightened pressure on the refugees in neighboring countries. The Lebanese government is no longer extending the residency status of refugees, the army has cleaned out several camps in recent weeks – presumably because they expect spillover of the fighting near the Syrian border. In addition, U.N. organizations increasingly have less money to take care of Syrians in refugee camps. The monthly food voucher from the World Food Program was $30 per month per person last year, but now it’s $13.50. All of that pushes more and more people toward Europe. 

When you speak with government representatives in Berlin these days, they say in confidence that the divvying up of the asylum-seekers among the E.U. nations isn’t the biggest problem. Much more important, they say, is discouraging the people remaining in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey from making their way to Europe. If those refugees were to come, it would overshadow everything we’ve experienced so far. 

How many refugees will still come? No one wants to commit themselves to an answer. "With numbers, even with approximate estimations, one only gets burned," said Stefan Telöken, spokesman for UNHCR Germany. But officials at the refugee agency are talking about a "turning point." 

It’s very possible that the hundreds of thousands now will quickly become millions, and that these summer weeks weren’t an exception but rather a beginning.