Türkİye, Life, Middle East

Syria hosted European refugees during World War II

Civilians from Eastern Europe and Balkans sought refuge in Middle East to escape Nazi and Soviet occupation

Fahri Aksut, Sena Guler, Selen Temizer  | 05.03.2020 - Update : 05.03.2020
Syria hosted European refugees during World War II


It is long forgotten that some Middle East nations, including now war-torn Syria, hosted European refugees during World War II.  

Civilians from Eastern Europe and the Balkans migrated to the Middle East, crossing the Mediterranean Sea and Turkey to escape the Nazi and Soviet occupation during the harshest period of the war.

The Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration (MERRA), established by the British in 1942, placed around 40,000 Europeans in camps set up in Syria, Egypt and Palestine.

The Europeans stayed in the camps until the war was over and then returned to their countries or went to a third country.

The Washington Post narrated the forgotten story in a report published in 2016.

The report shared information on the situation in the camps using notes from a study conducted by global non-profit media company Public Radio International (PRI) in April 2016.

According to PRI, once the newly arrived refugees underwent medical inspections, they were sent to separate living quarters for families, unaccompanied children, single men and single women and were assigned to a section of the camp.

In 1944, civilians coming from Greek islands to the Aleppo camp could go out to socialize and shop after their security was ensured.

Iran also hosted tens of thousands of Poles who escaped Nazi slaughter and Soviet camps, with the number varying from 114,000 to 300,000 between 1939 and 1941.

Also, on Jan. 11, 1942, an Arabic newspaper named Huna al-Quds (Here is Jerusalem) published a front-page photograph of Syrian women distributing clothes to Greek children.

“Meals and clothes distributed to refugees coming from Greece to Syria,” the caption read.

 'World met with concept of refugee due to Europeans'

Despite these historical facts, Europeans have recently not shown empathy towards Syrian refugees.

Professor Yusuf Adiguzel, an expert sociologist on refugee and migration issues, attempted to explain why Europeans are insensitive, biased or aggressive.

Adiguzel said people live as if they would never have a bad experience or need any help.

"By nature, humankind is insensitive to sorrowful incidents which it does not experience. Therefore, people quickly forget or remain insensitive to their history, their past and their ancestors' sorrowful experiences," he said.

As an example, he said Europeans took shelter in Middle Eastern countries including Syria to save their lives during WWII.

"In this way, the world met with the concept of the refugee. In other words, the definition of ‘refugee’ started with Europeans.”

International efforts for European refugees

Stressing international efforts for Europeans, Adiguzel said that during and after World War II, many international legal arrangements were established to provide security and rights for Europeans who escaped from their countries.

"The most important of those arrangements is the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was approved at the United Nations in 1951 and is still in force. This convention, which initially provided legal assurance only to European refugees, started to be implemented for everyone after 1967," he said.

Double standards

Highlighting the double standards, he criticized the attitude of European countries toward Syrian refugees.

"As it is seen, Europeans, who became refugees in the past and were provided with international legal arrangements to protect their rights, are currently doing everything in order to refuse miserable and needy refugees," he said.

Adiguzel said although Muslim states, particularly Turkey, are hosting 90% of the refugees who escape from Syria to save their lives, European countries are struggling in order not to accept even 10% of Syrian refugees.

Underlining the variable power balance, he said people should not forget that they live in a global world.

"Presently, the problems are global, not local or regional. The same problems can occur everywhere again. People should not decide based on current conditions.”

Danger of populism

Adiguzel cited populist politicians and the media in Europe as the main reasons Europeans are insensitive, biased or aggressive towards refugees.

"Populist politicians and the media are the main factors that make Europeans and European states so emotionless or biased toward the Syrian crisis," he said.

Adiguzel said populist politics in Europe are behind an increase in racism and hostility and this situation causes humanitarian crises.

"Also, the language and attitude of Western media toward immigrants and refugees is another main problem that increases prejudices and hostility in Europe," he said.

He said Europeans succumb to populist politics because by nature, people generally prefer to blame someone else rather than themselves.

"European politicians blame irregular migrants and refugees for every economic and social problem in their country. Thus, Europeans blame refugees and immigrants rather than blame their governments' wrong policies.”

He added that as long as politicians and the media maintain their attitudes, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee movements will continue to grow and strengthen in Europe.

Syria has only just begun to emerge from a devastating conflict that began in 2011 when the Bashar al-Assad regime cracked down on demonstrators with unexpected severity. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict and millions more displaced, according to the UN.

Turkey hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians, more than any other country in the world, while many European countries refuse to open their doors to displaced civilians.

However, Turkey announced last week that it would no longer stop asylum seekers from reaching Europe.

It made the decision after 34 of its soldiers were martyred last month by Assad regime forces in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province.

The Turkish soldiers were working to protect local civilians under a 2018 deal with Russia under which acts of aggression are prohibited in the region.

Since then, thousands of asylum seekers have flocked to Edirne, a province in northwestern Turkey along the border with Greece and Bulgaria, in an attempt to get to Europe.

However, Greek police have attacked vulnerable Syrians with tear gas canisters, sound bombs and plastic and live bullets.

Due to the use of excessive force by Greek police, three Syrians were killed and many others injured.

Instead of condemning the attacks, the European Union announced that it will provide economic and military support to Greece.

Turkey, which already hosts over 3.5 million Syrian migrants, says it cannot absorb another refugee wave.

Ankara has repeatedly complained that Europe has failed to keep its promises under a 2016 EU-Turkey refugee deal to help migrants and stem further migrant waves.

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