Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Syrian war and Jamaica

Published:Sunday | September 13, 2015 | 9:00 AM

The Syrian-Lebanese population in Jamaica began their association in the early 19th century. If one wonders, the referencing of both the citizens of Syria and Lebanon together is done because of their historical linkages. Further, many in Jamaica are unlikely to make a differentiation between both.

Syria is a country of 22.5 million people crammed into small 71,500 square miles. They sit on territory that is wedged in the volatile region of the Middle East and with a history dating back hundreds of years. Damascus, the former capital of Syria, has biblical references. As with most countries in this region, the BBC notes their composition of religions and ethnicity. These are further divided into numerous subsets, for example, the Alawites, Druze et al, Christians and Muslims. Further subsets include Shi'a and Sunni.

The current civil war began in 2011. A group of teenagers painted democratic slogans on a school wall. The security forces, under the command of Bashar al-Assad, retaliated by gunning down several persons, killing many. The situation has deteriorated to the point where some four million have fled the country and some 12.2 million are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Four of every five persons are living in extreme poverty. The BBC has reported that the conditions are stark. The United Nations has commissioned a commission of enquiry. Refugees from Syria are flocking to Europe.

 

THE ASSADS

 

Who is the leader of what passes for Syria at this time? Bashar al-Assad is the son of a former dictator, Hafez al-Assad, who took power in Syria in 1911 with the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood and colleagues from the military. The Assads are Alawite Muslims of the Shi'a sect. The majority of the Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Religious intolerance is interwoven in this tragedy. Some 200,000 persons have been killed and more are dying daily. Islamic State (IS) now has great influence in the north and east of Syria.

Where does Jamaica fit into this sordid affair? Or do we fit in it at all? As it stands, there is no body of public information that says our Refugee Committee has to deal with any application. However, since the arrivals of Syrians in Jamaica, they have increased their influence. Numerically, they are small, but economically, they have influence beyond their numbers. They have rightly blended into this country's national fabric. They are part of the many creating the one.

It is, therefore, prudent for us to spend some time and effort to look down the road. It is very conceivable that family ties will lead to present-day displaced Syrians seeking refuge in Jamaica. Some of the present Syrians have family ties deeply embedded and maintained in Syria.

The matter should be carefully considered. Do we have the mechanics to differentiate between Christians and the Islamists? Could we, a country of only 2.7 million people, accept a great influx where tourism strongly caters to Americans and Canadians? The conflicts are real.

The countries of the Middle East Gulf states have taken a hard line against the refugees. Rumours, unsubstantiated, but widely accepted in the Gulf States suggest that over the last three years, there have been terrorists cells originating in Syria. The Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are not welcoming to displaced Syrians. (Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East studies in Qatar, September 7, 2015.)

 

SOCIO-POLITICAL IMPACT

 

One must also account for the socio-political impact in this country should there be an influx of Syrian refugees without clearly identified policy objectives. The average Jamaican is having a difficult economic existence. Do not allow the contrast to be made regarding newly arrived immigrants well endowed while they scrape to survive.

The news reports originating in Hungary and Greece provide an insight as to the type of reception that could arise. The news reports of the welcoming embrace displayed in Germany provide the counterbalance. As a responsible member of the international community, we need to debate the issue, formulate a policy grounded in numerical lists, strong pre-screening, family ties, ease of religious assimilation, skill sets and resources that may be available for their integration. Then and only then do we move to the welcome ceremony.

The necessity for us as a country to do the preparatory work should be obvious. We are a warm, welcoming and caring people. Let us plan this with the intent to achieve the best results possible. There are currently more than four million Syrian refugees wandering throughout the world. Here is the opportunity for Jamaica to again lead the world and build Brand Jamaica.

Let me deal with the contrasting Haitian influx. They are economic migrants without any obvious reception committee. Refugees and migrants are not synonymous.

- Ronald Mason is an attorney-at-law and Supreme Court mediator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and nationsagenda@gmail.com.