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19 March 2021

Ten years into the conflict: Syrian integration in Europe

More than half of the Syrian population has been displaced since the initial peaceful uprising in the country ten years ago, in March 2011. Approximately 6.7 million people are internally displaced, with many residing in camps, while 5.6 million have fled abroad and are registered as refugees.

According to UNHCR data, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey current host the majority (93%) of these people. The remaining thousands have fled mainly to Europe, particularly to Germany and Sweden. A report by the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion found that Syria has been the country of origin of the largest number of asylum seekers in the European Union every year since 2013. Efforts to support the integration of these Syrians into their new European societies have been inconsistent, though, and refugee policies are increasingly being restricted.

Where are the Syrians that have been displaced?

Source: Eurostat / UNHCR, via BBC.

Integration support

Many pan-European institutions, European Member States and local / national organisations have launched initiatives to support various aspects of the integration process for newly-arrived migrants, including Syrians. Portugal, Croatia and Estonia are funding an array of free language courses for non-native speakers of the national language, for example, while local councils are funding initiatives for and facilitating access to housing in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. In the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and several other countries, the state funds language teaching for people granted refugee status. Comprehensive language tuition facilitates social integration and cohesion, as well as labour market access, which in turn strengthens the economy of the host country.

Unfortunately much of the support offered at all levels is fleeting (often due to restricted funding or a loss of momentum at the coordination level), and while there are many who do succeed, people with refugee or asylum-seeker status can struggle with longer-term integration if they are offered little support early on. This is particularly the case in Germany and Sweden, which are both hosting large numbers of Syrians and seeing growth in far-right nationalism. As a result of this growth, measures that facilitate integration are being increasingly restricted in both countries.

Sustained language support for migrants is often expensive or inaccessible; the process of qualification recognition or conversion is lengthy and arduous, particularly for Syrian qualifications; healthcare access is usually complicated and bureaucratic. In many countries the waiting period for asylum seekers applying for refugee status (which will facilitate access to more comprehensive support) can be long and difficult (for some Syrians in Germany, as long as eighteen months). Oftentimes a refugee arriving as a minor is forced out of their supported accommodation as soon as they turn 18, and given no follow-up support. On top of this the psychological health support available to those who have fled their homes is generally limited, particularly if an individual is seeking support in their native language (Syrians might wish to attend sessions in Arabic or Kurdish, for example). 

Residence and employment

The responses of Syrians surveyed by Syrian organisation The Day After (TDA) in Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden demonstrate that developing a social network in their host society correlates positively with a person's ability to integrate. Where and with whom a person lives, and their corresponding access to opportunities for creating greater social relations and finding employment, contributes practically to the enhancement of integration.

By 2016, 70% of Syrians who had received a Swedish residency permit in 2010 were employed, and the results are expected to be similar for those who arrived in 2015. Those who have arrived more recently, though, are struggling with limited access to work and residence permits, and are therefore unlikely to see similar success. The head of Sweden’s Syrian Association, Teodora Abda, said in 2020 that the integration of Syrians in Sweden is failing due to a lack of housing and their limited social contact with Swedes as a result. A shortage of housing and lack of accommodation support in Germany's major cities is impeding integration, too, and forcing some Syrians to turn to the risky and expensive black market. 

Unlike in 2010, asylum seekers in Sweden are now only being granted a succession of temporary residence permits, rather than anything more long-term or permanent. This is due to the introduction in 2016 of a ‘temporary’ law that makes residency and family reunification permits much more difficult to obtain, and promotes instead the granting of three-year residence permits. Since the introduction of this law there has been a drop in the number of Syrian arrivals and asylum requests, and Syrians in the country are struggling to fully integrate due to uncertainty around their longer-term status.

The internal flight alternative

Ten years on the conflict continues, and more than 80% of Syria's population is now estimated to live under the poverty line. Despite this, some countries are taking a recent drop in the number of new Syrian arrivals and the relatively stable situation in Syrian capital Damascus as an indication of improved living conditions in the country. This is leading to worrying changes to asylum and integration policy across Europe.

In 2013, the Swedish Migration Agency announced that all Syrian asylum seekers would be granted automatic residency. In 2019 it ended this policy, arguing that the security situation in some parts of Syria has improved and that Damascus can be used as an internal flight alternative - meaning that an individual could be safe in Damascus, even if the area from which they have fled remains unsafe (read more on internal flight alternatives here). Now asylum can only be given in Sweden based on individual assessments, meaning that many Syrians have to wait much longer for their refugee status to be decided.

It is also the opinion of Danish authorities that internal flight alternatives can now be used in Syria. As a result, Denmark has been cancelling temporary residence permits: since the beginning of March 2021, 1 250 Syrians living in Denmark have been sent to deportation camps while their status is reassessed. So far, 94 people have been stripped of residency. While they are officially told that their return to Syria is ‘voluntary’, it is feared that many will feel forced to leave. According to rights groups, many individuals who have returned to Syria from elsewhere have been subject to arrest, interrogation and torture at the hands of the Assad regime.


Following discussions on deportation similar to those in Denmark, and under pressure from its far-right AFD party, on 31 December 2020 Germany ended its ban on deportations to Syria (originally imposed in 2012).

According to media reports, nine of Germany’s sixteen states have announced they are in favour of deporting Syrian nationals deemed a threat to German security. Individual cases are being reassessed as a result, and the deportation to Syria of Syrian nationals deemed dangerous or criminal can now effectively go ahead. Rights groups in Germany have been very critical of this development, arguing that detention, forced disappearance and torture remain ‘pervasive’ in Syria.

As of yet there have been no reported deportations to Syria from European countries (Mediendienst Integration research says that Turkey and Lebanon are the only countries systematically doing so at present), but these new developments mean that many Syrians in Europe are now unsure of their status; living with the constant worry that their residency or protection might be revoked or that they will be deported. In addition, it is likely that these changes in policy will serve to worsen anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiment and add fuel to the fire of rising far-right nationalism across Europe. All of this places further obstacles in the way of integration for Syrians in Europe.


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Olivia Long
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