It’s time for Bosnia and Albania to step forward and host Syrian refugees

Syrian refugee children play in the Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq.
Syrian refugee children play in the Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq.
Image: Reuters/ Muhammad Hamed
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What if I told you there was a country that might be able to absorb significant numbers of Syrian refugees? A country that checks all the right boxes: mostly Muslim, a shared history with Syria, European Union candidacy, and a very recent experience of war that might make many of her residents sympathetic to Syria’s plight?

Now what if I told you there were two such countries?

By offering to host Syrian refugees—with the right mix of assistance in return—Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania could help solve a problem currently bedeviling the West, undermining European integration and fueling right-wing xenophobia. By offering their assistance, Bosnia and Albania won’t just help thousands of innocents fleeing war, or do Brussels a solid.

They’ll be strengthening their own case for European Union membership.

Reuniting the family tree

Bosnia is a candidate to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), very likely soon to be an official EU candidate, a founding member of the Council of Europe, and enjoys a relatively high ranking on the human development index. Many Bosnians, who only just put a horrific civil war behind them, should logically be sympathetic to what Syrians, many of them fellow Sunni Muslims, are going through right now. After all, for nearly four hundred years, Bosnia and Syria were both part of the Ottoman Caliphate.

Syrian refugees would have safety and security in a place that could be more understanding of their culture, far less threatened by their religion and identity, and still capable of extending them the security and belonging inside Europe many yearn for. The great impediment would seem to be the legacy of the 1990s war, which has created a frustratingly complicated political situation. During the 1990s, radical Serbs wished to create an eastern Bosnia to satisfy their irredentist claims, and used ethnic cleansing to reach their goal. To end the war, the Bosnian Serbs were rewarded by freezing ceasefire lines and recognizing many of the gains they’d made in war.

Which might explain why Bosnia hasn’t volunteered itself.

Though a plurality of Bosnians are Muslim, her territory is divided between a Muslim Bosniak-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb republic. The country’s government is additionally headed by a three-person Presidency, each representing one of the country’s three “constituent nations,” Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim. Demographics is a very sensitive question, and the suggestion of moving in significant numbers of Muslims might be seen as a threat.

But perhaps the country’s already divided governmental structure, which apportions power to ethnic and religious communities, would make the idea of accepting Syrian refugees far less challenging than it is in other European countries fearful of newcomers and unfamiliar faiths.

If Bosnia doesn’t work out, why not Albania? Unlike Bosnia, Albania has an outright majority Muslim population. Albania isn’t saddled with Bosnia’s riven government, nor its demographic considerations, which might mean Albania could absorb greater numbers of refugees. The country is already a NATO member, and unlike Bosnia, an official European Union candidate as of 2014. Like Bosnia, Albania shares a very long history inside the Ottoman Empire. Like Bosnia, Albania is a country with high human development indicators, but a weak economy.

Of course, neither Albania nor Bosnia has offered to accept Syrian refugees, nor do Syrian refugees think of Albania or Bosnia as destinations. The principal reason is, I think, economic. Neither Bosnia or Albania has the economic capacity to integrate large numbers of refugees—they’re struggling with their own emigrating refugees, in fact. Fortunately for Albania and Bosnia, by offering to host Syrian refugees, they would do Europe, and the wider West, a very solid favor. One Brussels has already proven willing to pay handsomely for.

Turkey’s big payday

The EU has agreed to pay Turkey great sums of money to keep Syrian refugees from leaving that country. Yes, Turkey has taken in huge numbers of refugees, and should be commended for that. But this deal verges on extortion. And it might not even work as intended. For one thing, Turkey is using Europe’s neediness to quash any criticism of its increasing authoritarianism. For another, is the international community sure Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can be trusted?

Given that Erdoğan prosecutes those who call him a dictator—there is no easier and simpler definition of a dictator—how do we know the billions of dollars the EU is providing will actually go to help Syrian refugees, or to line president Erdoğan’s capacious pockets? Worse, Ankara can potentially close and open its borders at will, leveraging Syrian refugees against Europe in the same way Russia has often done with energy supplies.

In contrast, Bosnia and Albania would have every reason to work with Brussels. They want into the EU and, unlike Turkey, are much likelier to get in. It’s not hard to imagine the Bosnian or Albanian governments welcoming such significant contributions from Brussels, or the potential jobs and infrastructure investment that would come with. The lack of such resources, however, is probably the principal reason why they have yet to volunteer.

It is in Europe’s common interest to see that they do, and can.

For the deal with Turkey doesn’t answer the question of how to get European countries to agree to share in the resettlement of Syrian refugees. That very question is already inflaming old European divides, and jeopardizing the project of European integration at a critical time. Far-right parties are capitalizing on anti-Muslim sentiment to catapult themselves into power, where they hope to finish off the EU.

Islamophobic responses to Syrian refugees have also fueled anti-Muslim bigotry here in the United States. We’re at a point now where the threat of Syrian refugees has propelled a neo-Nazi party into Slovakian parliament for the first time. Why does this matter? Because Slovakia has itself accepted no refugees, and has hardly any Muslims to speak of. The mere threat of Muslim refugees, in other words, has become so alarming that otherwise repugnant parties are rushing into the mainstream. This bodes well for no one, let alone the Syrians already in Europe.

Before he began his slide into authoritarian aggression, Turkey’s president offered Europe the option of accepting a large, Muslim-majority nation as a bridge to the countries to Europe’s south and west. But Europe already has Muslim-majority countries, which have embraced democracy, practice secular politics, and have historic ties to the Muslim world that look very relevant right now. Forget thinking outside the box. Why not think inside the continent?