Posted on October 7, 2015

As Syria’s Youth Fuel Exodus, Europe Worries How to Integrate Them

Ben Hubbard, New York Times, October 7, 2015

When the conflict in Syria began more than four years ago, Mustafa Alabi was a 17-year-old soccer whiz who had quit high school to sew clothes in his father’s workshop.

But the war soon consumed his life. The shop burned, and rebels occupied his home in Aleppo. Sheltering with relatives, Mr. Alabi rarely went outside, fearing the army would draft him and send him to the front line.

Then, like many before him, Mr. Alabi fled to Europe, where he landed last month: 22 years old, with a backpack, a ninth-grade education and little idea what to do next.

“I have no specific hopes,” he said hesitantly, after struggling to buy bread here because he speaks only Arabic. “But God willing, after I register, if there is a way to play soccer. . . .” He added, “Maybe I can sew?”

Of the more than half a million migrants and refugees who have arrived in Europe this year, many are young men like Mr. Alabi. While some are educated or bring skills, many have lost critical formative years to violent conflicts that have interrupted educations and aborted careers. Some have borne arms, languished in prison or lived under radical Islamic groups like the Taliban or the Islamic State, experiences that have left them with physical and emotional scars.


There are also great risks for Europe, which has long struggled to assimilate immigrants and could face the creation of a new underclass that taxes the public purse. Many also worry that pockets of radicalization could grow if the aspirations of the new arrivals end in isolation and poverty.


The largest single group appears to be young men, open to adventure but woefully ill informed about what they are getting into. Among the dozens of them interviewed recently in Turkey and Greece, only a few spoke any languages other than their native tongue, and most knew little about the countries they hoped to make their new homes. Some were surprised to learn that beer and pork are prominent in German cuisine.


The countries of Europe face a difficult task in integrating the migrants into their work force so they can contribute economically instead of adding to the social burden.

Many of the new arrivals lack transferable skills and speak no European languages. Even professionals like doctors and engineers are unlikely to have their foreign credentials recognized.


Many worry that migrant populations that fail to integrate could become fertile ground for unrest or radicalization, especially if they find themselves under attack by right-wing elements.

And a terrorist attack linked to even a tiny group of migrants could change the situation for all. At present, there is little to stop jihadists from the Islamic State or other radical groups from covertly slipping in with other migrants.