Why Is This British Newspaper Villainizing Syrian Refugees?

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Nov. 15 2013 5:23 PM

Why Should We Be Outraged at Rich Syrian Refugees?

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Photo by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images

In war, as in most aspects of life, inequality is a cruel but inescapable fact. Wealther individuals and families have access to means that the poorest do not. This is regrettable, but we generally don’t assign blame to those who use whatever economic means are at their disposal to protect themselves or their families.

So I was a bit taken aback by today’s Telegraph article, headlined “Rich refugees pay thousands to flee war-torn Syria in luxury.” Here’s the gist of the shocking exposé:

Amid the jewellery stores and art galleries of a bijou district of Beirut, the travel agent’s office was bustling with customers. Elegantly dressed women wearing Gucci glasses and with manicured nails flicked through glossy brochures advertising Mediterranean cruises and package holidays as they waited their turn.
At his desk the agent worked through customers’ requests: passports could be bought with a bribe; so could many European visas. The journeys could be long, but the travel was safe and tailored for the client’s “maximum comfort”, he assured them.
As thousands of Syrian refugees risk their lives, flinging themselves on overcrowded rubber dinghies, or hiding in livestock transporters to reach Europe, Syria’s rich are smuggled to the continent on planes and luxury cruise liners.
An undercover investigation by The Daily Telegraph has exposed an elite smuggling network which extends from Lebanon and Turkey to top European destinations, including Paris, Stockholm and London. It may cost tens of thousands of pounds, but for those who can afford it, illegal immigration is relatively easy – and it is an option that several thousand Syrians, fleeing the country’s civil war, are already taking.
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There’s some good reporting in the story, but I’m not really sure what it is I’m supposed to be outraged about. Is fleeing a warzone only a morally acceptable activity if you’re crammed into an overcrowded rubber dinghy?  

Given the gruesome recent death toll of people attempting to reach Europe by this method, I’m not sure why we should be contemptuous that people who are able to, choose to get on a flight to Istanbul or—as one young Syrian army soldier referred to in the article did—hop on a cruise ship. I don’t think he was just in it for the buffet dinners. The article even seems to sniff at the fact that the clients of the smuggler in question are not “hiding in the back of trucks or vans.”

Yes, it’s true that many of the Syrians in question are traveling on fake passports and yes, this is illegal. It’s also true that people who have provided similar documents to refugees in previous wars have human rights awards named after them today.

It’s one thing to point out that the vast majority of Syria’s massive refugee population doesn’t have access to the escape routes of the kind of people discussed in this article, but I’m not going to get too worked up about Gucci-wearing refugees flooding into European capitals. 

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