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Column: What the refugees really seek in Europe

Migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq wait to board buses to other German cities outside a refugee accomodation facility in Munich on September 7.

Migrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq wait to board buses to other German cities outside a refugee accomodation facility in Munich on September 7.

(Philipp Guelland / Getty Images)

Most of the Syrians we see on the nightly news and on newspaper front pages are not fleeing war-torn Syria. They are fleeing places such as Turkey, Jordan, Hungary and Serbia, where they had found refuge and were safe.

This distinction is often lost in the coverage of the European “refugee crisis” that is in many respects a migrant crisis. According to the law, never mind morality, we treat refugees differently. Refugees flee for their lives. Migrants make choices.

Many of these Syrians fleeing for safety found safety — in Turkey. What they didn’t find was a pleasant place to live or to raise kids, at least not for the middle-class Syrians finally abandoning Bashar Assad’s crumbling regime. So they voted with their feet to live in — ideally — Germany or Sweden, where the standard of living is much higher and the people much more accommodating.

And I can’t blame them. It is only rational to want a better life for you and your family. So, in one of the great ironies of history, Semitic refugees are screaming “Germany! Germany!” as they demand to board trains heading in what would once be considered the wrong direction.

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I’m deeply sympathetic to their plight. The Goldbergs fled the Russian pogroms. My wife’s father was a refugee from the communists. My late brother’s wife fled Haiti. My friend, the scholar Peter Schramm, who recently passed away, was a refugee from Hungary.

And yet, where does it end? There are 1.9 million Syrians in Turkey, 620,000 in Jordan and 1.1 million in Lebanon. Germany says it will take 800,000 asylum-seekers this year and might take up to 500,000 annually. But that barely scratches the surface.

Everyone agrees that Germany is being generous. The question remains whether it’s being foolhardy. Certainly Germany’s neighbors think it is making a mistake potentially at their expense, because once you have citizenship in one European Union nation, you can move to any other.

“There is no place in the world you can enter without permission and decide to live in — except Germany in the past few weeks,” broadcaster Deutsche Welle’s Christoph Hasselbach writes. And this fact is serving as a magnet for migrants and refugees alike.

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Inspired by the images of welcome parties at German train stations, Iraqis are now packing their bags too. “This is a golden opportunity,” Osama Ahmed, 27, told the Wall Street Journal as he lined up Sunday at Baghdad International Airport with five friends. “It’s totally nonsense to stay in Iraq when there is a chance to go.”

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has displaced an estimated 2.1 million people. Many undoubtedly have seen the media coverage.

The line of people wanting to move to Europe and America doesn’t end there, because it doesn’t end at all. Demand outstrips supply by orders of magnitude.

Given this fact, I only have so much tolerance for all the moral grandstanding. The phrase “heartless” gets thrown around a lot at times like this. But it is not heartless to note that taking in huge waves of migrants from the Middle East has come with problems, particularly for Europeans. Even President Obama has acknowledged that Muslims have had a hard time assimilating in Europe.

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There is no shortage of evidence that Arab and North African migration comes with challenges. That includes rioting in French banlieues, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the fact that many of the 9/11 hijackers lived in Germany, and that nearly half of all violent crimes there are committed by foreign-born youths.

Also, as we’ve seen time and again, even when mass migration is relatively painless, telling citizens that it is illegitimate and bigoted to want less of it inevitably leads to a backlash.

When demand outstrips supply — and turning to market mechanisms isn’t an option — all that is left is rationing. That means choosing who gets to come and who doesn’t. And that requires making people wait their turn and not crash the gates. When doctors resort to triage in crowded emergency rooms, it can seem heartless to those demanding immediate relief. But it’s actually the most humane thing to do.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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