We are experiencing one of the most significant global refugee crises in nearly 70 years, and arguably the worst humanitarian emergency since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. The epicenter of this current crisis is the civil war in Syria, which began five years ago.
For further thought:
- What were some of the largest migrations of people in the 20th century?
- How many refugees did World War II create, both during the conflict and after the conflict ended?
- What countries were involved in the resettlement of refugees after World War II?
- What are the various internal factions involved in Syria’s civil war?
- What are the majority and minority Islamic sects in Syria?
- What has been the human rights record and government policy of the regime of Bashar al-Assad?
In March 2011, anti-government demonstrations took place in Syria as part of the Arab Spring. In response to these peaceful demonstrations, the government began a violent crackdown on dissent. This quickly turned into a full-blown civil conflagration in which rebel forces began fighting the long-standing regime of Bashar al-Assad. By July 2011, defectors from the military had formed the Free Syrian Army, and civilians began joining the armed opposition movement. Soon divisions between secular and Islamist fighters, as well as divisions among various ethnic groups, tore at the fabric of a unified rebel movement. The power vacuum helped foster new armed groups such as ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, the affiliate of al-Qaida in Syria. ISIS fighters, who now number in the tens of thousands, have grabbed large swathes of territory and launched a systematic campaign of violence and terror.
Throughout Syria, human rights violations are rampant, and entire cities have been destroyed. Caught in the middle of this complex conflict are civilians: families, women and children. Medical care and food are scarce or nonexistent. Violence is a daily reality as armed forces battle for territorial control and aerial bombing campaigns rain explosives from the skies. The United Nations (U.N.) and human rights groups have documented the widespread use of torture by both government and opposition forces. Children have also been targeted for appearing to be anti- or pro-government.
There have been atrocities on all sides. The pro-government forces have been accused of using chemical weapons, including chlorine-filled barrel bombs and Sarin nerve gas, against opposition forces. ISIS, for its part, has been accused of using mustard gas, another type of chemical weapon. Armies on all sides of the conflict have used “weapons that are guaranteed to cause civilian damage,” said Geoffrey Mock, a Middle East specialist at Amnesty International, according to the New York Times.
Adding to the chaos, Russia began a massive aerial bombardment campaign at the end of September 2015, ostensibly targeting ISIS and other groups it has deemed to be “terrorists,” but actually largely targeting opposition groups to help prop up the regime of its ally, Bashar al-Assad.
Civilians are always the main victims of wars. The most vulnerable are always at risk in countries where the infrastructure is fragile and internecine conflict is common. In Syria especially, airstrikes, terrorism and shifting allegiances have made it increasingly challenging for people to avoid the violence and survive. “With each passing day there are fewer safe places in Syria,” Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, chairman of the U.N. panel investigating human rights abuses in Syria, wrote in a recent report. “Everyday decisions – whether to visit a neighbor, to go out to buy bread – have become, potentially, decisions about life and death,” he was quoted as telling the New York Times.
Overall, more than 470,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed, including tens of thousands of children, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. Between half a million and 1 million people, according to Siege Watch, are living under siege surrounded by enemy troops who have cut off the most basic food and medical supplies, putting them at risk of starvation or dying from common illnesses. About half of Syria’s estimated prewar population of 23 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the aid group Mercy Corps. At the beginning of 2016, the U.N. estimated that nearly $8 billion was needed to address the humanitarian needs of Syrian citizens – food, clean water and medical aid. These are simply the basic and most urgent necessities. This aid does not address the ongoing and long-term effects of this overwhelming war and its ever-increasing levels of civilian-directed violence.
For further thought:
- What countries are involved in providing humanitarian aid to Syria?
- What countries are providing military aid? Are these the same nations?
- What countries border Syria and how has the civil war affected them?
- How are refugee camps set up and structured?
- How are families relocated to these refugee camps?
- What role does the U.N. play?
- What is the U.N.’s refugee mandate?
For millions of Syrians, their only choice has been to flee. The number of people escaping conflict around the world has been increasing steadily due to protracted conflicts, climate change, failing economies and statelessness. But the crisis in Syria has created the largest refugee population in the world after the Palestinians.
An estimated 6.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced, meaning they have fled their homes and are living in other parts of the country, with many now experiencing desperate poverty and squalor. Another 4 million Syrians have fled the country altogether to escape the violence, and 90 percent of these have become refugees in neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, countries with limited resources that continue to take in refugees despite insufficient international aid. Notably, Syrian refugees are considered asylum-seeking refugees as opposed to economic migrants, meaning the people caught within these countries are seen as refugees who are being forced to flee rather than migrants choosing to leave to seek a better life outside their home country.
With increasing numbers of refugees and limited international funding, the Syrian refugee camps have become overcrowded and unsanitary. There is an ongoing lack of clean water, and diseases such as cholera can spread easily, compounded by the absence of medical services. In some camps, water levels are as low as about 60 pints (30 liters) per person per day – about one-tenth of what an American uses on a daily basis. According to U.N. estimates, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. Many have not been to school in months or even years. Although some schools in certain regions have attempted to create schooling shifts to accommodate these new students, in most places, there is not enough room for these children. Additionally, most families – with the adult providers unable to find work – cannot afford basic transportation or supplies.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have attempted the highly dangerous trip from Turkey across the Mediterranean Sea to Greece and Italy. These victims of war are often at the mercy of human traffickers and smuggling rings. Daily, they are risking their lives and the lives of their families to find a better future somewhere in stable and peaceful Europe. Not everyone makes it alive. Thousands have drowned, many of them children. Over the past year, images of drowned children shocked the world. But this is the daily danger facing a desperate people. The risk is extraordinarily high, but people feel they have no choice. In 2015 alone, nearly 4,000 people died while attempting to cross into Europe by sea. These communities are choosing between deadly violence at home and possible death at sea. At least in risking the dangerous journey, there might be a chance of making it to the other side.
Homeless, without belongings or assistance, traumatized by war and vicious violence, these people are among the most vulnerable and scarred in the world. They have witnessed terrible atrocities in their home countries and have fled rape, murder, torture and bombings. Their lives and their communities have been completely destroyed and uprooted. Families who have lived in the same towns for generations now find themselves far from home and without help. And the world has been slow to respond.
For further thought:
- Since 1970, what other refugee crises have occurred?
- What caused these migrations of peoples?
- How did the world respond to these crises?
- What role do NGOs (non-government organizations) play in providing direct help to the refugees?
In Europe itself, resources are strained by the unceasing influx of asylum seekers. In many countries, there is resistance to helping refugees. These refugees are seeking asylum – a safe haven in another country. Asylum seekers are described as political refugees – civilians fleeing war and violence. In many countries, only asylum seekers granted refugee status are allowed to work in that country.
Europe, of course, has its own history related to refugees. After World War II, the international community created the UNHCR to cope with the millions of displaced people. Because of this, there are Europeans who feel that Europe has a special obligation to take in and aid people fleeing persecution and violence. However, there is also tremendous nationalistic resistance to accepting and integrating any refugees from the Middle East. Select groups and politicians have seized on the issue as one of internal security and have fanned the fires of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism, warning that “terrorists” and “extremists” will be hard to track due to the large numbers of arrivals. Fearmongering and isolationism (the policy of keeping a country separate from others) have hindered effective action – and even discourse – on a humane response to the crisis.
For further thought:
- How has anti-Islam and anti-Arab rhetoric influenced public opinion on the refugees?
- Is there enough media coverage of the crisis?
- How should countries integrate the arriving refugees?
- How should Europe manage its response to the crisis?
- Should the United States be taking in more refugees?
- What obligations does the United States as a world leader have to help settle refugees and respond to this kind of global crisis?
The numbers reaching Europe are large, but Syria’s immediate neighbors have taken in an overwhelming majority of Syrian refugees. Yet slow resettlement has given rise to tensions and panic in many European nations. Some feel that they are being asked to bear a burden that is disproportionate to their nation’s size and resources. Greece received most of the refugees. Given its grave economic woes, this small country of 11 million is in need of support, funding and resources. So far, Germany has received the highest number of asylum seekers, followed by Hungary. Sweden, however, has received the highest number in proportion to its population, with more than 1,575 refugees per 100,000 of Sweden’s local population. The E.U. has been considering and voting on various resettlement plans, but tensions have continued to rise between E.U. citizens and the newly arrived asylum-seeking refugees.
As of September 2015, E.U. ministers voted to relocate 120,000 refugees throughout the E.U., but the plan currently applies only to the 66,000 who are in Italy and Greece. The other 54,000 initially were to be moved from Hungary but now these people are in limbo until the E.U. decides where they should be resettled. Germany remains the preferred destination for many of these refugees. Frontex, the E.U.’s external border force – which monitors the routes the refugees take into Europe, as well as the number arriving – estimates that more than 1.5 million refugees will cross into Europe in 2016.
For further thought:
- What nations belong to the E.U. and vote on policy decisions?
- What divisions – economic and nationalistic – within the E.U. have complicated its response to the refugee crisis?
- Which countries have led the global response?
- What nations belong to NATO? How does NATO operate and what is its mandate?
In February 2016, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced that it would send ships to patrol the Aegean Sea as part of a plan to disrupt the human trafficking and smuggling rings that exploit desperate refugees seeking to leave Turkey and Greece and enter Europe. NATO has defined its mission as one that must help those at risk making this crossing. Germany, Greece and Turkey together requested NATO’s intervention and aid. To date, there are 3 million refugees in Turkey; more than 1 million arrived in Germany in 2015, while Greece is receiving almost 2,000 refugees a day. The E.U. has made obligations to both Turkey and Greece. It has, for example, promised Turkey that it will pay it $3.34 billion in aid, designed to help prevent refugees leaving Turkey for Europe. Last year, it promised Greece and Italy that it would take in and resettle 160,000 asylum seekers already in those countries. But only 497 people have been relocated and settled outside of Greece and Italy as part of this pledge.
With peace a far distant hope, and Middle East talks stalling, the tide of refugees is unlikely to diminish.