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In 2011, the enthusiasm of the Arab Spring led many people in Syria to gather in peaceful demonstrations to protest against the Assad regime. The government immediately responded with public killing and torturing protesters. It was the beginning of a civil war, which led to the present situation: Syria is a country devastated by violence, and its territories are occupied by the Assad regime, the rebel fighters, and the forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. As Vox Reports:
It’s not hard to understand why Syrians are fleeing. Bashar al-Assad’s regime has targeted civilians ruthlessly, including with chemical weapons and barrel bombs; ISIS has subjected Syrians to murder, torture, crucifixion, sexual slavery, and other appalling atrocities; and other groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra have tortured and killed Syrians as well.
An estimated 6,5 million Syrians have been displaced within Syria since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, and, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), over 4 million people have left the country to find shelter in neighbouring nations. More than 1.9 million people escaped to Turkey, 630,000 refugees reside in Jordan, 250,000 in Iraq, 132,000 in Egypt. Lebanon has a population of approximately 4.5 million, and hosts 1.2 million Syrian refugees: that is 232 per 1,000 inhabitants.
More than 1.9 million people escaped to Turkey, 630,000 refugees reside in Jordan, 250,000 in Iraq, 132,000 in Egypt. Lebanon has a population of approximately 4.5 million, and hosts 1.2 million Syrian refugees: that is 232 per 1,000 inhabitants.
The European Union, on the other hand, has 503 million inhabitants – the world’s third largest population after China and India – spread over 4 million km². Yet, less than 370,000 migrants and refugees have reached Europe since the beginning of 2015, and another 2,800 died in the attempt. A debate has even emerged about the words used to describe these individuals: migrants, asylum seekers, refugees?
Article 1 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as:
A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.
A UN document further clarifies that:
The term ‘migrant’… should be understood as covering all cases where the decision to migrate is taken freely by the individual concerned, for reasons of ‘personal convenience’ and without intervention of an external compelling factor.
69% of people who crossed the Mediterranean in 2015 come from just three contries: Syria (49%), Afghanistan (12%) and Eritrea (8%). The list continues with thousands of people coming from Darfur, Iraq, Somalia, and some parts of Nigeria. All these women, men and children run away from wars, dictatorial oppression, religious extremisms, and persecutions: they are definitely not migrants.
Over 300,000 people chose the dangerous sea route across the Mediterranean to reach Europe: around 200,000 landed in Greece and a further 110,000 in Italy. Southern European countries represent the gateway to rest of the EU, and they are facing the biggest pressure. Hungary even built kilometres of fences along the border to prevent further refugees to come in, while Slovakia made discriminations between Muslims and Christians. In fact, many of those individuals who somehow manage to reach Southern Europe then struggle to continue their journey, and get stuck at the borders where neighbouring countries do not let them pass. The EU’s Dublin Regulation, which places responsibility for examining an asylum seeker’s claim with the first EU country reached by the individual, is clearly not working. Different countries have different policies and rates of acceptance of refugees, and many people, including Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, called for a unified European migration policy, with a mandatory redistribution of the refugees among EU member states. Overall, however, it is fair to say that the European Union – the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate – is failing to stand up to its own principles of inclusion and respect for human rights.
Overall, it is fair to say that the European Union – the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate – is failing to stand up to its own principles of inclusion and respect for human rights.
— Andrea Pregel (@A_Pregel) September 5, 2015
Many humanitarian organisations and agencies, including the UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and Save the Children, as well as smaller local non profit organisations, are working on the ground to provide food, water, shelter, medicines, “child friendly” spaces and temporary educational centres, both in the Middle East and in Europe. These organisations are among the loudest advocates for more inclusive acceptance policies, and some of them, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, also pointed out that six Gulf countries – Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, the Arab world’s wealthiest nations – have offered zero resettlement places to Syrian refugees.
While most governments are failing, positive signals are coming from people. Rallies are being organised all around Europe and many individuals are grouping themselves around the motto #refugeeswelcome. From football stadiums, to public squares, to petitions, to almost the entire population of Iceland, people are calling their governments to respond to this tremendous crisis by opening borders as well as safe and legal corridors to refugees.
In 2014, worldwide displacement reached the highest level ever recorded: 59.5 million. 19.5 million were refugees (up from 16.7 million in 2013); 38.2 million were IDPs, people displaced within their home countries (up from 33.3 million in 2013); and 1.8 million people were asylum seekers (up from 1.2 million in 2013). 86% of refugees came from regions and countries considered economically less developed, and over half the world’s refugees are children. As UNHCR notes:
Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.
The conflict in Syria has been causing death, destruction and displacement for over four years, but it took a dramatic picture of a child, Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on a beach, face down, lifeless, to shake the conscience of many, including the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron. Yet, many people are still firmly against welcoming policies, and even ready to attack refugee shelters.
Lately, I often heard a sad and scary litany of complaints. You can hear it on television, at the bar, in the street, while queuing at the supermarket, and it takes the “Yes, but…” form. “Yes, they are desperate, but we’ve problems, too”. “Yes, they lost everything, but there is an economic crisis here”. “Yes, they have nowhere to go, but there are people who lost their houses in our country, too”. The list goes on.
To all these people, my message is fairly simple: 40 years from now your grandchildren will study in their history class the refugee tragedy occurred in the mid-10s, the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. They will learn that the European Union, the largest economy in the world with a GDP of €14.303 trillion (that is: €14,303,000,000,000), “couldn’t do anything to save them”. They will read that Member States built walls and fences, blocked frontiers, let entire families drown and asphyxiate. That day, I hope I’ll be there to look into your eyes when you’ll tell your grandchildren: “I didn’t know”.
40 years from now, I hope I’ll be there to look into your eyes when you’ll tell your grandchildren: “I didn’t know”.
[Head photo © TumblingRun]
Andrea Pregel is an inclusion professional with experience in disability, development, education, gender and health across Europe and Asia. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Social Research from the University of Turin (Italy), and an Erasmus Mundus MA/Mgr in Special and Inclusive Education from the University of Roehampton in London (UK), the University of Oslo (Norway) and Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic). He is Co-founder and President of the Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI), and works as Programme Advisor for Social Inclusion and Disability at Sightsavers International.