By Jun Woo Kang, News Writer
Before anything, I would like begin with an old saying often attributed to the great expert of human evil, Joseph Stalin. “When one man dies, that’s a tragedy, when a thousand men die, that’s a statistic.” Large numbers can often feel cold and distant, and even kind of comforting because they do not feel like “people.” I think that is one of the reasons why much of the world was able to ignore the years-old Syrian Refugee Crisis until recently.
While thousands of refugees died last year trying to get to Europe, one three-year-old boy’s body washed ashore in Turkey. His name was Alan Kurdi, and he drowned with his five-year-old brother and his mom trying to get to Greece. His father, Abdullah, survived and had returned to Syria to bury his wife and children — in fact, when offered the opportunity to resettle in another country, Abdullah said, “Now I don’t want anything. What was precious is gone.” To speak about the refugee crisis, we need statistics, but let us not forget what is precious.
For the past four and a half years, there has been a horrific Civil War in Syria, which began with the hope of 2011 Arab Spring Protests. Several dictatorships were toppled during the Arab Spring — although some have since ended up with new dictators. However in Syria, the long-ruling dictator, Bashar Al-assad refused to relinquish his power, and instead had battled the rebellion with astonishing violence, including torturing children, and gassing his own people with chemical weapons.
So back in 2011, according to BBC, Syria had a population of 22.4 million people, and here’s what it looks like today — more than 215,000 people have been killed; about 10.6 million Syrians, less than half of the whole population still live in their homes; more than 7.6 million have been forced to flee within Syria either to refugee camps or to areas that are for the moment safer; and another four million Syrians left the country entirely. Out of those people, about 1.6 million currently live in Turkey, there is about a million each in Lebanon and Jordan, and there are a few thousands more in Iraq and Egypt. 95% of the Syrian refugees live in those countries, and they have been stretched incredibly thin by this refugee crisis. Jordan’s population is now 25% refugees — you probably have seen those huge, sprawling camps in Jordan and Lebanon for them. And everything is completely underfunded, as the UN’s refugee agency does not have nearly the amount of money to deal with this number of refugees.
And in Turkey, most refugees live in a kind of legal limbo outside of the camps, because Turkey does not expel them, but they also are not allowed to work. Even though many of the Syrians have good educations and labor skills, they cannot make a living. In search of jobs, they have turned to Europe. They have paid thousands of Euros to smugglers to get to Turkey, Germany, Southern Italy, Malta, etcetera. By the way, those smugglers are the only ones who benefit from Europe’s inconsistent, inhumane and disorganized response to this major crisis.
To quote the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), “None of the efforts for the refugees will be effective without opening up more opportunities to come legally to Europe and find safety upon arrival.”
This brings us to a very important distinction — between the words migrant and refugee. The crisis is often referred as a migrant crisis, but it certainly isn’t, because migrants choose to leave their homes for things like better education, or employment opportunities. However, refugees, to again quote the UNHCR, “are people fleeing armed conflicts or persecutions. These are people for whom the denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.” It is an unchangeable fact that the refugees have certain rights under the international law. These include the right to not get returned to the country of origin if their safety cannot be guaranteed, and the rights for life, security, religious expression, primary education, free access to courts and so on. If a migrant arrives illegally to the areas which belong to the European Union, they can be turned around. However, if a refugee arrives — and most of the people arriving to Europe these days are refugees — they have a certain right under the international law which the whole world has agreed to for at least five decades. Sure, the European Union does not have any duties to the refugees, until the refugees arrive to Europe. Once a refugee is in your country, you have certain responsibilities to them and frankly, that is why this boat smuggling has continued. European governments want to make it difficult for refugees to get to Europe — they benefit when the trip is dangerous. If it remained safe and easy, there would be far more refugees coming to Europe. To again quote the UNHCR, “Thousands of refugee parents are risking the lives of their children on unsafe smuggling boats primarily because they have no other choice.”
Moreover, the xenophobic responses to the refugee crisis seen from some European governments are just shameful. Like when Hungary’s Prime Minister, Orban Viktor, says to keep Muslims out of Europe to “keep Europe Christian”, he is not only denying the multi-religious and multicultural history of Europe, he is denying the international law that clearly states how countries have an obligation to protect the refugees inside their territories regardless of the refugees’ religious beliefs.
When discussing refugees, I often hear, “well that’s not ‘our’ problem”, or “we need to take care of ‘our people’, but we are one species, sharing one profoundly interconnected world. Humans, all humans are ‘our people’. I believe when oppressed and marginalized die because they are oppressed and marginalized, the powerful are at fault. The three-year-old Alan Kurdi would be alive today if his family had been welcomed by the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil, or South Korea, and the list goes on and on and on. And I think the reason why the world reacted so viscerally to the image of that dead boy on the beach is we instinctively knew that his blood was on all of our hands. We have legal obligations to the refugees under the international law, but we also have ethical obligations, because they are our people.
Recently, the Europeans in train stations and football games have been promising that refugees are welcome.
It is a moving sight, and an encouraging one, and I hope the European governments will respond in kind. But the hardest work is not in making the promise, it is in keeping it. And this is going to be a long-term, expensive, and complex challenge for the world. And as the UNHCR says, this massive movement of people will not stop until the root causes of their plight are addressed. The solution, the only solution, is clearly addressed by a 13-year-old Syrian refugee, “Just stop the war, we don’t want to go to Europe, just make Syria safe. We don’t want to go anywhere.”
Until then, until the war ends, we have a legal and moral obligation to provide safe harbors to the leaving refugees. And we must provide financial support to less-developed countries from Jordan to Pakistan to Iraq which are holding 90 percent of the refugee burden.
Join the UNHCR refugee support program to reach out for more of our people.