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Desperate Escape: Why Syrian and Other Refugees Are Rushing to Europe


The aftermath of a barrel bomb dropped by Assad’s government. Syrians are leaving what is left of their country in droves as refugees in neighboring nations abscond for Europe too. FREEDOM HOUSE

As a relentless remake of the Middle East and North Africa has been taking place, mass displacements of populations have also been occurring. And more chaos is ahead, says the United States Defense Intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, in his assessment that Iraq and Syria may have been permanently torn asunder by war and sectarian tensions.

In the past weeks media screens have been filled with images of parents treading water to keep their children’s head above the waves, a toddler’s body washed ashore with his shoes still on, columns of refugees walking across whole countries to get to safety, the return of barbed-wire borders and numbers stamped on people. While this recent surge of people from the Syrian conflict into Europe has been widely reported, the reasons for the influx have not received as much focus. Many refugees, for example, are streaming from older conflicts, such as in Afghanistan, where instability prevails.

Of the 11 million people displaced from the Syrian conflict alone, the United Nations refugee agency counts four million registered refugees, mostly located in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Turkey has the largest number, with more than two million Syrians and Iraqis, having kept an “open door” policy.

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Even Turkey, which has a developed economy, is stretched, having spent more than $6 billion so far, with only $417 million in aid. Mevlut Cavesoglu, the foreign minister, told PassBlue that “this burden must be shared. But not only by Turkey or the neighboring countries but also by other developed countries.”

Turkey provides education in Turkish and Arabic in the refugee camps, among other services. But not all refugees are living in camps or are registered with the UN. “An estimated 400,000 children cannot avail this education as they don’t live in the camps but in other cities. . . . We’re losing a generation here,” Cavesoglu added.

Lebanon, with its small, ethnically divided population and weak economy, is even more overwhelmed. Hala Helou, a senior adviser for the social affairs minister, said in an interview that two million people, almost 30 percent of Lebanon’s population, are refugees; or 25 percent, if one counts only those registered with the UN refugee agency. Of these, 18.4 percent are living in camps.

“We cannot respond to that on our own, or even survive that,” Helou said. A UN multiagency appeal of $2.1 billion for Lebanon is only 60 percent funded, with money coming from the European Union and the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID.

“The government is working on a Lebanon Crisis Response Plan for a more integrated response, shifting from humanitarian short-term to development long-term provision of services, for which we have started to receive some funding from Kuwait.”

Conditions inside Syria for everyday citizens have become far more unbearable, with escalating attacks by the government through barrel bombs and young men being forced into military conscription, causing hordes of people to abscond. The latest report by the UN’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria once again described the bombardments as war crimes, saying the “transgressions are massive in extent and scope.”

Violence inflicted by ISIS and other government opponents is also abetting the surge as Syrians desperate to stay alive are packing up their few belongings, with children and infants in tow, to cross the “blue borders” of the Mediterranean and the Aegean seas, as the International Organization of Migration calls the passage.

Almost 475,000 people have made the sea trek this year so far. In an interview, Ashraf El-Nour, the organization’s representative to the UN, called the Mediterranean “the most active, dangerous, dynamic border, with not just one front [but] at least three fronts.”

Another trigger to the boatloads of Middle Eastern refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece this summer, taking advantage of the warm weather, has been the drastic drop in UN agencies’ provisions of food and medical aid because of cuts in UNHCR funding, the UN has been saying. As António Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, bluntly warned in July, the agency was “financially broke.”

The UN has received just $1.67 billion of the $4.5 billion it needs this year to manage the Syrian refugee crisis. (Guterres recently announced that he was stepping down from his post by the end of the year. The UN has been silent about who is replacing him.)

The World Food Program had to cut rations for 1.6 million Syrians, with refugees in Lebanon allocated just $13.50 a month in July 2015. In Jordan, 229,000 refugees stopped receiving any food aid.

Mirsada Colakovic, until recently the UN ambassador of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was once a refugee. “My mother was a lawyer; when I told her on arrival in Belgium, after a year in Croatia as refugees, ‘Mama, we got the numbers [that recognize we are refugees],’ she cried. ‘Do you know what that means? It means we are homeless, we have to try survive in another way,’ ” Colakovic recalled by phone from Sarajevo.

“As a refugee, you do any job, because you have no working permission. . . . Decades later, when I went to visit camps in Jordan as a deputy ambassador, the people were asking to work. When you are working, you have value as a person.”

When senior politicians from around the world met at the UN for the Inter-Parliamentary Union speakers’ conference earlier in September, the parliamentary declaration boldly highlighted the migration/refugee challenge as the European Union prevaricated on the issue. The organization’s annual General Assembly in Geneva later this year will focus on it as well.

“Migration, whether forced or voluntary, is a fixture of today’s world,” the declaration read. “People can and will move to other places in search of a better life. . . . We call on all States to protect refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants and to help build stable and prosperous societies in their countries of origin.”

Refugee experts have warned against interchanging the use of the terms migrant and refugee. “Forcibly displaced people is being used as broader term for refugees, but it’s a mischaracterization,” said Arianne Rummery, a senior communications officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. “Calling it a migrant crisis downplays obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. We don’t think it’s the right word to characterize movement of Syrians, Iraqis.”

Yet certain situations that fall outside strict definitions need protection too, said Bill Frelick, the director of the Refugee Rights Program at Human Rights Watch, in an e-mail exchange from Skopje, Macedonia.

“Because the Refugee Convention definition also requires alienage to qualify, internally displaced people are not encompassed in that definition, but would nevertheless be forced migrants, and should be recognized for their vulnerability.”

El-Nour of the International Organization of Migration urges longer-term solutions to the problem of categorization and processing, such as a common approach involving destination, transit and source countries. “We welcome the inclusion of well-managed migration policies in the 2030 targets, goals,” he said, referring to the new Sustainable Development Goals.

The UN’s envoy on migration, Peter Sutherland, goes further in a recent media interview, saying: “The desperate plight of many economic migrants escaping from dire poverty should drive us to seek to open up new avenues for legal migration.”

The European Union has a Common European Asylum System, but at its Sept. 14 meeting, its Justice and Home Affairs Council was unable to agree on numbers beyond the 40,000 agreed on under the voluntary distribution scheme. Only Germany has resolved to take substantial numbers, up to 800,000 this year, which its administrative systems are struggling to process.

The Council did agree to increase European funding for the UN refugee agency and the European Union’s regional Madad Fund for Syria and its immediate neighbors.

So where is the UN Security Council amid the rising tide of misery, which by now could be interpreted as meriting the Council’s threshold of being a threat to international peace and security?

Dina Kawar, the ambassador of Jordan to the UN, the only Arab country on the Security Council as an elected member, said in an interview: “We have co-sponsored three resolutions on the humanitarian crisis in Syria; Jordan is also hosting 1.4 million Syrian refugees.” However, Kawar acknowledged that a comprehensive Council plan on how to end the Syrian conflict and how to protect the displaced population has not happened.

With the UN working with its third special envoy for Syria to end a three-pronged war — Assad vs. rebels vs. ISIS — the Council is divided between those who favor Assad’s government as part of a solution and those who are determined that Assad must go. The only common point is that ISIS has mutated into a monster that must be destroyed. President Putin of Russia, who is heading to the UN on Sept. 28, said he had a plan to resolve the Syria catastrophe and will discuss it with President Obama, who is also scheduled to speak at the UN the same day.

But as Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations said recently, a Security Council resolution on protecting and resettling refugees is “highly unlikely” in this situation.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Shazia Z. Rafi was Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action from 1996-2013 and the first woman on the ballot and runner-up finalist for the Inter-Parliamentary Union Secretary-General election. She is the president of a nonprofit group helping national legislatures to improve air quality in Asia:

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, she graduated from Bryn Mawr College and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Rafi is a Women’s Media Center SheSource expert on international security, international law, women’s rights and the environment. She lives in New York City and her website is (

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Desperate Escape: Why Syrian and Other Refugees Are Rushing to Europe
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