It’s two in the morning, the night is dead quiet. You are safely tucked in your bed, content with the knowledge that your family members are all sleeping soundly and safe inside your stable home. Suddenly, desperate knocks on your front door pierce your peaceful night in rapid succession. The thunderous knocks continue until you groggily approach your door and ask “Who is it?” You’re wondering why in the world anyone in their right mind would be out at this hour. On the other side, you hear your neighbor, whom you are friendly with explain in breathless, desperate whisper shouts that there are intruders in his home and his family needs to find safety in your house. The intruders are violent and wish your neighbor harm; your neighbor and his family barely escaped their own home alive and are now on your doorstep, begging to be let into the safety of your home. Their lives are at stake. So, what do you do? Do you let them sit on you doorstep, do you kick them off your doorstep, or do you open your door and let them into the safety of your home?
The obvious answer may be to let your neighbor in; however, circumstances are never this simple, and this is not the current case for many countries worldwide. There is a crisis; someone’s home has been invaded, resulting in them fleeing their home and seeking safety with their neighbors. However, instead of open doors, these people have often encountered hostility and rejection, leaving them on the doorstep of the people they begged for safety. These people are displaced Syrians. According to European Commission on Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, there are currently 7.6 million internationally displaced Syrians who are seeking refuge in Europe and the Middle East. Some countries, such as Lebanon and Turkey, have opened their doors and offered shelter to these refugees. However, there remains a great number of displaced refugees who are still seeking safety. Instances such as Aylan Kurdi’s death and a truck full of suffocated immigrants in Austria demonstrate the magnitude of this crisis.
So what caused an international crisis of this enormity? According to BBC News, the crisis started in March 2011 when peaceful pro-democracy protests peppered the streets of the Syrian city of Deraa. These protests were spurred by the arrest and subsequent torture of teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on their school wall. After security forces opened fired on the crowd, the protests grew in size, and a nationwide demand arose for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. These protests only continued to increase in magnitude when the government turned to violent methods as a means to quell the protests. By July of 2011, the number of protesters grew to the hundred of thousands. The protestors initially only resorted to violence for protection but soon used it to drive out security forces from their localities. Syria’s current civil war evolved from these protests.
The violence in Syria has caused a multitude of deaths, both civilian and combatant. The fighting between the rebels and government forces has left a UN-estimated death toll of 250,000 as of August of 2015. These deaths are not just combating soldiers; citizens such as nonviolent children and women are among the casualties. Since as early as March of 2011, both sides have been accused of committing war crimes such as murder, torture, rape, and governmental enforced ‘disappearances.’ Civilian suffering through deprivation of food, water or supplies is used as a war weapon. Government barrel bombs dropped on rebel population areas, targeting gatherings of civilians, have an estimated death toll of 6,000 civilians. Syria is currently not a safe place for anyone.
Further contributing to the chaos that presently resides in Syria is the multidimensionality of the war. Originally a conflict between rebel forces and government forces, several other groups have since joined the struggle. The violence has evolved a sectarian aspect between the Sunni majority and the President’s Shia Alawites. Other groups, such as neighboring countries and world powers, such as Russia, have joined the fighting as well. Jihadist groups such as ISIS have taken advantage of the chaos caused by civil war to promote their cause and obtain new recruits. All of these conflicting parties result in more chaos and violence, prompting Syrian civilians to flee their country in order to save their lives.
As a result of the chaos within their country, more than 7.6 million Syrians have left Syria, assumed the identity of a refugee, and sought shelter in other countries. This is where the crisis has developed: many European and Middle Eastern countries are either unwilling or unable to host these refugees and often will not accept these refugees into their country.
Some countries, such as Lebanon, have opened their doors to the influx of refugees. In a recent forum at Collegiate School’s International Emerging Leaders Conference in October, students from several countries, including Lebanon, France, Italy, Morocco and the United States, convened to discuss the Syrian refugee situation, their thoughts, and possible solutions. The students from Lebanon described the sense of their country being overwhelmed by a flood of refugees. Lebanon, a relatively small country with a population of 4.5 million, is currently inundated by nearly 2 million Syrian refugees. The students in the forum described the how the presence of Syrian refugees has not only a political, social, and physical but also an emotional effect on Lebanese citizens.
In Lebanon, the sheer size of the number of refugee coming in has resulted in the the government giving up on trying to register the incoming refugees. Once in Lebanon, many refugees reside in refugee camps set up by the Lebanese government. These camps, as described by a Lebanese student in the IELC forum, are inadequate living quarters with “Whole families in one room, one shared bathroom per family, streets full of trash, network of wires for electricity.” According to a recent Guardian article, the deplorable conditions faced by Syrian refugees in neighboring countries such as Lebanon have caused many refugees to now turn to the prospect of returning to Syria, the place they originally fled. In these camps, despite the Lebanese government’s efforts, the majority of Lebanese children are uneducated. Efforts to give these children an education are met with language barriers, overcrowding and lack of transportation to schools. Two-thirds of Syrian children in Lebanon are growing up uneducated. This is a crisis within itself, because this lack of education will have a lifelong effect on these children. They will spend several years of their childhood displaced and uneducated, which does not bode for a positive future. With an uneducated generation as its future, the Syrian economy will suffer as well.
Lebanon, with its corrupt government, is ill-equipped to handle to the number of refugees that it is currently hosting; however, the students from Lebanon say that they do not mind the stress the newcomers have put on their country because they understand that the refugees do not have a choice. In a recent Huffington Post article, Lebanese Education Minister Elias Bou Saab said, “You all know the impact of the crisis in Europe… 120,000 refugees in the whole of Europe shook the world. A million and a half refugees for 4 million people in Lebanon – what do you think this has caused for us?” Lebanon lacks the infrastructure and means that European countries possess; however, it currently hosts a much larger number of refugees. Students of the IELC forum stated how it is not just up to Lebanon to help the refugees. It is a worldwide responsibility that Europe is not exempt from. European countries have taken in a fraction of the refugees Lebanon has, and several countries are unwilling to take in more. Syrians who live in underfunded camps in neighboring countries often look to Europe for a more attractive future. Strict policies within these countries result in many refugees resorting to illegal and often dangerous means in which to enter these countries.
The current situation in one French town, located just 21 miles across the English Channel from the British Cliffs of Dover, depicts the predicament that refugees face if they flee to Europe. The English Channel town of Calais is inundated with refugees who reside in makeshift camps in an area called “The Jungle”. These refugees are desperate to get out of the Jungle; they are living in inhumane conditions. The Jungle is a no man’s land in a flood-risk area that is thick with putrid fumes of burning trash and human waste. The shelters that refugees currently call their homes are leaky plastic tents that offer little protection from the elements. Frequent inter-ethnic rivalries and blackmarket disputes in the Jungle often result in violence.
The Jungle is a purgatory for the refugees, as they are determined to reach Britain to start new lives. However, this is no easy feat and is often dangerous. For refugees trying to get into Britain, there is a 19% mortality rate. Causes of death include electrocution (from electrified train tracks), falling from trains or trucks, and drowning. One in five people lose their lives in an attempt to make a new one. These lives are lost as refugees make the illegal attempt to enter the UK, their most attractive option for a future.
These situations depict the two options Syrians face when fleeing their country: either go to a neighboring country that is unstable and offers little future, like Lebanon, or make the perilous journey to European countries and attempt to start a life there.
This crisis illuminates several fundamental problems within the infrastructure of our society: the negative influence of society’s perception of refugees, and the media’s influence on how people help.
For the Lebanese students who visited Collegiate, the most disturbing aspect of the situation is not the deplorable conditions that the refugees live in or the political division on how to deal with the crisis, but the derogatory views of the refugees. Lebanese students commented on how “Everyone [all Syrians in Lebanon] is labeled ‘refugee’ and lower than [citizens of Lebanon].” The refugees are stripped of their human identities as soon as they are displaced and are forced to assume the faceless identification as a refugee. In reality, as one Lebanese student said, “What we don’t realize is that these people were just like us before this crisis happened to them, we should empathize with refugees, they are just as human as us. They have gone through the unimaginable.”
It is often forgotten that before the crisis, these refugees were leading similar lives to our own; many were college educated with graduate degrees. The title of refugee does not discriminate based on education, profession, or class. One such example of this is the story was told by Lebanese IELC participant Adam S. about a Syrian taxi cab driver he met in Lebanon. While traveling in his cab, Adam learned through his conversation that his driver held a master’s degree in electrical engineering, yet he was working as a taxi driver due to his current situation. Other stories similar to this are being revealed as a result of the Syrian conflict. People like Adnan, who was in the process of earning his master’s degree in computing when the Syrian violence caused him to flee a country and live in a refugee camp. This is an unfortunate side effect of the displacement of millions of people; there is a loss of social identity among the individuals of the group. Educated members of society become assimilated into a mass identity, forced upon them by the worldwide community.
Viewing refugees in a derogatory light will not help resolve the current crisis. As Lebanese students said, refugees are often regarded as second class citizens. This negative perception of refugees paves the way for unjust treatment. One striking example of this is is the footage of the Hungarian camera woman kicking and pushing fleeing refugees.
The first solution to this crisis is empathy. If this crisis is to be resolved, people must empathize with the refugees and realize that they are human too. Another important aspect of empathy is a lack of xenophobia. Many people in European and Western countries such as the United States have a fear that by accepting the refugees, they will be susceptible to terrorists coming. Another fear of these countries is that the immigrants will overwhelm the lives of the denizens. One French student in the IELC forum at Collegiate stated that many French citizens are apprehensive about accepting a large number of refugees because they believe immigrants will steal the jobs of the citizens. If xenophobia is not addressed, countries will be incapable of aiding these refugees and the crisis will be perpetuated. However, if countries are capable of empathizing with the refugees, they will be much more adept at resolving this crisis.
The Paris attacks of November 2015 further complicated debates over how to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis as public opinion turned away from an open arms policy. Rumors such as one of the terrorists entering France posing as a refugee circulated and fed to this political turmoil.
Remediating media perception of the crisis is another fundamental step in finding a solution to this crisis. As a teenage high-school American citizen who likes to consider herself current with global news, I discovered how disturbingly little I knew about this calamity that has been inflicted on millions of world citizens.
Media is a powerful force; it can control which information reaches the general public and wields a large amount of power. In order to remediate the crisis, people must be informed about it. In a recent poll (seen right) conducted at Collegiate School, the majority of responses indicated that given the scope of the crisis on an international level, they believed American media was underrepresenting the crisis and should have greater coverage. A lack of coverage leads to a lack of understanding, which leads to a lack of action. Increased media coverage would be a positive step in finding a solution to the crisis because it would lead to an informed citizenry that can engage in discussions to find solutions.
On the other hand, the media panders to the public’s opinion in pursuit of views and subscriptions. It is possible that the lack of media coverage of the crisis is due to a lack of expressed interest in the crisis by the public. The media is publishing stories it believes will be read. One student in the IELC Refugee Crisis Forum stated how the geographical separation from the crisis leads many United States citizens to be unconcerned with the crisis because it is not their country that is being flooded with refugees.
Without a doubt, there is a crisis. Millions of Syrians have fled their home, fearing for their lives. It is up to the worldwide community to help these people, but in order to find solutions to remediate the crisis, people must first empathize with the refugees and the media must reflect this interest and empathy with the refugees. Despite a lack of proximity to the crisis, American citizens can still help, and have. One venue for donating is here.