Horrific photographs of starving children from the besieged Syrian town of Madaya are the latest defining images from the tormented country. Conflict there has claimed the lives of more than 260,000 people – 55,000 in 2015 alone. However, peace in Syria is unlikely in the near future. The deluge of humans flowing out of that country – and many other troubled regions – will not abate soon. As the refugee crisis intensifies, Europe will have to consider ambitious, comprehensive solutions.
Unsurprisingly, the vicious and seemingly unending violence in Syria has driven more than four million refugees out of the country. At least an additional 7.6 million people are displaced within Syria’s borders, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The former head of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, calls this “the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation.”
This exodus, of biblical proportions, has sparked frenzied debate in Europe about how to deal with the new arrivals. But the overwhelming majority of Syria’s refugees are not in Europe at all. Over 2.5 million are in Turkey (home to 45 percent); 1.07 million in Lebanon; 635,000 in Jordan; 245,000 in Iraq; 118,000 in Egypt; and 27,000 elsewhere in North Africa.
Increasingly, other countries in the region are not seen as final destinations. In December 2015, a symbolic milestone was crossed when the International Organization for Migration announced that more than a million migrants had crossed into Europe. By the end of last October, Germany had received the lion’s share of new asylum applications – more than 362,000.
According to the European Union, just one fifth of migrants registering for asylum in Europe are actually from Syria. Last year 17,000 claims were made by Albanians, whose country is not ravaged by conflict and war. Some 27,000 claims were lodged by Afghans, whose country is disfigured by Taliban violence.
Every month, around 5,000 people leave Eritrea. More than 350,000 have emigrated so far, around 10 percent of the country’s population. The United Nations says that, during their journeys, thousands of Eritreans “are killed at sea while attempting to reach European shores.” The practice of kidnapping migrating individuals, who are then killed or released on ransom after enduring horrible torture, targets Eritreans in particular.
In Sudan, there are an estimated 3.1 million internally displaced persons: 2.5 million in Darfur and more than half a million in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces. Why, when many of his population are trying to escape to Europe, is Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, not brought to justice?
Whatever strategy Europe comes up with must hold the aggressors to account and address the provision of safe havens and how to enable people to have better lives in their countries of origin. All over the world, dictators have created the circumstances and environment in which warlords, tribal factions and extremists have emerged, feeding off a mixture of sectarianism, poverty and deep despair – all drivers for migration.
Worldwide, 55 million people are refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced persons, with a further 60 million forcibly displaced. In Asia, there are nine million refugees and 15 million internally displaced people. Afghanistan generates the second largest number of refugees globally, while Myanmar is awash with them, including thousands of Rohingyas, cast adrift in rickety boats in the Andaman Sea as they try to reach Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand.
Add to the mix climate change and the scarcity of resources such as water and it is obvious that this is a global problem – one which is not going away. Some 1.5 billion of the world’s people live in countries that are fragile and affected by conflict. They can’t all be found homes and work in Germany or the United Kingdom.
However, the immediate priority must be to galvanize a coherent international strategy in Syria. It is obvious that only by resolving the conflict there will we see an end to the hemorrhaging of that country’s population. Unfortunately, that does not look likely to happen any time soon. Tentative peace talks are threatened by the standoff between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, as well as the competing interests of Turkey, Russia and the United States.
If people believe that the Syrian war will never end they will continue to despair and increasingly think of a life away from their ancestral homes. The more people that actually make it to Europe the more of a magnet the continent will become for those festering in makeshift camps or in tiny squats elsewhere – especially when they are denied the right to work or to escape grinding poverty. Instead of hoping to return they will increasingly hope to move away permanently.
Forcing people to sign a covenant not to work in return for residency (as in Lebanon) may protect the jobs of local people, but it does nothing for the self-respect of the refugees. And who can survive – or feed their children – without money? Who can then afford medical services, in countries like Jordan, when access to free healthcare is lost? What do you do about your children when hundreds of thousands of them are denied an education? It is imperative to help host countries address these questions.
Sharing the burden
Would it not also be wiser and fairer to explain that the streets of London, Paris, Berlin and Rome are not paved with gold and that television reports of European leaders putting out the welcome mat – accompanied by reception committees, promises of homes, jobs and a secure future – are deeply misleading?
How much better it would be to create some internationally protected safe havens within the region and deal with asylum applications in those places – cutting the umbilical cord, the necessity to travel to Europe and severing the lucrative and extortionate demands made by people smugglers.
Moreover, not all destinations have to be Europe. Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan have too few people, with population densities frequently less than 10 people per square kilometer. That compares with 200 and 300 people per square kilometer in Europe. The Gulf States, too, should be doing more.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres has told European countries that they “must shoulder their fair share in responding to the refugee crisis, at home and abroad” and that “to deny that responsibility is to threaten the very building blocks of the humanitarian system Europe worked so hard to build.” However, Europe’s cannot solve these problems by itself.
We know our history – how, during the last three decades of the 19th century a third of Europe’s population migrated to the Americas – some fleeing pogroms, others famine, and still others religious persecution or war. Many simply wanted a better life.
Building safe havens
In post-war Europe the enlightened Marshall Plan enabled Europe to be rebuilt from the ashes. In the ruined cities of Iraq, Syria and Libya, something similar must be done. Internationally protected safe havens should be created, where fleeing migrants might rebuild their lives and be given some sense of hope.
Small city states – a new Carthage in North Africa, perhaps modeled on the prosperous and diverse city state of Singapore – with opportunities for work and prosperity would also be the perfect answer to Daesh’s Islamic caliphate. Safe havens like those created in the 18th century in Freetown, Sierra Leone, or the one created by the U.S. for freed slaves in Liberia, would offer an alternative to destitution, exploitation, years in refugee camps or death at sea.
A North African safe haven might be linked to the admirable idea of turning the Sahara into a massive solar energy producing resource – a huge opportunity for job creation which would also combat carbon emissions and reduce reliance on despots who sell us their oil and gas.
Yes, it is “ambitious” to think like this. But if we ask ourselves what must it be like to be at the mercy of Daesh or to be living in the shadow of tyranny and unspeakable violence, wouldn’t we also want to try and get our loved ones to safety or want to make a better life?
An effective strategy for tackling this crisis will require Europe, the U.S. and Japan to make it harder for Africa to prosper by propping up murderous, corrupt dictators with our misguided aid and arms sales; dumping our subsidized agricultural surplus on their markets; and laundering money stolen by their elites.
We also need to balance the work we have done in using admirable development programs to train women, when boys and men also need economically useful skills and a sense of purpose, too. They make up the greatest share of mass migration. In countries where economics drives migration, there should be public information campaigns, highlighting the fate of too many of those who have been lured into embarking on their perilous journeys.
In reflecting on our own history and the richness that can come with diversity, we must also consider that if we fail to grapple with the root causes of this global crisis it will fuel the growth of Europe’s far right.
Our history tells us many things – not least that the innocent always suffer the most when we crack the thin veneer that separates civilization from anarchy. Only a generation ago, Europe itself was riven by horrific war, driven by racist xenophobia, secular ideology, and – in the smoldering ovens of the concentration camps – a total indifference to the human costs.
Think for a moment of the plight of children as families tried to flee those events. Kindertransport (a series of rescue efforts that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to the UK from Nazi Germany) was one notable response. In 2014 some 13,026 unaccompanied refugee children arrived in Italy. The charity, Save the Children, reports that 3,707 disappeared after arriving.
Disappeared into what? Human trafficking, exploitation, servitude, criminal gangs, terrorist groups? Under international law, governments have a special duty to children and unaccompanied minors.
Pass the parcel
International law also imposes a duty to protect and support those who are subject to genocide. As Hillary Clinton recently conceded, what is now underway against Christian and Yazidi minorities in Syria and Iraq is genocide. Because they have stayed outside the refugee camps, where Daesh sympathizers would target them further, many of those who have fled this slaughter do not receive help from the UNHCR.
If anyone is going to be given priority in any orderly resettlement program, surely it should be those who are without parents to protect them or those minorities subject to genocide. We may not – and cannot – help everyone. But this must not become an excuse for not helping anyone.
People desperate to come to the UK are packed into places like “the jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France. I have just visited the UK’s Yarl’s Wood detention center, where those entering Britain illegally are held. It would be impossible not to be moved by the harrowing personal stories the people there tell. Simply erecting more high wire fences or leaving people to fester in these hell holes is no solution. There is also an inextricable link with our long-term security. Unless we find solutions for people festering in places like the Calais jungle they will be radicalized, becoming tomorrow’s Paris bombers and Daesh recruits.
In 1888 a children’s parlor game was invented. It was called “pass the parcel.” A lighted candle was passed along a row of people. The first recipient says, “Jack’s alive and likely to live. If he dies in your hand, you’ve a forfeit to give.” Our response to the refugee crisis has increasingly become like a bad-tempered game of pass the parcel – with countries hoping that their neighbor will have to bear the brunt. But as nations now argue about who will have to pay the forfeit, we need to remember that we hold vulnerable lives in our hands. That is why we must develop an international strategy that is thoughtful, generous and humane.
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