The tragedy of Syrian refugees
On August 11th, the Turkish Coast Guard rescued dozens of Syrian refugees travelling in eight small boats. According to the Reuters news agency, the refugees included many children, newborns and visibly pregnant women. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 124,000 refugees have so far in 2015 reached Greek islands in the Aegean Sea from Turkey.
There are 60 million refugees across the planet but a huge chapter of this unprecedented human displacement is played out in the Middle East, which is described by the UNHCR as “the world’s largest producer and host of forced displacement”.
This is a tragedy where a few countries bear a disproportionate burden. War and terror have made most countries of the Middle East and North Africa part of this drama. However, it is the Syrians who suffer most from displacement; 7.6 million of them are internally displaced and more than 4 million others have sought refuge outside their country.
No countries bear as much of a burden as a result as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan do. Turkey hosts more than 2 million Syrians. Lebanon and Jordan, two small countries with their own economic problems, are, respectively, host to more than 1 million and 500,000 refugees. One-in-five people in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee. This disproportionate burden has been compounded in 2015 by the drastic reduction of international funding of the meagre food assistance received by refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
Another chapter of the tragedy often unfolds in the Mediterranean as refugees attempt to cross the sea in search of a better life. Whether from Turkish or Libyan shores, desperate populations from North Africa and the Middle East are taking their chances on a dangerous crossing. In 2015 alone, 1,865 people have died trying to cross to Europe. Here, too, the number of would-be migrants from Syria is particularly high. They constitute about 33% of those arriving on European shores.
The displacement of populations from the Levant should be factored in the war on the Islamic State (ISIS). If 2.7 million people continue to live under the barbaric rule of ISIS, tens of thousands have been compelled to flee Raqqa, Tadmur, Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and other cities in Syria and Iraq.
Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan cannot continue assuming such a large share of the burden. Lack of international support is pushing countries of the region to consider restrictions despite the dire circumstances of refugees. In recent months, Lebanon has restricted the entry of Syrian refugees, leading to an 80% drop in the number of entries during the first three months of 2015.
Western nations should stop looking at Middle Eastern refugees as just a security risk or an unbearable economic burden. Immigrants from the Arab world have historically enriched the social fabric in Europe and the United States.
The European Union should be more generous in its allocation of settlement and relocation places and have a long-term vision of immigration.
As Judith Sunderland of Human Rights Watch said, “the EU should establish and expand safe and legal channels into the EU — ways in which migrants, asylum seekers and refugees can apply to reach EU territory without having to risk their lives or resort to criminal networks”.
That advice applies to the United States and all other developed countries.