Put the refugee 'crisis' in context — UNHCR

By Melissa Fleming 29 March 2016

A Syrian man looks on as a boat heads out to sea from Izmir on Turkey's Aegean coast. The city has become a popular departure point for those crossing to Greece. Photo by: UNHCR

As the war in Syria enters its sixth year, blocked borders and folded arms now greet people trying to escape bombs and bullets.

Neighboring countries have taken in almost 5 million refugees and are close to capacity. Lebanon and Jordan have told the world they can manage no more unless recent pledges of massive new infrastructure and development support are met.

Turkey, host to 2.7 million Syrians, has agreed to take on even more of a refugee hosting role in exchange for $6 billion and the lifting of visa restrictions for its own citizens. This deal with the European Union is intended to cut off smuggler-run sea routes to Europe in exchange for resettlement of Syrian refugees from Turkey.

EU-Turkey deal sparks humanitarian concerns

Aid organizations have voiced concern over the humanitarian implications of Friday’s agreement between the European Union and Turkey, aimed at stopping the flow of refugees and migrants entering Europe via Greece’s Aegean islands.

In theory, and only if missing human rights safeguards are swiftly put into place in Greece and Turkey, this pact might herald the end of dangerous boat crossings for some refugees — and a fairer sharing of Syrian refugees among EU member states.

But the jury is also still out on whether desperate people — including the second two largest groups of people, Iraqis and Afghans, for whom no special resettlement scheme is foreseen — will find access to asylum and the basic survival services closer to home. If not, experience shows that alternative routes will be quickly created by cunning and ruthless people smugglers. Inevitably, these routes will be as, if not more, dangerous and deadly.

For those who do make it to Europe, reception will be fraught with rejection. Here, refugees, once greeted with remarkable sympathy, are finding themselves linked through fear to the same terrorist groups they fled. They are, too often, falsely labelled “irregular migrants,” implying that the trouble they left at home was poverty, not war.

‘Crisis’ in context and meaningful solutions

This is a crisis for refugees, not a crisis for Europeans. The 1 million that have arrived since August 2015 represent a mere 0.2 percent of Europe's population of 500 million. Over 90 percent came from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost all of them said they left because of violence and war. Those who had been living as refugees in neighboring countries said they did not have the means to educate and feed their children.

The simple truth is that few people would ever risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could find safety and sustenance where they are. Most refugees could and should be living dignified lives in countries adjacent to their war-ravaged homeland. It is largely a question of funding, and also of enlightened self-interest.

Fully funded, UNHCR and its partners would be in a position to offer meaningful assistance to refugees in desperate need. If the crisis had been handled properly, neighboring countries would already be receiving significant international aid to boost infrastructures, build schools and stimulate economies to help them accommodate high numbers of refugees.

When refugees started arriving in Europe in large numbers, mostly from Syria, Europe suddenly recognized they could no longer leave Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey unsupported and let refugees struggle in dire conditions.

An international conference in London in February garnered unprecedented funding pledges for humanitarian organizations, host countries and also for education and refugee employment programs in and around Syria. These pledges need to translate quickly into real funds and support.

The time has also come for more countries to share the responsibility by taking in a greater share of this refugee population, especially at a time when many are shutting their own borders.

Share resettlement responsibility

Host countries cannot be expected to take in all of Syria's refugees. At least 10 percent of Syrian refugees should be offered resettlement or humanitarian admission places in richer countries around the world.

UNHCR has a system in place to identify refugees who are particularly vulnerable — victims of torture, women at risk, LGBT cases and people with complicated medical conditions. We submit these cases to resettlement countries, which screen and vet them before departure. Thousands of Syrians have restarted their lives in supportive communities around the world thanks to these gestures.

But this number is miniscule compared to needs. UNHCR is appealing to countries to take in hundreds of thousands more of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.

At a high-level conference in Geneva on March 30, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi will call on countries to recognize the sheer scale of the challenge and the need to put in place more ways to take in Syrian refugees through organized channels.

They will appeal to countries to increase their resettlement quotas or start new ones. They will ask them to offer more generous and flexible family reunification schemes as well as humanitarian and student visas.

Countries should be reminded that resettlement and other admission pathways do not absolve them from an obligation under international law to allow people arriving at their borders to seek asylum.

If the world came together now to step up efforts to stop the war in Syria, and in the meantime meaningfully helped the people who fled from it, there would be no need to erect new borders and turn people back on boats. Refugees would no longer represent a crisis, but a group of people who have been given access to a safe and dignified life in exile.

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

Melissa Fleming

As head of communications and chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Melissa Fleming leads communications efforts around the globe. Operating in 120 countries, UNHCR provides shelter and help for over 30 million people who have fled wars and persecution.

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