The Refugee Crisis: An Open Letter to the World’s Governments

The Syrian refugee crisis has gotten completely out of hand. I have been feeling so deflated about it and I’ve got a roof over my head and plenty of food to eat, so I can’t even imagine what the Syrians who have had to flee their country must be feeling. Granted, it’s been going on since 2011, but only now—with the Hungarian border situation and the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying washed up on the beach, dead—has is it fully gotten everyone’s attention. A niggling part of me fears that this doesn’t just end up being the “flavor of the month” (it has been going on for four years after all and never this level of attention). I hope that after a few months of crowdfunding campaigns, supper clubs, National Geographic-worthy photo essays, and headlines with “concerned” governments announcing they will take “an extra 1,000 refugees,” it doesn’t just disappear into the media abyss, leaving millions of people still displaced, still helpless, and still in dire need of our attention and action. As far as I’m concerned, the refugee crisis has reached its peak. Governments NEED to help however they can right now. Things need to happen. Phrases such as “it’s complicated” are no longer good enough.

The internet is awash with infographics showing which countries are taking in the most refugees (here are some official figures) and which countries they actually want to settle in. Turkey is leading the pack with almost two million refugees, but in terms of per capita, Lebanon is in front, with almost a quarter of its population made up of Syrian refugees. In terms of which countries are most willing to take them in, the US has accepted 73,000, and Germany and Sweden lead among the European countries, both taking in over 20,000 refugees. But what does this mean in reality?

I have just moved from Istanbul, after living there for two and half years. Although Turkey has been more than willing to take in Syrians, the bigger question is what has the country done for them. The acceptance of Syrians was a political move on behalf of President Erdoğan, who allowed them to vote (read: vote for him). The Syrians that were poor in their own country are even poorer in Turkey. Throughout my time, I saw the number of Syrians on the streets increasing—whole families with small children and babies, just sitting on sidewalks, dirty, hungry, not even begging, just sitting. Helpless. The refugees in border towns are in camps and get certain things, but those that travel north to Istanbul or other big cities are, for lack of a better word, screwed.

But yet according the media, Turkey is a savior, a hero on the world’s human-rights stage—especially compared to places like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that have taken in zero Syrians (perhaps all that oil has gotten in their eyes and they can’t see straight). The streets tell a different story. People don’t seem to really care either. Some people occasionally buy the refugees food and water, some give money. But the majority just walks past, without looking. But in truth, this isn’t a job for ordinary citizens. They simply can’t do enough. Ok, maybe Turkey doesn’t have the financial capacity to deal with all the Syrians it has accepted, but it’s got the space. So can’t other countries give Turkey money to look after these displaced people? Government officials say aid budgets are getting blown from the comfort of their private jets (or in President Erdoğan’s case, palace)—let’s not pretend there’s not enough money in the world. And if there isn’t, I’m with Jeremy Corbyn: let’s print more just for this purpose. There are other solutions too: this man has one.

Then there are the more well-off Syrians (we had a number of friends like this) who escaped their country and in many cases can never return. We heard stories of Turks consistently treating Syrians badly in the workplace (whether out of fear or something else, something which is also rife in Lebanon). Earlier this year, the Turkish government changed the rules for residence permits for Syrians. They will now only be granted permits if they accept “refugee” status. A Syrian friend was fuming when this happened. She had applied for scholarships all around Europe and if she accepted refugee status in Turkey, she wouldn’t be able to accept it somewhere she really wanted. (And she wanted it elsewhere as she didn’t, like many others, feel comfortable or welcomed in Turkey.) She has finally been accepted to study in Sweden and moved there in August. Her boyfriend, who defaulted on military service and can never return to Syria, paid €10,000 to be smuggled to Germany. After a two-week route via Greece, Albania, and Austria (avoiding Hungary)—a route that was peppered with untrustworthy smugglers, bear sightings, and potential capture—he finally arrived in Stuttgart. Four weeks later, his papers were processed and he’s got official status in Germany. In another case, a man my boyfriend worked with who was forced to fight in the Free Syrian Army has finally been granted asylum in France. But now, he’s in a mental institution. It just all got too much.

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The treatment of Syrians by Hungarian authorities has been disgusting to say the least—and you can read a plethora of articles online about it. With border closings, beatings, and a staunchly anti-immigration prime minister, you might be forgiven for forgetting that Hungary was oppressed by the Soviets for decades. What a case of the persecuted becomes the persecutor!

David Cameron has finally agreed to take in 20,000 into the UK, but spread out over the next five years. But at least he’s got a plan in action and won’t just accept two million refugees and then do zilch for them. The States will take an extra 10,000 over the next fiscal year. Australia, the country with the one of the highest land per capita and whose immigration policy has become famous for all the wrong reasons, has announced last week that it will take 12,000 Syrians from persecuted minorities, after initially only wanting to accept just 4,000. But it has also started bombing IS targets in Syria, after already doing the same in Iraq for the past year (on US orders, of course). I know the world wants IS obliterated but is bombing a country where there is potential for civilian deaths the answer?

I’m about to start the process for migrating to the UK as an Australian who’s with a British national—a person who really has nothing to worry about in life—and I’ve got a bunch of hurdles in my path. Already, the process has been emotional one, loaded with tension and uncertainty. But every time I feel myself getting down about it, my mind wanders to the Syrians and I feel terrible about even having these thoughts in the first place. Certain Western countries have difficult migration processes, and want to intimidate you and discriminate against you until you feel so deflated that you quit. As for people fleeing their countries, they don’t have the time I can afford myself to take it slowly and do the process properly. Persecution looms.

We’re all human. It’s a simple, obvious assessment but it’s the only truth there is. I read this great thing on Facebook the other day that was a response to people saying things such as: “Oh the Syrians have smartphones, they can’t be that much in need.” The story was about a man who had a job in Damascus and a young family. When war started and he saw his neighbor get shot point blank after refusing to fight, he put in motion a plan for his family to escape, bringing his smartphone along with a small bag of belongings. His wife and older daughter are still with him, but their youngest daughter died on the illegal boat journey. Striking a chord for obvious reasons, what was most poignant about this story was the point that nobody wants to leave home if they don’t have to. The man had a good job, a nice house, a growing family—he was happy. But when the political situation gets so bad that if you don’t leave, you will probably die, you have no choice. Do you? Governments of the world, don’t remind Syrians and other refugees that they are not welcome, but try to recreate a feeling of home for them in your country. Don’t accept them and then treat them badly, or worse, ignore them. They don’t particularly want to be there either, but they have no choice.

I know this is a very layered issue so your comments are appreciated.

Main image courtesy of www.faithit.com.

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