Understanding the Syrian Refugee Crisis
Over the past several weeks, we've heard a lot about the plight of refugees fleeing Syria and its neighboring countries for safer and more stable living conditions in Europe. Such a systemic, rapidly-changing issue can be hard to comprehend, but we are confronted with images and stories that beg for our understanding. It has been designated the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and everyone from sovereign countries to individual citizens is trying to decide how best to respond.
A note on terminology: While the words "refugee," "migrant," and others are often used interchangeably in news coverage of Syria, these words do have different meanings. Refugees have left their home countries due to armed conflict or persecution. They are entitled to protection under international law, as well as refugee-specific protections provided by individual countries. Migrants have left their home countries for better work opportunities, standards of living, etc. They can return without putting their lives at risk. The groups of people currently entering Europe from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa consist of both refugees and migrants, but those originating from Syria are accurately identified as refugees.
Syria has been embroiled in a civil war for over four years. Before the war, it had a population of about 22 million people. Since then, over 7 million have been internally displaced within the country, and over 4 million are temporarily settled as refugees in neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have the highest numbers). Over 250,00 people have been killed, many of them civilians. The number of people fleeing Syria has increased as the conflict has grown and spread to more populous areas, and as the country's internal infrastructure has increasingly collapsed. At the same time, neighboring countries' resources become more and more strained.
All of these factors have led Syrian refugees to begin traveling to European countries in much higher numbers. Over half a million refugees have entered Greece, Italy, and Hungary so far this year, compared to 280,000 last year. Six of the most popular destination countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Finland) expect to receive over 1.3 million asylum applications this year alone. (To put this in perspective, UNHCR reports that Europe received 222,156 asylum applications between April 2011 and December 2014.) The journey to Europe is also significantly more dangerous. Most travel by boat from Turkey to Greece; the most perilous route is from Libya to Italy.
Some European countries have welcomed arriving refugees, while others discourage their stay through a lack of services, hostile messaging, or outright violence. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been especially vocal, urging refugees not to travel through Hungary and spearheading the construction of a fence along his country's border with Serbia. Even those willing to help struggle to keep pace with the demand.
To resettle the refugees that are currently so heavily concentrated in European border countries, the EU recently approved a plan to move 160,000 people from "hotspots" in Greece and Italy to other EU member states. The United States has announced that it will accept a maximum of 70,000 refugees this year, gradually increasing to 100,000 by 2017. This is a total number, with no percentage designated specifically for Syrian refugees. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, the United States has admitted fewer than 1,500 Syrian refugees.
In late September, the U.S. government announced an additional $419 million in humanitarian aid for Syria, and the European Commission pledged an additional €801 million, with a further €900 million proposed for their 2016 budget. Refugee assistance organizations continue to petition for funding, with the UNHCR only 44% funded for its plan to deliver aid to Syrian refugees residing in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.
To assist in the acute and ever-growing need of the Syrian refugee crisis, consider writing a U.S. or international representative, contributing to humanitarian organizations like UNHCR, and staying informed about new developments. The articles and news sources listed below are good starting points for learning more.
- European Agenda on Migration: Legislative Documents. European Commission.
- Gregor Aisch, Sarah Almukhtar, Josh Keller, and Wilson Andrews. "The Scale of the Migrant Crisis, From 160 to Millions." New York Times. 22 Sept. 2015.
- Karen Yourish, K.K. Rebecca Lai, and Derek Watkins. "Death in Syria." New York Times. 14 Sept. 2015.
- Lyse Doucet, "Migrant Crisis: Why Is It Erupting Now?" BBC. 13 Sept. 2015.
- Massimo Calabresi. "A Wave of the World’s Displaced Crashes on Europe’s Shores." Time. 21 Sept. 2015.
- "Mediterranean Update: Missing Migrants Project." International Organization for Migration. 29 Sept. 2015.
- Michael Gordon, Alison Smale, Rick Lyman. "U.S. Will Accept More Refugees as Crisis Grows." New York Times. 21 Sept. 2015.
- "Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Graphics." BBC. 24 Sept. 2015.
- Naina Bajekal. "A Fractured Europe Scrambles to Respond to Spiraling Migrant Crisis." Time.com. 11 Sept. 2015.
- "New U.S. Humanitarian Assistance to Respond to Syria Crisis." U.S. Department of State Press Release. 21 Sept. 2015.
- "Questions and Answers: Additional Funding to Address the Refugee Crisis." European Commission Press Release. 30 Sept. 2015.
- "'Refugee' or 'Migrant' - Which Is Right?" UNHCR. 27 Aug. 2015.
- "Syria Crisis." European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Factsheet.
- Syria Regional Refugee Response: Inter-Agency Information Sharing Portal. UNHCR.
- "Time to Go; Syrian Refugees." The Economist. 26 Sept. 2015.
News about the Syrian war and its refugees is constantly evolving. In addition to the specific sources above, the following publications are helpful resources to consult for new reporting and updated information.
- BBC Website
- The Syrian Observer, a news website that translates reports from both opposition and state-sponsored sources into English
- "Syria" Topics Page on the New York Times Website
- UNHCR's Syria Page
Available from Home with Your NYPL Library Card
Our online library catalog contains many titles for you to learn more about the history of the Syrian civil war, such as The Syrian Uprising: Dynamics of an Insurgency or personal narratives like The Fear of Breathing: Stories from the Syrian Revolution. Search the "Syria -- History -- Civil War, 2011-" subject heading for more examples.
Image 1 courtesy IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Image 2 courtesy Frankie Fouganthin and Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Image 3 courtesy Mstyslav Chernov and Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)