This past week Europe, its media, and its people have finally awoken to the refugee crisis. I am pleased to see that everyone has had their peaceful lives interrupted, but I am disappointed that it has taken so long for this to be so.
The heartbreaking images of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Kurdish refugee who drowned whilst trying to reach Turkey, have rocked the world and seemingly shattered public apathy towards refugees and migrants. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been forced to U-turn on his disgusting attitude to deny helping those trying to reach the shores of the UK, and it seems that in every city and every community ordinary people are mobilising to do what they can to help those fleeing countries in the Middle East and north Africa.
The grassroots response has been phenomenal. It is a beacon of hope for humanity in what may well be its darkest hour since World War Two. Taking matters into their own hands, people have gathered, organised, and mobilised, often in direct conflict with the policies of their government, in order to help the desperate people in need of our support.
It is impossible to criticise such a show of morality too harshly, but if we are to be cynical then we can look at two issues within the refugee crisis. One is a fact, and the other is a depressing prediction.
Firstly, despite the overwhelming response to the crisis, it has come too late to save many thousands of people. In 2015 alone it is estimated that over 1,200 people have died making the hazardous trip across the Mediterranean Sea. The image below was shared by Kenneth Roth, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, and shows but a fraction of the crisis.
And secondly, as a friend of mine said to me recently, this outpouring of aid and charity could well dry up as soon as the next issue appears on the front pages of newspapers. Much like the ice-bucket challenge, the outrage over the killing of Cecil the lion, or the massacres conducted by Israel last summer in Gaza. Unfortunately, in a world of ever shifting events, and where news stories become old fast, how many people will still be campaigning for the rights of refugees in a month’s time?
Whilst the iron is hot, and whilst people are not distracted by football, talent shows, or celebrity gossip, it is crucial that maximum impact is achieved. Whether this is through petitions, donations, aid convoys, letters to members of parliament, or a combination of them all, now is the time to act. As the Chinese proverb states: “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.
Scrolling through my timeline on my social media pages, I am proud to see the response of people, but it is a pride that is off-set by huge frustration. And this frustration is born out of the fact that Europe is only involving itself in this crisis now that it has to. When bodies begin to float ashore, and when trucks are found containing dead refugees, then it is impossible to ignore. Before that though, almost every country in Europe seemed content to watch events unfolding abroad and do nothing to stop them.
Though the image above shows the refugees fleeing from north Africa, it is Syria that represents the greatest humanitarian crisis at this time. Since the revolution broke out in early 2011, the government of Syria, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has violated human rights on a daily basis and enacted numerous war crimes. Torture, forced disappearance, deliberate targeting of civilians, assassinations, mass killings, kidnap, use of chemical weapons, and indiscriminate bombing all routinely take place.
Due to years of UN Security Council vetoes by China and Russia and repeated backing down by the West, even after the “red line” of chemical weapons use had been crossed, the crisis in Syria now not only affects neighbouring countries, but it affects much of the Middle East and Europe as well. As well as this humanitarian crisis, there are compelling arguments that state the rise of ISIS is also down to inactivity by the West in the early stages of the Syrian revolution.
Without going into too much detail about the links between ISIS and the Syrian regime, it is abundantly clear that both represent a major threat to the people of Syria, and the security and prosperity of the region, and the world. Years of inaction on Syria saw both deaths and refugee numbers increase dramatically. By March of 2013, just 12 months after the outbreak of hostilities, there were some one million refugees. Six months later this figure had doubled. Two years into the conflict it stood at two and a half million, and now the figure is over four million. (as the graph below shows)
Safe in fortress Europe we saw Syria’s neighbours as responsible for helping those fleeing the violence. Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan soon became overwhelmed with the amount of people crossing the border, and as these countries struggled to cope, Syria continued to empty.
Recent figures from the European Commission show that Turkey currently holds 1.8 million refugees, Lebanon holds almost 1.2 million, and Jordan has over 630,000. These figures mean that one in every 45 people in Turkey is a Syrian refugee, one in every five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee, and one in four in Jordan is a refugee who has fled Syria. The Zataari refugee camp in Jordan, home to some 83,000 people, is now the fourth largest “city” in the country.
As neighbouring countries become saturated and their aid organisations are pushed to the limit, Syrians begin to move further afield in order to find help and safety. UNHCR statistics show that Syrian asylum applications in Europe have spiked and show no signs of slowing.
This exodus is fuelled by the war that is still raging inside the country. It is a war that shows no signs of stopping and one that has cost almost 300,000 lives. Despite the news headlines about the “evil” of ISIS, the biggest perpetrator of death and destruction is the Assad regime.
In early 2015, six months after ISIS began making world headlines, Business Insider reported that “President Bashar Assad’s regime remains the most dangerous threat to Syrian civilians.” It his regime, his indiscriminate barrel bombings and chemical weapons attacks that cause the overwhelming majority of deaths inside Syria. In December 2014, “the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented at least 1,232 civilian deaths”, of these more than 85% were because of Assad.
The Syria Campaign has long been supporting the call for a No Fly Zone in Syria. Though they are aware of the threat caused by ISIS they know that the greatest danger, the biggest killer, and the largest contributor to the refugee crisis is the Assad regime. From January 2015 to July 2015, 9,025 civilians lost their lives inside Syria. 7, 894 of those were killed by Assad. His regime killing seven times more people than the masked black fighters of ISIS.
The focus, and subsequent bombing of ISIS, has only diverted attention and resources away from the fight against Assad. His position has been strengthened as coalition planes conduct jobs that were previously designated to his own airforce. The civilian death toll increased as Assad intensified the bombings of rebel held territories.
Mouaffraq Nyrabia is another who has made the connection between the bombing of ISIS and greater civilian deaths at the hands of Assad. Writing for The Huffington Post recently, he called for a No Fly Zone and stated that “the current efforts are not working because they do not address the leading killer and primary driver of the crisis: Assad’s attacks on Syrian civilians.” He also warns that if the West continues to ignore the role Assad is playing we may soon see a “full military intervention”, an outcome he says, “that neither the West nor Syrians want to see.”
Whilst the blood drips on the floor it is important that we mop it up, but more critically it is necessary to stop the bleeding. In the case of Syria, and the refugee crisis that we have finally woken up to, we should undoubtedly help the symptom, but it is essential that we stop the cause.
Without a no fly zone in Syria this refugee crisis is one that is only set to continue.
Recommended Further Reading:
James Bloodworth’s superb article on the failure of the UK to halt this crisis when it had the chance is essential reading. “But let us remember how many of those who are today mawkishly lamenting the sight of dead children were whooping and hollering in 2013 when parliament voted to appease the brutal dictator from whom some of these unfortunate souls are fleeing.”
“What appears on our TV screens as a sudden emergency is really the culmination of years of failure to confront Syria’s bloody collapse.”
“Since Syria’s plight is the most immediate moral and strategic problem, that is where Europe must begin the search for solutions.”
The Conservative government appear to be coming to the realisation that ISIS are the wrong targets in Syria with The Independent running an article yesterday claiming that “George Osborne has given a strong signal that Britain will take part in military action in Syria as he warned that dealing with the escalating refugee crisis meant tackling President Bashar al-Assad’s “evil” regime.” It is believed that David Cameron “could ask MPs to back enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria, as a way to protect ordinary citizens, rather than all-out strikes against Damascus.”
Writing for the Daily News, Benjamin Weinthal, a strong supporter of action against Assad, said: “Sadly, Europeans still fail to internalize that a military offensive to stop Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s blood-soaked war against his civilians is the only viable remedy to stem the flow of refugees. Kinan Masalmeh, a 13-year-old Syrian refugee in Hungary, neatly captured what Europe needs to do: “Please help the Syrians …The Syrians need help now. Just stop the war. We don’t want to stay in Europe. Just stop the war.”
Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a chemical weapons adviser to NGOs working in Iraq and Syria, believes we are missing the point on the refugee crisis. He says that “surely we must set the conditions to allow them to return as soon as possible to their homes in Syria?” He believes that “the refugee problem in Europe is of our own making. It is a direct result of our inactivity towards Syria”.
Ann-Marie Slaughter is another who advocates a no fly zone. Her article for Project Syndicate makes the very valid point that “longer-term thinkers understand that a generation growing up alienated and angry in refugee camps, as several generations of Palestinians have done, is a generation of potential radicals. With nothing to lose, they seek revenge for their parents’ expulsion from a homeland that, over time, becomes increasingly idealized. From this perspective, the current humanitarian crisis is, in the longer term, a strategic crisis.”
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