There, But Not Back Again: an ongoing narrative of displacement

Wesley Koswara  |  Contributing Writer

We’ve all experienced the muted pangs of loss or sadness as we say goodbye to friends or family, or the rush of nostalgia as we look back at someplace familiar for what may be the last time. We’ve also experienced the rush of excitement as we set off into the great unknown, ready for new experiences and a chapter of adventure in our lives. But deep down we always know we have a place to go back to, people that know and love us or a community that we can fall back on should we need it.

But imagine you didn’t. Imagine, for a moment, that you weren’t leaving because you wanted to. You were leaving because you didn’t have a home at all.

The United Nations defines a refugee as a person who “owing to well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Put more simply, a refugee is a person in a foreign land who can’t go home.

Over 4 million registered refugees from Syria have been displaced due to the Syrian Civil War, according to UN statistics. This includes the 2.1 million Syrians registered by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) who have fled to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon, along with the 1.9 million taken in by Turkey. An additional 24000 have been registered in North Africa. All these people have been forced to flee due to the infighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Syrian Free Army, and Islamic extremist groups like ISIS.

With the resolution of hostilities nowhere in sight, and so many people fleeing or otherwise displaced by the conflict, level perspective gets harder and harder to come by. A single death, a toddler drowned at sea trying to reach Greece, is a tragedy, while millions of similar stories become just another statistic. These are massive numbers, and as they begin to move into seven digits it becomes difficult to picture the scale that these migrations operate at. To put it in perspective, the city of Los Angeles only has a population of around 3.8 million. The estimated number of internally displaced people inside of Syria alone is estimated at around 7.6 million.

“We know that actually leaving Syria can be very difficult,” said Arianne Rummery, a senior communications officer for the UNHCR. “There are large parts of Northern Syria that are controlled by various armed groups, and sometimes there are roadblocks and checkpoints and so on on routes out of Syria, so even getting to a border they can cross can be a challenge for refugees.”

Uprooting lives has never been an easy task, even under the best of circumstances and in a first world country. To say that the journey from a home in Syria to one of the neighboring countries welcoming refugees is difficult would be an understatement. Whether by land or sea, no guarantee exists that they will arrive at their destination at all.

“Many of the refugees who are trying to move on to Europe can face dangerous road journeys, whether that’s from Libya or from Turkey,” said Rummery. “Sometimes they can’t swim, sometimes the smugglers cram far too many people in boats, and as we’ve seen a great many people have died on those journeys.”

Although there are a number of refugee camps along the borders of adjacent countries to Syria, only about 12 percent actually end up living in them. Many others wind up squatting in urban areas where circumstances are much tougher, said Rummery. Each year, refugees in urban situations become more vulnerable and sink deeper into abject poverty, a factor which may contribute to the increasing number of those that attempt to cross into Europe.

So how have the nations of the world responded to this crisis? How has our fellow human risen to the occasion as he/she watches poor, huddled masses move from border to border, yearning only for rest, for peace, for a simple return home? The situation varies from country to country.

On the Greek island of Lesbos, thousands of refugees line the streets seeking shelter as the sheer number of people arriving has overwhelmed the ability of response units to deal with them.

“The increase [of refugees] is most apparent in Mytilini, where the streets and port are lined with refugees sleeping rough,” said an International Rescue Committee press release at the end of August. “The decision to restrict the number of refugees arriving in Mytilini has left hundreds stranded in the north of the island and in need of emergency food and water distributions.”

Hungary, facing the same crisis, has resorted to sealing its border with Serbia entirely, shutting out the approximately 2000 refugees that attempt to cross into Europe every day.

The United Nations has expressed particular concern over the situation on the Hungarian-Serbian border, as non-lethal force was employed against refugees who continued to attempt to cross despite measures taken by the Hungarian government.

“UNHCR was especially shocked and saddened to witness Syrian refugees, including families with children who have already suffered so much, being prevented from entering the EU with water cannons and tear gas,” said a UNHCR press release. “It is not a crime to cross a border to seek asylum.”

Fortunately, such hostile responses to refugees  seem to be in the minority, and some countries are more accommodating to the displaced masses. Turkey has welcomed nearly 2 million refugees to date, with Lebanon to the south hosting close to 1.1 million.

For many Americans, the problems of millions of people may seem only as close as the buzzing of the media in our collective ears. What has the United States been doing? How should this affect us?

In a press release late September, the White House announced that the US government provides nearly $419 million in financial assistance for those affected by the war in Syria. This funding brings the total US humanitarian assistance in response to the conflict up to more than $1.6 billion in the fiscal year, and over $4.5 billion since the start of the crisis. Earlier in the month President Obama increased the number of refugees from Syria that the US would admit in 2016 from 8000 to 10000. The US’s current total admission ceiling for refugees sits at 70 thousand for the fiscal year of 2015.

Despite all the aid and action, there has yet to be an end in sight to the war in Syria, of which the refugee problem is only a symptom. Whether the millions left drifting in limbo will eventually come to rest remains inconclusive.

All things considered, the most imperative thing to remember is that the people fleeing Syria may not be so different from us,  said Rummery.

“I think that it’s really important to know that wherever they’re from, whatever they’ve faced or whatever they’ve seen from these conflicts, is that at the end of the day they’re just people, like you are.”

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