This is not a "European crisis," it's a Syrian crisis: A human rights expert on why we're only now paying attention to a decades-old global refugee crisis, and what you can do

Why the EU should be able to absorb the incoming refugees, and how the human drama gets lost in the numbers

Published February 24, 2016 12:57PM (EST)

  (AP/Santi Palacios)
(AP/Santi Palacios)

The recent G-20 summit in Turkey had as a central part of its discussion the Syrian refugee crisis and the effect of the Paris terrorist attacks on that crisis. This comes at a time when the general consensus is that the crisis has reached a point that is nearly impossible to manage.  One humanitarian relief worker writes in the Guardian,

After five years of war, it is hard to imagine that the conditions in Syria could get any worse, but they have. Every time we think we’ve seen it all, the conflict takes another turn and surprises us … They have lived through several years of conflict, but the possibility of a siege is starting to very much wear on them. Intensified fighting and airstrikes in and around Aleppo have cut off the main – and most direct – humanitarian route from the north. We are able to access the city through another route for now, but that road is unreliable and risky. The whole area has been under attack for several days so safe spaces or places for people to go are very limited.  Over the past year, we’ve seen a drastic reduction in areas where innocent civilians can be safe from the conflict.  From a humanitarian standpoint, we are concerned about the shrinking of safe spaces for civilians.

To get a sense of the dimensions of this crisis, consider that the United Nations reports that as of now there are about 4.7 million registered Syrian refugees, including those in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and North Africa.  Ten percent live in refugee camps.  Almost 900,000 Syrian applications for asylum have been filed in Europe.

Here are the hard data on the stress on Syrian infrastructure and day to day life:

Syria’s national wealth, infrastructure and institutions have been “almost obliterated” by the “catastrophic impact” of nearly five years of conflict, a new report has found. Fatalities caused by war, directly and indirectly, amount to 470,000, according to the Syrian Centre for Policy Research (SCPR) – a far higher total than the figure of 250,000 used by the United Nations until it stopped collecting statistics 18 months ago.

In all, 11.5 percent of the country’s population has been killed or injured since the crisis erupted in March 2011, the report estimates. The number of wounded is put at 1.9 million. Life expectancy has dropped from 70 in 2010 to 55.4 in 2015. Overall economic losses are estimated at $255 billion.

Amid all this horrifying information, it is easy to ask, why are we learning about this only now? What are some of the key human rights concepts and principles that we need to understand in this context, and what can the ordinary citizen do to best help in this humanitarian catastrophe?

In fact, the crisis has been going on for years—but as usual, it is only with the actual physical appearance of refugees in Europe that we in the West began to take notice.  And certainly the terrorist attacks in Paris only served to further “our” concern.  All at once, the bodies and safe spaces of the metropolitan West were feeling the brutal effects of the conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Furthermore, there is the added dimension pointed out by many, including Vijay Prashad and Seymour Hersh, that through disastrous decisions that stretch far back, the U.S. has played a key role in creating this nightmare.  Now the consequences of our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and our policies in Syria are showing up in the European Union in the form of these refugees and in the form of terrorist attacks, and the opportunistic fear-mongering that has drawn an irrational and immoral link between the two.

What so often gets lost in media coverage of these issues are the historic dimension, the real challenges to human rights and humanitarian work, and the human dimension outside of a few sensationalistic and soon forgotten images and sound bites.  To get some of this sort of information out to the public, I spoke with Mirte Postema, a fellow at the Stanford Human Rights Center of Stanford Law School.

We have heard a lot about this catastrophe. Could you start by telling us about what's really new about the situation right now and what’s most urgent.  Perhaps explain the exact dimensions of the problem?

First of all, I think it's important to note that the issues regarding refugees and displaced people are not new; there has been a global crisis for decades. But what’s new is that there's been a huge growth in the number of refugees recently, and they are coming into Europe. It's a mistake to call it a “European crisis,” though. This is clearly a Syrian crisis that has ramifications in Europe.

The definition of a "refugee" is someone who has been forced to leave his or her country out of fear of being persecuted or because of hostility.  And to give you an idea of the magnitude of the refugee crisis: In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said, based on data from 2014, that there are nearly 60 million displaced people worldwide. Of those 60 million, about 15 million are refugees. This number has increased enormously since 2011, when there were 10.5 million refugees. And according to UNHCR, the Syria crisis has been the main source of that increase of 4.5 million people: 4 million of those are fleeing hostilities in Syria.

The huge increase of refugees coming out of Syria has been really troubling. But at the same time it's very important to note that the conflict started in 2011—this is not something that happened yesterday. And even before that, there were a lot of refugees in the region, for example, people leaving Iraq and going to Lebanon, going to Jordan, going to Syria as well.  

So countries in the region have hosted, and have continued to host, a large number of refugees.  In places like Jordan and Lebanon, sometimes 25 to 30 percent of their populations are refugees. So this is a huge displacement of people. And I think the concerning thing is that the situation only seems to be getting worse. There have been huge surges, around mid-2013, and now mid-2015; in the last year over a million people left Syria for Europe. And in January alone over 60,000 people left, so it's not looking like this is getting any better.

There has been a lot of controversy about nomenclature. Many have asked why is the press calling these people “migrants” and not “refugees.” Can you explain the difference between the two terms?  What sorts of legal and policy issues come forth when we speak of one rather than the other?

“Migrant” is a more general term. It's basically anyone who is leaving his or her country for whatever reason. A refugee is leaving out of fear for their physical well-being. As a consequence, there are protections for refugees—these are people that perhaps don’t want to leave but see no other possibility. The convention that protects refugees is the United Nations Refugee Convention, which was adopted in 1951.  

And the U.S. acceded to the Convention, so it's fully applicable here. The norms of that Convention contain   three very important principles. One is non-discrimination--you can't treat refugees differently. All kinds of provisions that you offer to nationals--such as housing and primary education--you need to offer to people that have forcibly had to leave their country.

Another one is non-penalization: The act of migrating, of leaving your country, should not be punishable. Obviously, we're seeing things in Europe that are not in accordance of that.

And then there is another one, which is called “non-refoulement.”  This means that you cannot send a person back to a country where his or her life may be in danger. It's absolutely, absolutely prohibited.

It can be argued that using the term “migrant” is downplaying the severity of the situation; it suggests that people are coming for economic gain. And of course you can have a whole discussion about whether or not migration for economic gain should be allowed, but that’s a different point. A couple of weeks ago, the EU Commissioner for Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights, Frans Timmermans, said something like, “Well, 60 percent of the people arriving here are economic migrants, so they should all be sent back to their countries of origin as soon as possible.” But the curious thing is that is not what the official data says, not the data from UNHCR, nor the data from the EU's agency, Frontex.

What that data says is that 90 percent or more of people arriving in Europe--and we're only talking about the people crossing the Mediterranean now--are coming from what we call the “top ten refugee-producing countries,” which is a bit of an ugly term, to show that these are the countries in which most conflicts are taking place; so, for example Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. That means you should actually presuppose that people fleeing these countries have a legitimate reason to leave, and therefore should be given all protections and be resettled.

You mentioned nondiscrimination; do you find that there are new discriminatory practices, or covert kinds of discrimination, creeping in? How do such practices affect the refugees and their circumstances?

I think that, in general, the response that we've seen to this enormous crisis has been grossly inadequate. The legally binding Refugee Convention insists on nondiscrimination and non-penalization, but that’s not what we're seeing from Europe as a response. And in general, the international community does not seem to be responding adequately to this crisis. And that also includes the Gulf States in the region that could be doing much more, and also the United States and Canada.

With every conflict there are two aspects; there's a political one and there's a humanitarian one.

There's a very immediate humanitarian crisis when you have so many people leaving, and that’s definitely a situation that needs to be attended to. And then there's the political crisis, which is the conflict and its root causes. Hostilities need to be stopped, and reconstruction needs to begin. Right now neither of these crises are being addressed effectively.

In terms of the political situation, the involvement of international actors in the conflict has made things much more complex. There's a need to gain political consensus--and this includes the role of these international actors: How can hostilities be ceased and how can this situation be resolved, so to speak.  On Feb. 1 the peace talks started in Geneva.  

You have a lot of parties of very different status and nature.

Yes, that’s one of the other complexities of this crisis--some people don’t want to talk to certain actors, etc. I think it might also be difficult that the U.N. is convoking the talks, but is also trying to mediate. This double role might result in some tension with regard to getting to real results.

And then the humanitarian crisis. We've seen the pictures of children washed up on the beach. Every day you see those pictures of people on boats. What I found particularly horrifying were those stories of people who wash up on the shores of Greek islands wearing life vests. It was found that people had been sold basically deficient life vests--they’d been sold something that looked like life vests, but the materials did not float.

Such things remind you of the enormous human drama that sometimes gets lost in the numbers.

But, speaking of numbers, what we’ve been hearing a lot from Europe is that we can't handle these amounts of people. But I think you need to look at two things. First, these people are fleeing—they are not necessarily here to stay. The other thing is that, even if you would say, “OK, these people might stay here for awhile,” the population of the EU (only the EU countries, so I'm not even including Norway, Switzerland, that are also hosting refugees), is about 503 million people, and we're talking about 1 million people that have recently arrived.

So even the statement that Europe can't absorb this amount of people, it's just not true. If you have 503 million people, absorbing 1 million in that population is doable.

Of course, there are also concerns about how this is going to cost all kinds of money, all kinds of extra welfare. But in every country, and I'll speak of my own country, Holland, there have recently been a number of huge corruption scandals. For example, regarding public housing authorities that have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. So it's not like there is no money, it is rather that money is being wasted in all kinds of other ways.  

Then there is outright discrimination from both states and people. For example, a law in Denmark was recently adopted that allowed the state to confiscate goods from refugees—that is horrendous. In Holland, we've seen instances where authorities try to consult the local population about maybe creating an asylum center in their town; there have been people that come there and protest in a verbally violent, and sometimes also physically violent, way. And that creates a very intimidating climate, a very hostile climate.

And of course here in the U.S. we have governors of various states declaring they won’t allow refugees to enter, and that, from what you say about the U.N. convention, is against international human rights discourse.

And this leads me to my last question. We've talked about the U.N., we've talked about nation-states, we've talked about states within the United States. But what can the ordinary American citizen do to help in this crisis?

I think that's always a relatively strong and definitely admirable reaction: “What can I do? What can I do with my community? How can we help these people?” But rather than resorting to actions like sending blankets to Greece, I think what's really necessary is to create the political pressure on politicians here in the United States and in Europe to start acting to resolve this crisis, both aspects. That is the humanitarian issue, we need to accept more people, and the political issue, to end the conflict and begin restructuring so people can return.

We need to resettle these people as all these international norms require. And there needs to be a political response to this. These peace talks need to be revived, and the international and domestic conditions need to be created to resolve this crisis.

Do you know of any citizen groups, either here in the United States or elsewhere, that are organizing a route exactly to that political piece of things?

I think these are issues that everyone can write their representatives about. This is important—to show Americans care at a political level. I know that there are also grass-roots efforts of people going to Greek islands, helping people there. Unfortunately, it looks like that’s necessary. The UNHCR has only received 60 percent of the funding that they need. People continue to leave; we've seen in the last week, for example, that the fighting and the bombing of Aleppo has increased enormously, and that there are other kinds of mass exoduses of people.  You see the siege of different cities.  We've all seen the pictures of cities like Madaya.  Again, it is not looking like the situation is getting any better.

The UN Rapporteur for Migrants, François Crepaud, has spoken repeatedly about how to better address these situations. And what he’s saying – and I agree with that – is that we need to move from criminalizing migration in general, but also when you're talking about this particular refugee situation, to start regulating it.  What's happening now is that people are paying human traffickers and smugglers thousands of dollars for deficient life vests and for shaky boats, and for their passage into Europe.  ,And that leads to a huge number of avoidable deaths.

There have been thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean, about 300 to 400 people last month alone.  And all those deaths are preventable if we regulate instead of criminalize migration. One thing is that that curbs organized crime and human smuggling. I think it is imperative for everyone, and especially for governments, to make sure that people don’t die when they don’t need to.  And this is something the ordinary person can, and should, really lobby for.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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