Challenging Our Assumptions: The Syrian Refugee Crisis

From:  Santi Palacios/AP (click for original link) 

From: Santi Palacios/AP (click for original link) 

By Erin Clements

Erin is currently an MSc candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She studies social policy and development with a focus on non-governmental organizations and how they interact with the state and the private sector. 


“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.” – Thomas Paine, Common Sense

When it comes to addressing the Syrian refugee crisis, we have an identity problem. More often than not the response I hear from people about the crisis goes something like, “I have no idea what’s going on and it makes my brain hurt.” There is a daily tsunami (disaster pun intended) of news articles, blog posts, memes, tweets, Instagram photos, etc. about it. But with every avalanche (there I go again) of new articles and opinion pieces, little is done to drive understanding of and connection to the crisis and its astonishing magnitude.

            The lack of understanding and awareness about the Syrian refugee crisis has led to a wide variety of responses, many of which are fear-based. Where discussions of the crisis exist, economic and military concerns, fears of terrorism, and political debates follow.

One main reason why awareness and understanding is difficult is because the crisis defies many of the assumptions we have about crisis and disaster management. No matter how many news articles or foreign policy pieces we read, we still struggle to understand the short-term and long-term consequences of this tragedy because the assumptions that underpin our crisis management worldview are fundamentally flawed. The goal of this article is to begin unpacking these assumptions, to explain how the Syrian refugee crisis defies them, and hopefully to provide a new way of looking at this important issue in order to decrease fear and increase informed discussion.

It is important to note that when I say “our assumptions,” I am talking about assumptions that are commonly held in western countries. 

4 Ways This Crisis Defies Our Assumptions

1. There Are Clear “Start” And “End” Dates. 

There are many different kinds of crises and disasters (natural disasters, civil wars, genocide, coup d’état, etc.), and each has their own timeline of development. However, there is generally an official “beginning” and “end,” which are typically defined by when a crisis hits and then disappears from the public’s radar. For a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the start date is obvious – it is the day each disaster struck. For a political or cultural crisis like the Rwandan genocide, the official start date is more ambiguous as conflicts often pick up steam over time, and thus a significant or defining event may be used as a catalyst or start date. In both of these cases, the end date is usually declared by a government or aid organizations when they feel that the immediate danger and need for urgent aid is over. This could be when a peace treaty or cease-fire is signed, or when it is felt that short-term, emergency responses have run their course and long-term, local responses should begin.

Start dates are significant because they signal to the public, the media, international organizations, etc. that people should begin paying attention, donating, and contributing to the relief effort. End dates allow aid organizations and governments to end relief efforts for economic or political reasons, and they help maintain levels of public support and ease fatigue that people often feel when relief efforts are dragged out over long periods of time.   

The Syrian refugee crisis is the product of the Syrian civil war. The conflict itself started within the context of Arab Spring-related protests, which turned violent in March 2011. These protests were catalysts for global attention and Syrian political dissent, although the protest and the Arab Spring are products of long-term cultural and political events.

International aid organizations have been providing aid to Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan since early 2012. In early 2015 we saw an increasing number of reports of refugees drowning at sea while attempting to flee to the E.U. However, it was not until September 2, 2015 when photos of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy were published across social media and news sites that this crisis became a household discussion. So often, just like in this crisis, social media plays a huge role in initiating start and end dates. Social media is massive in reach; it provides visual and emotional appeals; it spreads information quickly; and it encourages public engagement. All of these elements allow social media to be the main vessel through which most people today hear about and perceive crises and crises responses. Other great examples of this include the KONY 2012 campaign, and more recently the Black Lives Matter movement.

The global conversation that followed that September 2, 2015 start date had three primary focuses: a human rights response to those risking their lives to flee Syria, a political and military response to address the multi-faceted conflict in Syria to protect international interests, and a political response to address the resettlement of refugees within E.U. and U.S. communities. These are three very complicated conversations that make it clear that there is no end date in sight for this crisis. 

2. Crises and Disasters Happen to Other People.

We generally assume that crises and disasters happen to “others.” This assumption is significant because it affects how we as individuals and as a larger electorate engage with crisis response. For example, if we assume that a crisis or disaster won’t influence our lives then we won’t prepare for one. Preparation is important because its process ranges from an individual taking a first aid class or stocking up on clean water to whether or not we create laws that allow all people to have access to nationally subsidized flood insurance.

This assumption is also significant because it can lead to a certain amount of apathy. If we cannot imagine a day when we may need to sleep on a Red Cross cot, make a flood insurance claim, or when we may rely on a foreign government to give us refuge from persecution, then we forget to respect the basic human rights that we would expect to be afforded to us in a crisis situation.

However, the Syrian crisis is rapidly hitting closer to home as we are faced with welcoming refugees into our own communities. We can no longer pretend that we are not a part of the narrative. The U.S. has pledged to take in a total of 100,000 refugees by 2017. Germany and other European countries expect the number of applications they receive for asylum to double this year. However, fair distribution of refugees within Europe remains an ongoing debate.  

Our response to this crisis can no longer simply be to donate or share a link on our Facebook page, and then go back to our lives. We must each face our own beliefs, fears, prejudices, shame, ignorance, and privilege. In doing so, we are forced to abandon our apathy and ask questions like:

  • Do I really support religious freedom?
  • Do I really believe that everyone has the right to a better life?
  • Does the political party I voted for in the last election really have a good solution?
  • Am I afraid of welcoming someone who looks and maybe thinks differently than me into my community?
  • Am I really willing to keep an open mind and not judge people prematurely?

These are very difficult and uncomfortable questions to ask, despite the fact that all western countries have had to deal with similar questions and crises in the past. The E.U. itself was built on the memory of the number of deaths and displaced people that prejudice and severe nationalism caused. Yet we are again placed in this uncomfortable, inward-looking position that we so frequently avoid in crisis response. 

3. There is a Single Narrative that We Can All Understand and Support

Most disaster and crisis responses are generalized into a single narrative that is easy for the public to understand and support. This tends to be done by the media, governments, and aid organizations. It makes it easy for us “outsiders” to know what kinds of donations are needed, which groups deserve our donations, who to protest against, etc. In the case of natural disasters where there is not necessarily an aggressor, the narrative may focus on the need for clean water or rebuilding homes. In a man-made disaster like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the narrative focused on “villainizing” BP.

Creating this single narrative is important because most disasters, crises, and the corresponding responses are complex, and the average person does not have the time, interest, or historical knowledge to engage with the intricate details. Creating a single narrative, like the focus on rebuilding homes after Hurricane Katrina, gives everyone a simple, positive task to rally around. The single narrative strategy is not necessarily bad; it is simply a reality of how to create a successful campaign. Those inclined to help want to know what they can do in the immediate moment. However, it often comes at the expense of giving less time and energy to more complex and divisive issues like criminal justice reform, political corruption, or poor welfare and medical infrastructure, which played a large role in the recent Ebola outbreak.

Sources: Eurostat; European Commission. Note: Britain, Ireland and Denmark are exempt from the new relocation plan. Click through for original source. 

Sources: Eurostat; European Commission. Note: Britain, Ireland and Denmark are exempt from the new relocation plan. Click through for original source. 

The Syrian refugee crisis defies this assumption because we have yet to generalize the vast number of players and components down to a single narrative.  The players (ISIS, the Assad regime, a divided opposition movement, international governments, aid organizations, the refugees themselves) and the historical and cultural elements they carry with them are complexly intertwined and constantly changing due to international, political, and military involvement. This makes it difficult for aid organizations, politicians, and the media to create a campaign capable of unifying support for refugees because the labels of  “victim” and  “perpetrator” are unclear and ever-changing.

4. Western Countries Have Their Shit Together

This assumption includes the following ideas: western countries have effective systems in place to deal with issues like refugee intake; they are the “saviors” in many crises and disasters; and western governments and aid organizations provide aid neutrally.

This is an important assumption to unpack, because it is deeply rooted in our truths about our national identities. The reality is that western countries actually have very poor systems in place to deal with refugees, especially children. The majority of people who seek asylum in the U.S. and Europe spend a significant amount of time locked up, in camps, or in state housing, and courts place the burden of proof of age and persecution on the individuals, even children. There is very little health care provided to people who are awaiting asylum hearings, and there is even less mental health care provided to these adults and children who have left traumatic situations or been separated from their families, and to women who are often raped on their journey to new countries.

The Syrian refugee crisis also defies this assumption because western countries visibly had a hand in perpetuating this conflict from a political and military perspective. The western public has also unashamedly and publicly expressed the fear that these refugees, many of whom are families and children, might be terrorists who want to infiltrate our communities and harm us. This response directly hurts the welfare of those who western asylum laws were built to protect.

In terms of neutrality, concerns have been expressed that not only could these existing prejudices prevent refugees from receiving the help that they need, but that Syrian refugees are receiving a higher status among asylum seekers than West African refugees who are fleeing similar situations. This preference may be due to the higher level of education among Syrian refugees, as well as racial prejudices. 

This crisis is not outside of our capacity to understand and engage with. Because it does not fit within our typical assumption of how we relate and respond to crises, many of us have remained confused and even fearful. But we should never be afraid to engage with important issues. For people who are interested in understanding the roots of this complex crisis, it is important to look at the history of conflict within the region, as well as major events like the initial U.S. invasion into Iraq.

It is also important to remember that whether we realize it or not, existing disaster and crisis management responses have been influenced by the public’s assumptions. As humans, we do experience crisis fatigue if we think the media over-covers an issue. We are prone to thinking in the present, rather than preparing for the future. We also act as voters, both with ballots and with our donations, which means that politicians and aid organizations alike are both responding to a crisis and campaigning for our future votes. So we need to think critically about our assumptions and how they fit the reality of an issue like the Syrian refugee crisis.

The last thing to note is that this list of assumptions is by no means exhaustive. We as human beings hold many assumptions and biases about conflict and crises and this article explores but a few.