The International Refugee System: Part I - Laying a Foundation

By Samantha Montano, M.S. 

Thoughts on the Syrian War, the international refugee system, humanity's affinity for like-looking people, and how those all fit together and how this situation can inform our future, particularly when it comes to climate change refugees.

Reminder: Your education is your responsibility.

Dear World

Dear World


Despite a few “Facebook General” posts, I’m in no way qualified to make any kind of definitive statement regarding a “solution” to the Syrian Civil War. I have some general ideas such as bombing the shit out things seems to make them worse, following the money is always a good start, and blaming war solely on religion is an oversimplified and relatively useless approach. I am qualified to talk about the “international refugee system” (spoiler… it shares the same fundamentals as the “international emergency management system”). I put these “systems” in quotes because they’re technically systems but are much more ad-hoc than formal. Most importantly neither the international refugee system nor the international emergency management system is effectively or efficiently designed or coordinated, nor do they produce results that any person with a pulse would deem acceptable.

There has been a dominant narrative explaining what ISIS is, how they came to be, and their involvement in the Syrian Civil War and attacks around the world. This narrative usually ends with something along the lines of “oh and now there are all these refugees”. While the narrative of how they came about for all intensive purposes seems to be relatively accurate, there is a distinct lack of explanation related to the complexities of the refugee situation (which, in my opinion is much more complex than who is fighting whom in Syria, and arguably has further reaching impact people’s lives all over the world). 


Laying A Foundation

Emergency management is concerned with four types of events - emergencies, disasters, catastrophes, and complex humanitarian crises (CHC). CHC are not your average disaster. Generally, CHC's are slow-onset, meaning there is some warning and they last for a long time. There is a complex web of people who are in need and people who are providing assistance. And, there is frequently confusion and disagreement about how the situation should be handled.

The current Syrian Refugee situation exemplifies the characteristics of a CHC including:

  • Impacts that persist over a long period of time
  • Needs emerge over time, gradually worsen, persist over time, are more concentrated in certain areas
  • The solution and origin of the hazard (in this case, war) are human-made
  • The origin and solution of the hazard and the crisis are disputed
  • Requires an international response
  • A complex system forms to address the crisis including NGO’s, quasi-governmental organizations, and multiple independent states.
  • Barriers to providing aid, at times related to issues of state sovereignty
  • Response is driven by “outsiders”

It is clear how the situation in Europe is a type of CHC. As such, it is useful to consider the crises within an emergency management framework.

For clarity, a refugee is defined by UNHCR as anyone who:

"owing to a 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 to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”


This means that if an individual is unsafe in their country they have a right to leave and seek the protection of the international community. It seems there has been confusion over the use of the term refugee compared to terms like “migrants”, “economic migrants”, “IDP’s”, etc. This confusion is not unique to this particular refugee situation but is part of a broader trend of misunderstanding the distinction between these terms. Most obviously there are legal reasons for needing to accurately distinguish between these terms but there is also a social dimension. In the west people often view migrants as a nuisance whereas refugees or IDP’s are more likely be viewed with compassion. While undoubtedly there are a number of individuals wrapped up in the refugee situation that could probably be better categorized as migrants the vast majority are in fact, refugees.

Ultimately a milieu of deep complexities including political, religious, economic, and cultural elements have not only lead to this situation but will continue to plague the response to the needs of millions of individuals and families.