The International Refugee System: Part II - Movement

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.


Where are the refugees from? 

Most Americans: Syria!
Me: And…
Most Americans: Uhhh.

The current European/ Middle Eastern refugee crisis is extremely complex. Of the millions of refugees making their way to Europe only half are from Syria. The other 50% of refugees come from countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Iran, and, Ukraine. It is necessary to understand that it’s not just refugees from one country, it’s not even refugees from one continent. This diversity has MAJOR implications for refugee management. 

Source: BBC

Source: BBC

It is also important to note that these numbers, and refugees, don’t even include the people that are displaced within their own country, Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs). Any civilian left in Syria right now is considered an IDP, all 14 million of them.

Not to mention that Iraq has IDPs, Afghanistan has IDPs. Every single country that is in the middle of civil unrest or declared war has IDPs, this is true for the middle east and any country that has a war occurring on their soil. In total these individuals have become refugees because of a complex history of past and current wars including but not limited to the Syrian Civil War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, threats and violence perpetuated by and in Iran, Russia, China, and the list could go on. By simply beginning to understand the diversity of origin of refugees making their way to Europe begins to show the complexity of finding solutions to stop the creation of refugees.


Where are the refugees going? 

Most Americans: America!
Me: .... No, guys, no. SMH

There are dozens of countries that are either a thoroughfare for these refugees or are the settling country for these refugees including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Serbia, the United States, Morocco, Greece, Brazil, Canada.

When someone leaves their country most often (and especially in the case of Syria) they go to a "Secondary Country". Secondary countries are the surrounding nations that have taken temporary taken refugees until they can immigrate to the countries where they will be permanently resettled. In the case of Syria this would primarily include Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. 

Source: mercy corps 

Source: mercy corps 

Different secondary countries take different approaches to how they handle refugees. For example, Lebanon has worked to integrate Syrian refugees into the the local community. The children of refugees are going to Lebanese schools, they are finding jobs in Lebanon, they are staying in homes in neighborhoods. The infrastructure in Lebanon has for sure expanded to accept them but in general refugees have integrated into the community in the sense that they’re using the services of the country they’re living in (not culturally). BUT, there are still refugees in camps, even in Lebanon. 

Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

The above is a photo of the Al Zaataria Refugee camp in Jordan is home to 80,000 Syrian refugees. Jordan is at a breaking point as they are hosting 600,000 Syrian refugees, an additional one million unregistered Syrians, and are under constant threat of a portion of the 14 million IDP's in Syria flooding across the border. Regardless of Jordan's altruism they are a relatively small country of only 9 million people. They. Do. Not. Have. The. Capacity. To. Support. So. Many. Refugees. Secondary countries, particularly in the current situation are very clearly overwhelmed and are in desperate need for "Third Countries" to step up. 

Third countries are where refugees permanently settle. In the case of this particular crisis this would include Germany, the UK, Canada, United States, etc. There has been a lot of fanfare in the media about Germany being the ideal third country for Syrian refugees. But the reality is that even if they wanted to Germany does not have the ability to add tens of millions of people to their population. Other countries must step up and accept refugees in greater numbers than are currently being committed to.

Source: BBC

Source: BBC


The above chart shows the number of asylum applications submitted in 2015 (in Europe). The chart below shows the number of Asylum applications approved (in Europe). I'm sure you can easily see the problem. 1,321,560 million claims were submitted but only 292,540 were approved. There must be a way to move refugees from second to third countries (and make it more timely). 


Source: BBC

Source: BBC

But wait, it's not that simple...

To further complicate matters, refugees may think they are in their third country. They may even live there for years until the socio-political landscape changes and they face circumstances that require them need to leave again. This is the case for many refugees that had settled in Turkey, Lebanon and surrounding countries. Several years ago most people (70% of Syrian refugees) were NOT in refugee camps. Now hundreds of thousands are risking their lives to get to Europe? What’s going on?

In the end of July 2015 I took the photo below at the main train station in Budapest, Hungary. It was a relatively quiet night with some locals and backpackers milling around. 

Source: Montano, 2015

Source: Montano, 2015

This is the exact same train station a month later... as refugees clamored to be let on trains to bring them to western Europe. 

Source: the Telegraph, 

Source: the Telegraph, 

Things got worse inside Syria. The people that had been left in Syria, incidentally the people with less money, and the more vulnerable populations, who were not able to evacuate Syria and who did not have transportation or funding to leave Syria during the first wave. But now the war has escalated and the living conditions are so unbearable that despite a lack of resources they started to leave (around September 2015).

This second wave went to the surrounding countries, (e.g., Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) arrived to find countries already saturated with recent refugees. In most cases they could not travel further out because they had used all of their resources. So they stayed and the government and NGO's had to put them in camps. The more economically rich Syrians who had made the second countries their third countries are making some very hard decisions. They say the new wave of refugees have taken their place and that moving on to Europe and other third countries are their only option right now. It is easy to believe the direness of the situation when one familiarizes themselves with the journey they are undertaking. They are making life and death trips by paying refugee smugglers thousands and thousands of dollars to take them across the sea. 


Now, from a management perspective, the "refugee system" needs to work within the complexities of each of the individual countries involved whether they are a country of origin, a second country, a third country, or a country that has some type of economic or political involvement in any of these countries. Yikes. 

The media has offered frequent critiques of how countries outside Syria have handled the influx of refugees. There seems to be a general agreement that no country is doing enough, though some are definitely doing more than others. What has not been acknowledged or discussed at any real length is the capacity of each of these countries.

Each country has a completely unique political, social, and economic system with a variety of characteristics that make them better or less able to accept a number of refugees. Not to mention what refugees will experience once they are in a given country. The situational context of the countries that the refugees are traveling to/ through are so radically different and varying that it prevents a single solution.

To illustrate this point let’s use Greece as an example.

They are in the middle of their own economic crisis, in the throes of political leadership changes, and now they have hundreds of thousands of refugees flood in.

After decades of conservative government the 2008 financial meltdown (USA! USA!) rippled across the Atlantic and pushed Greece’s economy over the edge. They faced an economic collapse in 2010 forcing them to take loans from IMF, World Bank, and the EU (primarily Germany). Stipulations of these loans forced widespread privatization, layoffs of public servants, and eventually led to the implementation of austerity measures. This approach (i.e., neoliberalism) surprise, surprise led to social unrest, increases in poverty, and an overall further decrease in the Greek economy (that's all bad stuff).

Meanwhile refugees began showing up on Greek islands by the thousands. At first mostly from Afghanistan but then in 2012 mostly from Syria. Why? Because there’s a civil war in Syria, a war in Iraq and Afghanistan and there has been for the past 15 years. People can’t live in those countries anymore because they are being killed by the 100,000s. So they seek refugee in the geographically closest EU country… Greece.

Greece's social systems (or what was left of them after they were dismantled by IMF/ EU requirements) clearly were and are in no position to be dealing with the influx of people with massive quantity and types of needs... Also people are jerks and take out their anger with their government (and financial institutions) on easy targets... in this case refugees. As a logical progression of neoliberalism the refugee "system" in Greece (which basically consists of the detention centers) were privatized which has directly has influenced the experience of refugees as they come through Greece.

This is just the briefest of overviews of a single country, and just as it relates to their relationship with the refugee system.

But what is going to happen if there is another disaster on top of this? Is there a famine in Lebanon? What happens if there is a drought or any kind of food shortage in Lebanon right now when they’re already in a more vulnerable position? I’m going to guess that there’s going to be civil unrest in Lebanon. This isn’t just tied to the economy but also the political systems in each of these countries, and the political climate of the region and the political climate of the international community.  We know that Syria has an unstable political situation, that is evident by way of their civil war. Now, if you look at the countries surrounding them we have even more political unrest, even more civil unrest, more economic unrest. Not to mention that these countries that surround Syria are not immune to natural hazards. Istanbul is one of the most seismically at risk cities in the world. And Athens is no stranger to the earth shaking.

To put it bluntly: the current refugee system (or the international emergency management system for that matter) is not capable of managing this many refugees over the spread of this many countries. And that is a problem, not only for the refugees who are suffering now but for the millions more that are likely to become refugees in 2016.