The International Refugee System: Part III - The Problem

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.


What is the problem?  

Before finding solutions we need to be clear about what the problem is. In the case of the European refugee crisis, there are two. The first, and perhaps the most obvious is that millions of people have had to flee their homes. 

Often, the wise among us look for the root cause of a problem when looking for solutions. In this case, the root cause of a large number of refugees is not only to end the Syrian Civil War but also every other war and civil unrest in the middle east and every other part of the world that causes people to flee... Literally the solution is world peace... So, clearly addressing this particular root cause is far from achievable in the current political climate. 

But even that seems to simplify the root cause. 

A few months ago Senator Bernie Sanders initiated a conservative shit storm when he drew a connection between "global terrorism" and climate change.  

"In fact, climate change is directly related to the rise of global terrorism"
- Sen. Bernie Sanders

Senator Sanders is correct. Though it is unclear what is and is not included in the phrase "global terrorism" given our current cultural context we can assume a civil war falls in the "global terrorism" category. To put it in terms of the Syrian War, climate change worsened drought conditions in Syria which led to an economic downturn and famine which when coupled with pre-existing political instability initiated war. It is critical to understand that Syria is not unique in this situation.

Let’s use drought as an example because of prevalent it is becoming. As we see an increase in dry conditions in certain areas and people are unable to grow food, what happens? If the government does not have the resources or ability to coordinate a response, and if aid groups are unable to step in, droughts instigate famines. It is not in our human nature to sit passively and starve. People react, often in the form of social unrest. The interactions of hazards (i.e., drought, famine, etc) and political, economic, religious, etc contexts are inextricably intertwined to the extent that it is not always clear if the drought has caused a famine and civil unrest or if a drought has interacted with civil unrest to cause a famine or any other combination of these factors. The directions of those interactions are not always clear because they are that, interconnected. These ideas are inextricably linked to the economic systems of each country, their surrounding countries in their region and the international economy, now that we live in a globalized society.

As climate change interacts with politics, economics, religion, and other institutions it is quickly becoming a leading factor in the creation of refugees globally. As the climate changes, the population increases, globalization continues, resource inequality increases, and bad development decisions are made, we will not only see an increase in natural disasters, man-made disasters, and their intersection but also an increase in complex humanitarian crises.

So stopping and reversing climate change, minimizing the resource inequality gap, and ending all political/ economic/ religious disagreements to achieve world peace is a bit out of reach. So what's the second problem? Can we do something about that? 

The second problem is that refugees are risking their lives to escape their home countries, continue to risk their lives as the seek refuge in second and third countries, that they rarely have their basic needs met (perhaps what we would call response).

In 2015, 3,695 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. As of April 1st 627 people have already died crossing the Mediterranean this year already. A system that is built without a way to help refugees travel safely, a system that is built to allow smugglers to take people's money, a system that allows people to swim across the Mediterranean sea when there are safe boats that could carry them is not a system worthy of praise. 


Outside of transportation, basic needs are difficult to meet including food, water, shelter, medical needs, employment, and schooling. The system's response to these need are often refugee camps.  

"But the purgatory of camp life lasts decades or even generations, as the politics of refugees’ home countries remains unstable. The average length of stay in a refugee camp is now more than twelve years...When people stay for so long, the bareness of camps, their lack of services, and their segregation from the surrounding society become chronic problems. Camps keep refugees alive, but they prevent them from living." - source

Allow me to be clear: refugee camps are not a solution. They are a temporary holding pen meant only to keep millions of people alive (assuming they can even accomplish that) from one day to the next. A system that relies on putting millions of people in unliveable conditions for years under the guise of humanitarianism is not a system worthy of praise.    

Source: Telegraph UK

Source: Telegraph UK

In addition to the needs of the individual refugees themselves, it is necessary to consider the needs of the organizations, agencies, and countries that are helping them. There is arguably a greater need among the countries that surround Syria because their resources have been depleted over the past three years. Whereas European nations, even Greece though they are in the middle of an economic crisis and implementation of austerity measures, are still better off to handle these refugees, particularly Germany, Austria, and other countries in the EU because they have more resources. An international system that relies on a handful of countries (many of who are operating under neoliberal policies) to provide social services to millions of refugees is not functional in the current political climate. 

The final piece of the system is resettlement. Once a refugee has reached their third country they face another overwhelming task. Integration into their new community (perhaps what we would call recovery) is a long and sometimes impossible journey. There is a massive need for aid from governments and nonprofits, particularly related to finding housing and jobs. (Keep in mind the issues of complexity here as discussed in Part II -- this aid is theoretically being provided by the governments and nonprofits in each respective country in Europe so there is great variation, no consistency, and no accountability. 

In case it hasn't been made clear, this whole process takes each individual refugee YEARS to go through. 

To summarize the “refugee management system” is ineffective and inefficient. The system is failing the people who need it. Meanwhile, we, as an international community, are watching millions of people's lives continue to spiral into turmoil while not even questioning why the system isn't helping.

Catch up: 

Part I - The International Refugee System: Laying a Foundation

Part II - The International Refugee System: Movement