The International Refugee System: Part V - Moving Forward

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.


Its is clear the situation in Europe is going to get worse. There is no realistic discussion of an end to the wars in the middle east, specifically Syria. UNHCR and the organizations on the ground say they anticipate a sustained influx for the foreseeable future. And, as stated previously, the individuals showed on the news are people that have their own resources (enough to pay for transport and get housing while they find employment, NOT a lot of people in camps, most are integrated into the communities they’ve moved too). Once this wave of wealthier refugees come through the next wave will be lower income, more vulnerable, and have more needs. It's also worth noting again that the majority of refugees are in countries in the middle east (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, etc.) so calling this a "European crisis" is misleading. 

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, we are unable to focus on more than one refugee crisis at a time. We have our own refugee crisis going on in the Americas. Last year there was an influx of children, what traditional media called “Child Migrants”. By definition, these children were/ are refugees. These children are fleeing because their countries are in the throes of drug wars and they are being recruited to participate in these drug wars. These children traversed Mexico to arrive in the United States. These children (they are primarily children), are refugees. As we have seen the US government has done what it can to not treat them as such, nor treat them with considerations of human dignity.

Nonprofits have tried to meet the needs of these children. There were several faith-based organizations that opened centers, and what we would traditionally consider refugee camps (although they were not called refugee camps because we’re the United States and have a complex). And there were organizations that offered legal representation to these children. The US government put so much pressure on the court systems in Texas, Arizona, and the states that saw the highest influx of refugees, that they were illegal immigrants. Yet by the UN’s definition of refugee, which theoretically the US agrees with, these children (and adults) were, in fact, refugees. Sure, there’s been a decrease in refugees coming across the border since we saw the influx in 2014 but there are still individuals coming across… the drug wars have not ended.

I do want to note that yes, some people coming across the border are what we would consider illegal immigrants. However, we need to be more precise when discussing this issue. What really is the status of the individuals crossing the border? Most would be surprised to find how many are coming to the US because of life-threatening situations in their home countries. Yet, Americans see similar situations happening across the Atlantic ocean and deem it a refugee situation. The reason the US doesn’t want to call our situation a refugee crisis is because if the people crossing into the US are given refugee status then the US government is responsible, according to international law. Assuming the US government cares about international law they are then responsible for assisting the refugees and settling them in the US. This is because the US is the country in which refugees from Central American countries have "landed" (this is what accounts for so many refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa trying to "land" in Greece rather than other non-EU countries that are physically closer).

The refugees making their way to Europe definitely won’t be the last refugees. In fact, given climate change, greater economic inequality, population growth, misappropriation of resources, and advanced technologies the number of individuals made refugees each year is set to grow exponentially.

We need to make the international refugee more effective and efficient. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, no one seems to know how to fix the refugee system outside of a few stopgaps here and there. And even if there was a great idea how would we ever be able to find the resources (support, money, expertise) to implement it? The international community faces immense challenges to revamping the international refugee system. Even if we 1) had a great idea for an international refugee system and, 2) we were able to give it the full resources required and implement it worldwide, it would do nothing for the individuals who are refugees today or tomorrow or for many years. Overhauling the international refugee system is no easy feat. Quite honestly I'm not sure there is much evidence to suggest it can even be done. It will take resources of all kinds on an unprecedented scale and require international cooperation never before enacted. But it is still worth trying because even if climate change stopped today the climate has already changed. And, millions are susceptible to becoming refugees from political and economic instability alone. 

The refugee crisis may ebb and flow but this is a perpetual problem with no easy solution. There is no ending to refugee crises but there are things that can be done to make the situation more humane. Addressing the lackluster international refugee system should be the first step. We need a system that ensures the humane treatment of refugees from helping individuals to safely leave their homes, to the journey through second countries, and the process of resettlement. Letting anyone, but especially children float across the Mediterranean is not acceptable. We MUST question why this is the rule, why this is the way the system is built. The United States, and a whole host of other nations have the resources to evacuate refugees but instead, we allow thousands to drown, traumatize children, and create the opportunity for a refugee trafficking industry to thrive.


What Can Westerners do?

Though needed, personal donations are not enough. The amount of funding and coordination required to safely resettle millions of people is of a scale not seen since the end of WWII.


Although many snide comments and full-length articles have been written on “slacktivism” (I wrote one myself and it was revisted here) sometimes it really is all we can do in a situation like this. The one thing that slacktivism does really well is starting conversations -- between friends, family members, and even by making online and traditional media pay attention. Yes, the online activism will come in waves. The reality is it takes a slow news day and photos of dead children to make us pay attention. But when a photo of a dead child overtakes our newsfeeds there is a window of opportunity to use our collective voices to bring attention to the situation. Attention alone is not sufficient to deal with the crisis but it is the starting point.

For some people posting things online is a brave act of activism… criticisms of slacktivism is often steeped in privilege. Posting publicly online, or even privately to friends and family can be a real form of radical activism. Many people around the world risk their lives to post information online. As Janet Mock pointed out once, for some, posting online may be the only way they can participate in activism safely.  


For at least a handful of us, slacktivism can lead to self-education. Realistically the most basic thing we can all be doing is educating ourselves. Especially those of us in the US who are geographically and culturally far removed from what is going on across the Atlantic For some of us, that’s really all we can do and that's okay.

Use slacktivism to educate the people in your own social network. Tell Aunt Sue and Jake from 8th grade that their patriotism is racism in disguise. I think the term refugees brings up paranoia. I do wonder if we called refugees something else, like “Syrian citizens” I wonder to what extent some people might not react so badly. My evidence for this, although I recognize it may be a bit of a stretch is that after Hurricane Katrina when the evacuees from NOLA were bussed around the country some media and individuals called them refugees. Let’s clarify that New Orleans residents were not refugees because they are in fact citizens of this country. They were evacuees, and if any term greater than that is appropriate it would have been “Internally Displaced People” (IDP). The way that we talked about the Katrina evacuees in this country was steeped in not only racism but also classism, urbanism, and sexism in multifaceted ways. But we talked about them as refugees which I think was an attempt to dehumanize them, and what they were going through and I think that’s a really important and relevant example of how Americans specifically, understand the term refugees and what that word means. Judging from the memes there seems to be a total lack of understanding for some people to understand that at any moment they could become a refugee and there’s no ability of some people to put themselves in the shoes of others. It is concerning to me, specifically, what it says about how Americans are going to react to refugee crises that are going to be much bigger and much worse in the near future.

Elevate Syrian Voices

There has been a discernible absence of Syrian voices in the refugee conversation (at least in western media). I realize that I am feeding into this western-centric narrative so I would like to recommend a number of Syrian activists for everyone to check out. I only comment on this situation because of my academic background… when it comes to refugees it is arguably always best to listen to the refugees and activists themselves. Here's a start for you: Alaa BasatnehKassem Eid, and Sarab al-Jijakli 


I hope it is obvious that this is the briefest of overviews of the international refugee situation. Though it is their responsibility, it's altogether not that surprising that the media has failed to translate these complex ideas to the general public (who is separated from this by an ocean and feels no impacts themselves). It is not just a matter of picking up the Syrian refugees, handing them a house and a job, and thinking this crisis will end. There is no short-term solution to the Middle East refugee crisis. There are thousands of deaths, disease outbreaks, drowned children, cold nights, hungry mouths, frustration, anger, and sadness that lay ahead. We’re past the point of avoiding those things, they are now inevitable. We can't just close our eyes and hope this fixes itself, we have to put pressure on our government (and by extension the UN who is technically in charge of the "refugee system") to influence other governments to fix this. Sending blankets aren't near enough. What we can do is work to change the system. It is truly ignorant and morally wrong that we expect the countries closest to Syria to deal with the refugee crisis. This is an international problem that requires an international solution. I want to believe in the power of individuals and the power of nonprofits but some situations are just too big and too complex. We HAVE to change the system... especially for the future. 

This blog post is only meant to scratch the surface of a situation with enough to complexities to fill many books. My hope is that what is written here empowers you to further educate yourself and those around you.