The International Refugee System

*Orginally posted as a five part series in April 2016* 

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.

Part 1: Laying a Foundation

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. 

Part II: Movement

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. 

Souce: BBC

Souce: 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 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 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.

Source: Montano, 2015

Source: Montano, 2015

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 refuge 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. 

Part III: The Problem

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.

Part IV: The System

So... this whole refugee thing doesn’t seem to be working out for either the refugees themselves nor the countries they are passing through, nor the countries they’re relocating to… Is this what is supposed to happen? 

Yes, this is what is supposed to happen. The UN set into motion the creation of an international refugee system after WWII in the form of what is today called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The refugee system, to the extent that it's appropriate to call it a system, began after WWII for the purposes of resettling refugees throughout Europe. Five million refugees went through the system at the conclusion of WWII. The resettlement was done through the UN, specifically the newly created UNHCR. This new system worked to the extent that WWII refugees were resettled but it was also clear that WWII was not the only producer of refugees. In fact, they found refugees are a constant reality of an unpeaceful world (duh). After WWII, there were a whole bunch of other wars, all over the world that required individuals leave their countries because of very real safety concerns. Whether they are refugees from war, genocide, climate changes, disasters, or political conflicts more broadly, there have constantly been millions of individuals that need to be resettled. So, since it's creation UNHCR has continued to coordinate the resettlement of refugees around the world. 

Is the system working or is it failing? The answer to that is critical to understanding what needs to be done to fix the actual refugee system (globally, not just for Syrian refugees) because regardless if the system is supposed to work like this or not the one thing I think we can all agree on is that the performance is unacceptable -- it's not working.

The refugee system, since its creation, has been constantly overwhelmed. If a system is overwhelmed from its founding isn't that an indication that the system was never created correctly from the start? How could we expect the system to be sustainable? How could that system extend and expand as needs change? 

The international refugee system is and has been, completely overwhelmed, underfunded, and understaffed for its entire life. World leaders do not make refugees a priority until it is politically or economically beneficial to themselves. Questioning the altruism of world powers is probably futile so the take-away here is that refugees are not a priority of the international community, nor are they likely to be in the future unless they are in some way politically or economically relevant to a powerful country.

The average person likely knows very little about the refugee system. Misconceptions and blatantly inaccuracies that are perpetuated by mainstream media, social media, individuals, and governments have created a negative stereotype of refugees. This image has perpetuated a complete lack of understanding and an unwillingness to assist refugees worldwide (this is particularly the current case in the United States). The political reactions we’re seeing now, not even from conservative candidates, but just from average people online… it’s disturbing to see how deep-seated these fears and hate towards refugees really are.

Around the world, they are the international body that is supposed to be managing refugees. When somebody needs to leave their country they are supposed to be able to go the UN to get the resources needed to be removed from their country and resettled someplace else until such time as they are able to return to their home country. UNHCR has consistently been underfunded and unsupported by the major industrialized nations. These countries that are supposed to be the leaders of the world have not been participating in this system.

But it’s not just the UN (and their numerous agencies) who are involved in managing refugees. As alluded to in previous blog posts the individual governments of each country (both national and local levels), NGO's (international, regional networks, local nonprofits in each country and abroad), online activists (groups and individuals), emergent groups, and corporations/ businesses. 

The government from the home country of refugees, the second countries, the third countries, and any countries that have a stake in any of the aforementioned countries are all involved in the movement of refugees around the world. I think it's pretty clear how difficult it is to get two countries to agree or coordinate on even less controversial things so the notion that dozens of governments could come together and coordinate a response to the controversial movement of millions of people is truly laughable. 

There are not only the international organizations that have become involved in this situation such as IRC, MSF, OxFam, CARE, etc. but also the organizations in each of the countries involved that are providing food, water, temporary housing, and the necessities for permanent resettlement. Then there's all the new organizations and groups that form in the short term to address specific needs that are not met by existing organizations and government (e.g., the convoy of Germans that drove to the border to drive refugees in their personal vehicles). There's also the online community, the impacts of which are less studied. The internet and its compondents are used as a tool for all of these pre-existing groups but it's also used by individuals. Refugees can tweet their experiences first hand. They can explain their needs first hand and people on the other side of the world can meet their individual needs directly, bypassing the larger developed system all together. 

Is that the future? Do we not need nonprofits and intermediate organizations and groups if the people with the resources can speak directly to the people who need the resources? Has twitter and other social media sites replaced the need for intermediate organizations whom often take a cut of the donations (even if for responsible reasons such as overhead costs)? 

Perhaps that's the future but it seems a long way off. There's another reality about the current refugee system that is rarely, if ever discussed by mainstream media -- the trend towards the privatization of the refugee system. If it never occurred to you that the refugee system is being privatized it’s because it’s not something that has been advertised (NGOs and the UN remain the most visible organizations).

Here's an example using Greece again. With the influx of refugees, the Greek government hired a corporation to open detention centers to house the refugees as they arrived. As more an more refugees arrived the camps were filled over capacity. Instead of opening more camps, which the Greek government had given the money to do, the corporation forced the refugees to sleep outside in the open. Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights group have called the camps “inhumane”. 

Let's be clear on something -- a privatized refugee system (regardless of what country it is in) is objectively a horrible idea. Think privatization of prisons in the US but times 15 million people. By privatizing the refugee system you financially incentivize creating more refugees. There is no incentive for a company to resettle the refugees because they will lose profits. There's also no incentive for these contractors to provide any kind of humane treatment.... which is evidenced by the detention centers in Greece (and other places). (Also the privatized refugee system collides with the homeland security industry and the military industrial complex in a way that I haven't fully wrapped my head around and that could probably be explained better by some kind of cartoon). Ultimately, in privatized camps refugees are treated inhumanely and are left to ad-hoc their way through the situation with no guidance or oversight.

There’s also no accountability (with the exception of Amnesty International which seems to work their way in now and then). Privatizing the refugee system signals that host- governments do not care. It is easier for them to just pay a corporation to deal with the problem. If you create a system that accepts refugees and then immediately turns them out to get jobs, and a place to stay, and education and for them to be financially independent on their own, which is what you want, the corporation can't keep making money. But if you keep people constrained to perpetual refugee status the corporation can keep making money. Again, companies have no incentive to move the refugees outside of the detention centers AND while the refugees are in the detention centers there’s no incentive to treat them in a humane way.

The privatization of refugee camps is especially bad news for NGO's. It ties their hands in terms of what they can do to help refugees not to mention that now businesses are competing with NGO’s to secure government grants.

It’s not just that we need to address the current refugee crisis, although we do. It’s that we need to address the refugee system. It may have been sufficient in 1945, but the world is different now. We can do more. We are headed down a very dangerous path -- this current situation is indicative of the road we will be traveling down for the next decades, if not centuries. We need to build an international refugee system that has the capacity to deal with the millions that become refugees annually.

Part V: Moving Forward

It 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.