Searching for Safety:
The Global Migration Crisis
“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner, declared in June.
What was once referred to as the Syrian refugee crisis has quickly developed into a global migration crisis, resulting in unprecedented mass displacement. By the end of 2014, close to 60 million people from around the world were forcibly removed from their homes due to persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations. Climate change has begun to effect weather, rendering some areas uninhabitable. Natural disasters, like flooding and drought, are happening more frequently. Agricultural land throughout the Middle East and Africa is turning into desert. Migration experts and human rights activists warn that the movement is not likely to alleviate anytime soon.
Over the last four years, millions of Syrian refugees have poured into neighboring countries fleeing from a brutal civil war that began in 2011. Following the Arab Spring and uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Syrian people took to the streets in demonstration against President Bashar al-Assad. Since the ascendance of the Baath party in 1963, Syria had been under emergency law which suspended all rights and liberties. Assad’s regime adopted violence as a modality of governance. Protests began over the regime’s extreme response to anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011. Teenagers were arrested — and reportedly tortured — for painting revolutionary slogans on a school wall.
Leading up to the protests, the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the most severe drought in the instrumental record. Between 2003 and 2009, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and western Iran lost water equal to all the water in the Dead Sea. Poor governance and unsustainable agricultural and environmental policies led to over a million rural villagers losing their farms along with 85% of their livestock. Assad’s regime was awarding well rights along political lines and when farmers tried to drill their own illegal wells, they were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Thousands of families had no other choice than to migrate to urban cities that were already overcrowded with immigrants from the Iraq war. Potable water was scarce, infrastructure was poor, and unemployment and crime were rampant. This in turn added to social stresses that contributed to the protests.
The regime responded fiercely to the protesters -torturing, killing, and shooting them. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, more protesters took to the streets and by July 2011, there were hundreds of thousands protesting across the country, demanding President Assad’s resignation. Violence escalated and the country descended into civil war. About 320,000 people have been killed in the conflict, including nearly 12,000 children, and conditions for civilians is becoming more dire.
“They fired rockets from a mountain near our house. They were very loud, and every time he heard them, he’d run into his room and close the door. We’d tell him fake stories. We’d tell him that there was nothing to worry about, and that the rockets were far away and they would never reach us. Then one day after school he was waiting in a line of school buses. And a rocket hit the bus in front of him. Four of his friends were killed.”
The war is now more than just a battle between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the rebel forces who want him out. Syria is now divided into territory occupied by the regime, rebel fighters, and Islamic extremists. All sides have committed horrible war crimes using chemical weapons, mass executions, torture on a large scale, and deadly attacks on civilians. Half of Syria’s population has been uprooted. Since the start of the conflict, more than four million people have fled Syria, slipping mercilessly into poverty. Neighboring countries have borne the brunt of the crisis, taking care of 85% of the refugees. Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have struggled to accommodate the flood of arrivals. 7.6 million Syrians remain internally displaced.
“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.”
With more than 4 years passing since the start of the civil war, living conditions for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries began deteriorating -along with the hope of ever returning home to Syria. Propelled by fear and desperation, refugees began taking dangerous journeys to Europe -risking treacherous waters and unscrupulous smugglers, for a chance at a better and safer life. Those who fled to Europe endured untold hardships. They were extorted by criminals. They were physically threatened and often assaulted by thuggish security guards and unwelcoming locals. All were subjected to the dehumanizing experience of being rammed into trucks like cattle and stuffed onto dangerously overcrowded, unsafe boats that were unequipped with latrines. According to a physician from Doctors Without Borders, almost all of the women that she had examined had been raped during the journey and many arrived several months pregnant. Thousands died along the way.
“I wish I could have done more for her. Her life has been nothing but struggle. She hasn’t known many happy moments. She never had a chance to taste childhood. When we were getting on the plastic boat, I heard her say something that broke my heart. She saw her mother being crushed by the crowd, and she screamed: ‘Please don’t kill my mother! Kill me instead!’
The Mediterranean Sea is now called the world’s deadliest border. In 2015, more than one million people have crossed it as refugees and migrants, trying to reach Europe. Nearly 4,000 of them died in the crossing, making 2015 the deadliest year on record, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Closed borders do not deter refugees. They only add to the suffering by making escape more dangerous and difficult. Strict border controls exasperate the problem by incentivizing smugglers. Europe’s border control programs have spawned a billion dollar industry of traffickers. Migrants are forced to take more dangerous and expensive routes while relying on human smugglers. Without safe passage, borders are transformed into a human filtering system.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” -Voltaire
Desperately in search of life and security, they are coming not just from Syria, but from an array of countries and regions, including Haiti, Afghanistan, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, North Korea and areas all over Northern Africa, in search of life and security. But despite pleas for safe passages, along with a petition from Amnesty International containing 280,000 signatures, EU leaders have not made any commitments to protect refugees in Europe.
Thus after embarking on the dangerous journey, the hardships faced by refugees are far from over when they complete it. Deeply dysfunctional policies have allowed an atmosphere of hostility toward immigrants to grow. Despite the trauma they have suffered, they are often greeted with a barrage of racist and Islamophobic vitriol. In their new homeland, they become recipients of hostile treatment and prejudice -including suspicion, blacklisting and xenophobia. Rather than display an ounce of humanity or compassion, several politicians have jumped at the chance to spout ignorant propaganda, which further fuels the climate of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate crimes, which are happening with frightening regularity.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” -Emma Lazarus
The screening process for refugee entry into the United States is rigorous and lengthy. The average processing time for refugee applications is 12–18 months, but Syrian applications usually take longer. Most applicants apply for refuge though the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The office then forwards some of the applications to the U.S. State Department, which prepares these applications for adjudication by Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Once an applicant is referred to the State Department, biometric and biographic checks are done against various U.S. security databases at multiple points throughout the process. Multiple agencies systems and databases are incorporated in this process including; a detailed infographic can be found on the White House website.
“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” -Albert Einstein
There seems to be a consensus that today’s massive and mixed migration flow isn’t going to be ending any time soon. Refugees are highly motivated and wish to give back to their host country. The sooner they are allowed to participate in the labor economy, the sooner they are able to give back. Countries that are hosting the majority of refugees are already seeing an economic boost.
Despite the labels and scare tactics that politicians try and use to divide us, we are all human beings. For better or worse, migrants and refugees will continue to flee from unspeakable treatment and grim circumstances for years to come. It would behoove us all to remember that it was nothing more than the toss of a dice that determined where we were born. A compassionate world response is needed.