This is what it’s like to cover the refugee crisis
On World Refugee Day, we share stories from Washington Post correspondents who have traveled far and wide to tell the stories of those fleeing devastation in search of safety.
World Refugee Day is observed each year on June 20. On this day, refugee advocates urge people to focus on the plight of those who have been displaced by famine, war and oppression.
By the end of 2016, more than 65 million people worldwide were forced to leave their homes due to conflict and persecution, data published by the U.N. Refugee Agency reveals. That’s an average of 28,300 people per day, almost 20 people every minute.
From Kenya to Greece, our correspondents have traveled far and wide to tell the stories of those fleeing devastation in search of safety.
We asked five correspondents to share their most memorable moment from their time covering the refugee crisis. Here are the stories of the people they won’t forget:
“As an editor, I think about who is going where, and why.” Tiffany Harness, Middle East editor
The young mother was crying, uncontrollably it seemed, as the rescue boat that had picked her up off the coast of Libya drifted in the sea.
She and more than 600 others had piled into a smuggling vessel that was probably overloaded, unseaworthy or both. When the boat capsized, most of those onboard were rescued. At least 30 were not, including the woman’s baby.
I will never know more about them than that.
The photo, taken last month by Chris McGrath of Getty Images, conveyed a heartbreakingly common story in a crisis marked by death and numbers. More than 5,000 migrants and refugees drowned last year in the Mediterranean as they tried to reach Europe. More than 1,600 have drowned in the same waters this year, according to the International Organization for Migration, a slower pace than last year but still horrifying.
And that is just a sliver of a global crisis, with the number of people uprooted from their homes in the tens of millions.
As an editor, I try to understand the data — I look for trends and patterns. I think about who is going where, and why, and how we can best tell those stories.
It is a topic that sets off heated discussions among nations, politicians and neighbors. Who should be labeled a refugee, who is an economic migrant? Should it make any difference? Who should pay to help them?
I do not know why I stared so long at the photo. I see many similar images almost every day. But as I looked at it, one question seemed more important than the rest, and unanswerable: Who is responsible for the death of this baby, tragically drowned at sea?
“I came to better understand the painful hardships that erupt during a refugee’s flight to safety.” Anthony Faiola, Berlin bureau chief
When I first saw the Jinaid family, dawn was breaking outside a cheap flophouse for Syrian refugees in northern Greece. It was the spring of 2015, and we were on the Greek-Macedonian border trying to capture an important moment — the beginnings of a surge that would turn into Europe’s extraordinary refugee crisis. More than 1 million immigrants, most of them Syrians, would make a break for the wealthy nations of central Europe, the majority traveling via a snaking, dangerous path through the Balkans. Many of the migrants who risked the trip would end up brutalized by bandits and corrupt police. A few would die en route.
In the hotel foyer, I was chatting with a few young Syrian men who had been beaten and pushed back by Macedonian police when the Jinaids lumbered by. Their tired eyes and beaten-up gear said refugees. But their clean clothing and supreme unease screamed fish out of water: Like so many of the families who came after them, these were average middle-class folk thrust into a frightening unknown. I gently stopped them as they made for the door with their bags. Yes, said the family’s leader — Aleppo truck driver Ahmed Jinaid — they could spare five minutes for a chat.
They ended up giving me days — days in which I came to better understand the hardships and complex family emotions that erupt during a refugee’s flight to safety. Ahmed’s brother had escaped Syria and made it to Austria. Ahmed was taking his brother’s two children to their father. On their route to safety they faced miles of hiking by moonlight through bandit-filled forests, did jail time in Hungary, lost weight and became ill from endless walking and poor-quality food. They offered insight into one profound truth: Refugees are creatures of circumstance, not of choice.
Perhaps that is the single biggest point to remember on World Refugee Day.
“On his phone, Rashid watched the world change. But he was still stuck in the camp.” Kevin Sieff, Africa bureau chief
I first met Mohammed Rashid in the days after President Trump’s travel ban had been introduced.
Rashid was 38. He had been a refugee since 14, when he fled Somalia’s devastating civil war. For seven years, he had been on the waiting list for resettlement in the United States, spending most of his life in one of the world’s largest refugee camps, called Dadaab, in northern Kenya.
Rashid’s life was confined to the camp, but with a smartphone and a Facebook account, his world had broadened. He could check on his friends in America, posing next to their cars and in their apartments. He could follow the president of the United States on Twitter, as Trump announced his plan to temporarily bar the entry of people from seven countries — including Somalia — and freeze the admission of refugees to the United States.
On the one hand, technology turned Rashid, stuck in his Dadaab hut, into someone conversant in global affairs and American idioms. On the other, it made the tragedy of his life that much more apparent to him. On his phone, Rashid watched the world change. But he was still stuck in the camp, his chances of leaving growing dimmer under Trump, whose ban was soon being challenged in the courts.
A few months after I first met him, that distance between Rashid and the life he wanted grew even wider. A flood swept through Dadaab, tearing through Rashid’s hut, where he lived with his wife and three children. He posted a blurry picture on Facebook of his family escaping in the middle of the night on a cart pulled by a donkey.
“My beloved family evacuating/fleeing by donkey carts. May Allah help us,” he wrote.
For two weeks they stayed with a friend until the waters receded. When they returned to their hut, it was largely destroyed. I visited him again in May, when he was debating what to do next.
He could try to raise money to rebuild the hut. But how much sense did it make to spend whatever he had on a temporary home that he was trying desperately to leave?
On his phone, he updated his Facebook status:
“You will either experience the pain of discipline or the pain of regret,” he wrote. “The choice is yours.”
“It was not the end of the world, but it was the end of a dream.” Pamela Constable, Afghanistan and Pakistan bureau chief
Several months ago, I met three Afghan men in Kabul who had just been deported from Germany. They were safe, unharmed and being provided with temporary shelter by the government, but their faces had the same dazed and exhausted look of failure. Like tens of thousands of their fellow Afghans — mostly young men, alone or single — who had attempted to flee their war-torn, impoverished country in the past several years, they fell somewhere between the murky official definitions of “refugee” and “economic migrant.”
They had not faced imminent danger of persecution or death in their homeland, but they were also not merely taking an opportunistic dare in search of a better life. They were desperate to get away from a country that was on a downward and violent spiral and that seemed to offer little hope for the future. One of them had survived a terrible ordeal en route, nearly drowning in an overloaded boat that capsized off the coast of Greece; all three had endured the long, familiar and unnerving trek of illegal travelers.
For a time, they had fared well in Germany, a wealthy and liberal country that welcomed needy foreigners from troubled lands and offered them generous assistance and benefits. They had been able to attend language classes, find temporary jobs and live without fear of harassment while awaiting the government’s final decision on their applications for permanent refugee status. By the time I met them last winter, in a clean but barren little bunk room in Kabul, two spoke Afghan Dari with a German accent.
Meanwhile, though, the flood of refugees from Syria and other countries began to overwhelm Europe, and even German generosity frayed under the pressure. The standards for refugee approval were enforced with new bureaucratic vigor, and the process of deciding who could stay was speeded up. Last winter, all three Afghans were unexpectedly informed that their applications had been rejected. They were taken to government centers to await a flight home, under guard.
When they landed in Kabul, they had nowhere to go, no jobs or savings, no close relatives waiting, and no possessions except those they carried. It was not the end of the world, but it was the end of a dream, and of a desperate, costly effort to flee from a country that had seemed to offer them no future. Now they were back.