Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1261, (3 - 9 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Photos highlight Syrian refugee tragedy

Powerful images capturing the tragic heights of the Syrian refugee crisis have served as a reminder of a tragedy neglected by the world

Al-Ahram Weekly

In Ghassan Kanafani’s novel Men in the Sun, his three Palestinian protagonists are intent on escaping their dire conditions at home to seek opportunity in 1960s oil wealthy Kuweit. After endless travails in a water truck driven by a smuggler across the Iraqi dessert, the men reach the last border point with Kuweit, but only after suffocating to death in the vehicle’s tank. The critically acclaimed novel, which depicts aspects of the Palestinian catastrophe and the failure of Arab regimes through the painful stories of the characters, was brought to remembrance this week as a series of painful images emerged of Syrian refugees attempting to reach Europe sent shockwaves across social media.

In Austria, a refrigerated truck was found on an abandoned highway near the Hungarian border on 27 August containing 71 bodies, including eight women and four children. Fluids from the piled decomposing bodies seeping from the truck’s backdoor were not captured on camera, but the shocking image exposed a fraction of the tragic situation facing millions of Syrians forced into fleeing their war-torn country for safety and stability.

As the image went viral, European leaders were meeting in Vienna to discuss ways to address the refugee crisis that has become a European problem as the Arab League continues to ignore the issue.

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, the number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria to neighbouring countries has now passed four million, confirming that crisis as the world’s single largest refugee crisis for almost a quarter of a century under UNHCR’s mandate.

New arrivals in Turkey and updated data from the Turkish authorities on refugees already in that country have taken the total number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries to more than 4,013,000 people.

Furthermore, at least an additional 7.6 million people are displaced inside Syria  many of them in difficult circumstances and in locations that are difficult to reach.

“This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

Another image captured in the streets of Beirut, the Lebanese capital, earlier this week highlighted the wretched conditions of Syrian refugees who ended up in the few Arab states that would host them.

The picture showed a Palestinian refugee from Syria carrying his sleeping daughter on his shoulder in one hand, while selling pens at traffic lights with the other. Captured by an Icelandic journalist in Beirut who posted it online, the picture went viral, triggering waves of support across the globe, which led to a successful donation campaign for the refugee, crowd funding more than $130,000.

With over one million settled in tiny Lebanon  already home to approximately half a million Palestinian refugees, who comprise 10 per cent of the population  Lebanon is overwhelmed despite support from UNHCR whose funding has done little to sustain basic services for registered refugees.

With no end in sight to Syria’s war, now in its fifth year, the crisis is intensifying and the number of refugees is rising. The four million milestone comes barely 10 months since the total of three million was reached. At current rates, UNHCR expects the figure to reach around 4.27 million by the end of 2015.

“Worsening conditions are driving growing numbers towards Europe and further afield, but the overwhelming majority remain in the region,” Guterres added. “We cannot afford to let them and the communities hosting them slide further into desperation.”

Refugee outflows in June 2015 saw more than 24,000 people arriving in Turkey from Tel Abyad and other parts of northern Syria. Turkey is now home to around 45 per cent of all Syrian refugees in the region.

The figure of four million comprises 1,805,255 Syrian refugees in Turkey, 249,726 in Iraq, 629,128 in Jordan, 132,375 in Egypt, 1,172,753 in Lebanon and 24,055 elsewhere in North Africa. Not included are more than 270,000 asylum applications by Syrians in Europe, and thousands of others resettled from the region elsewhere.

Meanwhile, funding of the Syria refugee situation has become an equally pressing problem. For 2015 as a whole, UNHCR and partners appealed for $5.5 billion. However, as of late June, only around a quarter of the humanitarian funds requested have been received. This means refugees face tough new cuts in food aid, and struggle to afford lifesaving health services or send their children to school.

Germany, the primary destination for refugees, said it would allow Syrian refugees to stay and apply for asylum instead of deporting them back to their country of arrival. The country has decided to suspend a European Union rule  the Dublin Regulation  confining refugees to their first European country of arrival until their asylum claims are processed.

The rule will affect southern European countries like Greece and Italy  some of the easiest to reach by boat across the Mediterranean  because they’ll expect new waves of refugees who now know that they can find a home in Germany, the only EU country to suspend the Dublin Regulation.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, now the most popular European politician for millions of Syrians, called the migrant crisis a bigger challenge for the EU than the Greek debt.

Life for Syrians in exile is increasingly tough. Some 86 per cent of refugees outside camps in Jordan live below the poverty line of $3.2 per day. In Lebanon, 55 per cent of refugees live in sub-standard shelters.

Throughout the region, hope of returning home is dwindling as the crisis drags on. Refugees become more impoverished, and negative coping practices such as child labour, begging and child marriages, are on the rise. Competition for employment, land, housing, water and energy in already vulnerable host communities is straining the ability of these communities to cope with the overwhelming numbers and sustain their support to them.

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