Written by Zahra Ahmad
An image of a young Syrian boy washed ashore on a Turkish beach has been plastered all over newspapers, social media feeds and in the minds and hearts of all around the world. This poignant image has resonated with thousands all over the globe as it highlights the stark realities of a growing global refugee crisis. It has inspired many people to donate money, send supply convoys and do all that they can to help support these impoverished and hopeless refugees.
Since the start of 2015 more than 350,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and other countries dealing with conflict and political instability. These families are fleeing their homelands to pursue security and survival while the journeys themselves are incredibly dangerous. Despite the perils, they remain determined to complete the journey in order to protect their children and secure their futures. An estimated 3,000 people have already died struggling to reach the promising shores of the Mediterranean. For many years, this growing refugee crisis remained unnoticed and was clearly ignored by governments of the West who instead worked to implement anti-refugee policies benefitting the wealthy elite. It has now become a matter of grave importance as citizens of European countries have acted to show support and encouragement with banners marked with slogans such as ‘REFUGEES WELCOME HERE’ becoming visible at football stadiums and on the city streets of the West.
This global refugee crisis has occurred as a result of several humanitarian disasters and conflicts intertwining and worsening the quality of life of so many communities around the world now made homeless, hopeless and alone. Most Syrian refugees, who began to flee at the start of the war in 2011, held the belief that the war would soon be over and that they could eventually return to their homes. Now, four years on, these families have had to accept that returning home is not a realistic prospect and must reassess their options for survival.
The Arab Spring, leading to the horrific civil war in Syria, has been the most prominent factor causing the refugee crisis, as families have had no other option but to leave to protect their loved ones from the countless atrocities affecting civilians. In fact, four million people – that’s nearly one fifth of Syria’s population – have had to flee the country since the war began.
The refugees don’t just travel to Europe. Lebanon houses 1.2 million Syrian refugees within a total population of 4.5 million. The country is now at breaking point, unable to accept any more refugees other than emergency cases as they simply cannot meet their needs. It is therefore inevitable that increasing numbers of helpless refugees will soon arrive on European shores seeking asylum.
What’s interesting about the current narrative is that there is an emphasis on the term ‘migrant’. I feel I must point out that there is an important distinction to be made between the use of the term ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee.’ Migrants choose to move to a different country in search of better education or employment prospects, whereas ‘refugees’, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, are “persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution. These are people for whom the denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.???
How is it – that people fleeing war in Syria – have suddenly been labelled as economic migrants instead of refugees? Individuals who, by the 1951 Refugee Commission rules, have certain rights under international law which must not be abused – some of which including the right to remain in their host country if their safety in their home country cannot be guaranteed, and the right to entering a country illegally if they request asylum without being penalised. Therefore, European governments have certain responsibilities to refugees who come to Europe that they must uphold.
The situation in Calais highlights the sad reality that unfortunately not all Governments are upholding these responsibilities. Calais, on the north coast of France, has become a hub for refugee camps. Here, many seek to reach the UK from the channel. The UK Border Force and the French Authorities together prevented more than 39,000 attempts to cross the Channel illegally between 2014 and 2015. It is known that many try to stow away on lorries headed to the Channel tunnel or try to hide on Eurotunnel trains themselves in a desperate attempt at survival and to find solace in the wealth of opportunities which the UK promises. While Calais has been a centre point for migrants for many years, it is only in recent months that it has been overrun with refugees fleeing violence in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan. Since the Arab Spring an opening has been made which allows easy access to the Calais port, explaining the recent influx of refugees seizing this opportunity to enter the UK.
The crisis in Europe is wide-spread, with hotspots such as Hungary and Greece taking centre stage. Al Khair Foundation’s chairman Imam Qasim has just returned from Malta where he embarked on a boat mission to rescue refugees stranded in the Mediterranean Sea. AKF’s Field Team is also currently in Lesvos where they are analysing the needs on the ground. Lesvos is often the first port of all for refugees landing on the shore, hoping to reach other European countries. It is here that they wait to board ferries to take them to mainland Greece, often for many, many weeks. Our field team has reported that the refugees – a large proportion of them children – spend their days waiting in the blistering sun and their nights sleeping on the ground.
Through working closely with local partners, AKF will be providing medical aid, shelter, food packs, hygiene packs, clothing and other essentials to these impoverished refugee communities while they wait for their fate to be sealed.
AKF has also been in Hungary providing food to refugees in Budapest. In addition to providing aid, they are also forging partnerships with local NGOs in order to design relief programmes that will have a greater and more significant impact. Next week, they will participate in the Convoy to Calais initiative that will be providing essential shelter and winter packs to refugees stuck in Calais.
The growing refugee crisis is of upmost importance and must no longer be ignored – if the global community can come together and show support for these refugees, we could be saving the lives of individuals such as three year-old Aylan Kurdi, who was washed up ashore on a Turkish beach. The image has stained our minds – but let his death not become a mere statistic. We must act now to alleviate the challenges posed by this international crisis.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Al-Khair Foundation.