Syrian Refugees, Not just a Burden, but an Opportunity

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By Lavinia Limón

As the world debates and waits to see if the United States will strike Syria, we cannot forget or ignore the refugees who have fled since the war started almost three years ago. Antonio Guterres, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), called the Syrian refugee situation a “disgraceful humanitarian calamity,” and I couldn’t agree more. Commissioner Guterres is a diplomat; I am an advocate, so I would add, “a shameful episode in human history; a heartbreaking experience for over a million children; an avoidable mistreatment of millions of people.”

The Syrian crisis demands reflection about its magnitude. The UN Refugee Agency recently reported that the number of refugees from Syria has surpassed 2 million. When you consider that five thousand Syrians are leaving their homes on a daily basis, you have to pause and think about what could really be done. Many towns in America have less than 5,000 people in population. Imagine one of these towns being abandoned every day due to unspeakable violence. What would be our response?

The total population of Massachusetts is 6.8 million people, almost the same total number of the refugees who have fled and the 4.25 million people displaced inside Syria. What would we do if everyone from Massachusetts was suddenly fleeing into Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York?

Would we welcome these refugees with open arms or would the states’ governors put the National Guard at their borders and refuse them entry? The closest parallel we have is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which, most agree, was not our nation’s finest hour.
The governments of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq have been remarkably generous to Syrian refugees and have, for the most part, kept their borders open. They have done so even when the international community has not responded with enough money and resources in a timely manner. They have done so even when their own citizens have complained about the scarcity and price of housing, food, water and fuel. These governments are to be applauded for their response.

I also commend the United States for providing over $1 billion in humanitarian aid. Yet, the U.S. must work harder to secure strong support and financial commitments from other countries, including wealthy countries in the region like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. A strong international financial aid package will help host countries to continue to support Syrian refugees and the United Nations can establish mechanisms to monitor the process. The aid can go towards building infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and low-cost housing options which, after the refugee crisis is over, can be enjoyed by the host countries’ own citizens.

Vulnerable children
More than half of Syrian refugees are children. This means over 1 million children have been targeted, terrorized and have fled for their lives. Last year, I met one of these children when I traveled to Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp. She is an eleven-year old girl with a bright smile and beautiful, yet sad eyes. I asked her why she fled her country, and she replied, “I saw them. They were slaughtering us.”

At that moment, our eyes met and the depth of her suffering seared into me. I felt naïve and sheltered standing next to an eleven year-old that had experienced more horror than I, thankfully, could imagine. I also felt angry. Very angry. There are hundreds of thousands of children like this girl in the camp. They are haunted by the traumas they’ve witnessed. The unforgettable acts of violence has stolen their childhood and forced them to grow up in an instant and grow old as their memories harden.

No child should experience such atrocities. They have journeyed from their homes suffering hunger, cold, and sickness. Many have seen their parents and siblings killed along the way.
As we debate what needs to be done about the Syrian refugee crisis, we must pay special attention to these children or we shall “…reap the whirlwind” for many years in the future.

Refugee Rights
I have been a strong supporter to end the practice of ‘refugee warehousing,’ a term used to describe refugee camps. Refugee camps are a convenient way to control refugees and an efficient way to distribute assistance but, by their nature, violate the basic rights of refugees. Refugees have rights. The 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees granted refugee rights. In refugee camps, their freedom of movement is taken away because entry and exit is controlled by military or police forces. Also, their freedom to work is either eliminated or drastically constrained to small shops and vendors within the camp. Effectively, refugees in camps are incarcerated because they’ve been persecuted.

So I stand by my conviction that the practice of warehousing should end. However, I am aware that the host governments and the UNHCR felt that establishing camps was the only possible response to the sheer numbers and rapid growth of arriving Syrian refugees. Therefore, as a short term solution it makes sense.

But, does anyone believe that Syrian refugees will be able to go home anytime in the near future? How long is it acceptable for people to live in primitive conditions, unable to work, and without hope for their future? One year? Five years? A decade? A generation? It is of vital importance that the international community ensures that the rights of Syrian refugees are protected inside refugee camps. Those camps should have order, safety, educational opportunities, appropriate housing for the extreme climate, adequate quantity and quality of food and accessible medical care. But that is the easy part. The real challenge is to ensure that refugees can enjoy the rights they are guaranteed under international law – the freedom of movement, the right to work and the right to enjoy the same benefits as citizens of their host nation.

I hope that the war ends soon and that refugees can go home. Meanwhile, we have the opportunity to provide generous support for the refugees and for their host nations, to pay particular attention to the children, and to make sure Syrian refugees are afforded their rights. After all, that’s why the war began in the first place.

Lavinia Limón is President and CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

Photo: The Telegraph

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