Why Syrian refugees are dying to get to Europe: A research perspective

Following the latest news about the recent refugees crises in Europe, one can easily become confused.  Why are thousands of Syrian refugees “swarming” into Europe? If they are fleeing war, why don’t they just cross the border and stay in one of the neighbouring countries? Aren’t the UN and other international NGOs providing them with aid? Aren’t they “migrants” if they’re seeking a “better life”?

I’m doing a PhD research on psychological stressors and social support among refugees of conflict in developing countries, focusing on Syrian refugees. I have spent the last year sifting through the background literature on such refugees and I have been to Jordan to speak to Syrian refugees there. So, I want to share some of my thoughts, hoping it will help answer the previous questions by understanding the situation that Syrian refugees are fleeing.

The UNHCR world trends report for 2014 shows that 86% of forcibly displaced people are hosted in developing countries. At the top of largest refugee-hosting countries, we find that Syria’s neighbouring countries have already done a lot by hosting more than 4 million Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict in 2011; even countries with a modest economy like Jordan or a volatile political situation like Lebanon have Syrian refugees consisting of up to a quarter of their total population. Syrian refugees are fleeing horrible conditions which drives them to seek refuge in a country torn by war like Iraq. Iraq is hosting a quarter of million Syrian refugees, while the current European refugees crises includes a total of 366,000 refugees in 2015.

The majority of refugees in Syria’s neighbouring countries are not living in refugee camps run by the UN or any organisations; they live in the cities of the host country, which means that the bulk of refugees’ burden is on the host governments and the local communities. Registered refugees – who are not allowed to work – do receive aid from UNHCR and the World Food Programme, but it is not enough (14$US/month) and even this aid has been cut from the refugees outside the camps on multiple occasions due to lack of funding. Which brings us to the next point.

International humanitarian interventions are designed mainly with emergencies in mind, especially the acute phase. This explains why such interventions fail in the case of prolonged displacement as they aim to save lives, not to provide livelihood. Indeed, Syria’s neighbouring countries did the humane thing by opening their borders to all refugees, but to sustain such a situation for years is simply not feasible. Yet, why would people risk their life and that of their children to get to Europe? We have to realize that refugees are living in limbo, where they cannot return home or resume life in the neighbouring countries, in a region where situations can and do change dramatically. An example comes from Syria itself which in a few years shifted from being the third largest host of refugees in the world to the largest refugee’ source!

In conclusion, Syrian refugees throw their children in the water – like Moses’s mother – in order to give them a life, not out of the luxury of seeking a better life. If the Syrian refugees’ lives are not sustainable in their home country, then they have the right to seek it elsewhere.

Which take us back to the question “Why Europe?” when maybe by now we should be asking ourselves “Why not Europe?”

Khalifah Alfadhli

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