3 January 2015
Just over a year ago, I decided to follow the steps of Syrian refugees in Europe, to better understand what they were going through. At that time, I was worried that most European governments were reacting with indifference to the biggest refugee crisis facing our continent in over two decades. There were reports of Syrian refugees being pushed back, while others, having arrived in Europe, ended up in detention. Turkey was the only country to have opened its arms to Syrians in need. Elsewhere in Europe, Germany, Sweden and Armenia had taken steps to receive a limited number of Syrians through resettlement and other forms of admission, while other countries were lagging behind. I concluded that Europe had failed to rise to the challenge and was neglecting this crisis.
The crisis widened and deepened in 2014
In the week spanning the passage from 2014 to 2015, more than 1 000 refugees, the majority of whom were Syrians, were rescued from two overcrowded “ghost ships” towed ashore in Italy. Their arrival caused alarm and prompted new promises that Europe would increase its efforts to primarily fight smugglers in the Mediterranean. Yet, the situation of Syrian refugees gives far more cause for alarm than that.
In 2014, the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis continued to grow exponentially. Syrians have become the largest refugee group in the world under the UNHCR mandate, the vast majority of them – over 3.8 million – still being hosted by Syria’s neighbouring countries. The number of Syrian refugees has by now exceeded 1.6 million in Turkey, 1.1 million in Lebanon, and 620 000 in Jordan.
However, these countries are now struggling to address the basic needs of Syrian refugees. Problems include overcrowded schools and health facilities, the strain on water, sanitation and electricity infrastructures, and the lack of adequate housing. Some 85% of Syrians in Jordan and Turkey live outside the refugee camps, many of them being forced by extreme poverty to resort to desperate coping strategies, including begging or exploitative work. Faced with serious economic difficulties, Lebanon has recently introduced entry restrictions for Syrians.