The Syrian Civil War has been raging on for over four years with no end in sight. The conflict began in 2011, when the worst drought in the country’s history decimated farmer’s livelihoods. Lack of water forced Syrian farmers to drill illegal wells in a desperate attempt to get water, but these wells only provided temporary relief as the water table soon dropped below the level that the pumps could reach. As much as 75 percent of the country’s crops failed and 85 percent of the country’s livestock died of starvation or thirst. With President Bashar al-Assad doing very little to mitigate these problems, a mass exodus of entire communities occurred. These people relocated to cities and towns in search of jobs and food, putting a further strain on their already scarce resources. Tensions rose as people could no longer find adequate jobs or even enough food to feed their families, eventually reaching a tipping point during the height of the Arab Spring.
The incident that is thought to have pushed Syria over the edge was the arrest and detainment of a group of Syrian teenagers who spray-painted a pro-revolutionary slogan on the side of a school in the city of Dara’a. With the strongmen of neighboring countries falling one by one like dominoes, al-Assad’s regime reacted to even the slightest sign of dissidence with a heavy hand. His forces arrested the teenagers and tortured them relentlessly. Protesters flocked to the streets demanding the release of the detained teenagers, which the Syrian government responded to by opening fire on the demonstrators with the belief that zero tolerance would quite any opposition. This act of violence only added fuel to the fire, slowly spreading anti-government sentiment among the people of Syria from village to village, city to city. Before long, protests reached the capital city of Damascus, where Syrians demanded democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. Al-Assad’s regime also responded to these protests with more violence, blaming “foreign conspirators” for stirring up trouble in Syria.
A few months later, a group of officers who defected from the Syrian Army formed the Free Syrian Army with the goal of bringing down the al-Assad regime with united opposition forces, transforming what started as anti-government protests into a full-blown civil war. Fighting between pro-Assad and opposition forces has been going on since, resulting in the destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure, the death of a quarter million people, and over four million refugees. Further complicating the situation is the presence of the Islamic State (IS), thus making the Syrian Civil War a conflict between various groups of different ideologies all vying for power.
While western attention on the situation in Syria has been mostly confined to the atrocities committed by the Islamic State, we have largely ignored the human toll of this conflict. That is, until this past week, when images of a drowned Syrian child who washed up on the shores of Turkey appeared on publication sites and social media pages throughout the world.
Warning: the following images may be disturbing to some viewers. Reader discretion is strongly advised.
The little boy was three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, son of Abdullah and Rehen Kurdi, who were fleeing their hometown of Kobani in an attempt to escape the violence that had engulfed their city and provide a better life for their children. The family tried to make it to Europe on a crowded fiberglass boat, where they would then travel to Abdullah’s sister’s residence in Vancouver, Canada. However, their hopes were cut short after departing from shore, when the waves became too strong and caused the boat to capsize. Abdullah attempted to rescue his wife and children but was unable to do so because of the rough waters. He was the only one of his family to survive.
Abdullah Kurdi’s story is just one of many. Smugglers pack the ill-equipped boats to the brim with people trying to get into Europe, many times leading to disaster as boats capsize and refugees are thrown into the treacherous waters without life jackets or even the ability to swim. As many as 2,600 immigrants have perished this year alone attempting to escape the violence in their home country by crossing the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, making it the most deadly migrant crossing point in the world. Boat travel is often the only choice these refugees have from fleeing their war-torn homelands as they don’t have enough money or the proper documents to travel through air or land. Even though most of the passengers are aware of the risk, they board these flimsy boats anyways out of desperation, in the hopes that their destination will provide them with security and stability.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, called the Syrian refugee crisis the “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era” in a recently released report. With over four million refugees and another seven million internally displaced Syrians, the Syrian Civil War has displaced over 65 percent of Syria’s population of 17 million and is only going to get much worse as climate change and more war further exasperate the already dire situation.
Although the European Union as a whole remains divided on the issue, some European countries have taken the initiative of providing asylum to Syrian refugees. Back in August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed Syrian refugees to stay in the country and apply for asylum instead of being deported to their original point-of-entry as per usual. Current EU laws confine refugees in whatever country they first arrived in, so many of these refugees end up stuck in Italy or Greece. However, these countries are not equipped to handle the sudden influx of people and have quickly become overwhelmed, with many of the refugee camps being incredibly overcrowded and unsanitary. Because of this, Merkel’s actions provide a saving grace for many refugees and hopefully set a precedent for other European countries to follow.
The people of Iceland followed Germany’s example, with over 11,000 Icelanders offering to take Syrian refugees into their homes. They are also offering them food, clothing, toys for the children, and even offering to pay for their air fare to Iceland. Although the stance of the Icelandic government was to only take in 50 refugees this year, the actions of its citizens have convinced it to consider an increase in their refugee quota.
Unfortunately, this trend of providing asylum to refugees is not one that is being followed by all European countries. The refugee crisis has caused xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiment to flare up in across the EU, even among countries’ leaders. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban suggested that his country only allow Christian refugees in and not Muslim ones, in direct contrast with European law which prohibits discrimination on religious grounds– exactly what the refugees are trying to escape in Syria.
When asked why his country is discriminating between refugees, Mr. Orban replied that he is simply trying to conserve Europe’s “Christian identity”. “Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity…is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?” the Prime Minister asked reporters on Friday, “there is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend our borders”. Mr. Orban went as far as constructing a 110 mile-long razor wire fence along the border with Siberia to discourage Syrian refugee to enter the country, but has done little to deter the refugees from crossing.
European countries aren’t the only ones at fault here. Oil-wealthy Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain have done little to nothing to help their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters, although they have more than the necessary amount of funds to accommodate them. These Gulf countries have contributed a grand total of $1 billion dollars in aid to Syrian refugees (versus the $4 billion the United States contributed) despite pouring hordes of money into the war effort against the Houthi insurgency in Yemen. Interestingly enough, these countries also did not sign the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention which laid out the definition of what a refugee is and states’ responsibilities to safeguard them.
The lack of support by these wealthier nations have forced Syrians to relocate to poorer neighboring nations such as Lebanon and Jordan. Even though 86 percent of Jordan’s residents live below the poverty line of $3.20 per day, the country has accepted 1.5 million refugees into its borders, an act of compassion that is unrivaled by any other Middle Eastern, European, or American countries. If a tiny, poor country such as Jordan can approve asylum for 1.5 million people, a thousand times larger than the amount of refugees the US has provided asylum to (1,500), then these wealthier nations should at least be able to provide more aid and asylum than they currently are.
The images of Aylan sprawled on the sands of Turkey represent our failure as humans to have compassion for one another. It represents the hateful, destructive nature of the al-Assad regime and the Islamic State terrorists who forced these innocent people to flee their homeland. But it also represents our inability as western countries to be able to deal with the consequences of our actions. We have absolutely no qualms about destabilizing entire regions in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”, but cannot deal with the inevitable fallout that comes with it. We were more than happy to draw artificial borders between these countries, topple their democratically-elected government to instate one that plays into our best interest, and fund radical groups that propagate hate and destruction. When it comes to providing asylum for the people escaping the smoldering remains of what used to be their country however, we slam our door in their face and tell them “tough luck”.
Far-right politicians and supporters of refusing asylum to the Syrian refugees are simply being xenophobic if they are worried that the refugees are trying to fundamentally change European culture. These refugees did not want to leave their homeland to go to Europe and start a new life in a strange new world; they were forced out of their country by religious extremists and by their own authoritarian government. They see Europe as a temporary home for them until the situation in their country improves, not as a destination for them to “take over”.
These zealots claim that this isn’t our problem to deal with, this is our country and that they should fix their own issues. As human beings, this is our problem. We cannot allow groups of hatred and intolerance such as the al-Assad regime and the Islamic State to exist, as they fundamentally oppose that which is human. More importantly, we cannot treat our fellow human beings as lesser individuals or prevent them from escaping the clutches of tyranny and oppression.
In a way, the West has made its bed, and now it must sleep in it. It can turn a blind eye to this refugee crisis all it wants, but that doesn’t mean that this crisis is not unfolding and that we didn’t play a direct role in making it happen. This refugee crisis truly highlights the worse aspects of our human nature and is only going to get worse as time goes on. We can only hope we find a solution, or at the very least, find it in ourselves to have compassion for these refugees whose lives have been destroyed.