We Can No Longer Ignore the Syrian Refugee Crisis

December 12, 2016

The international community must do more to share the burden placed on primary refugee host countries.

On September 2, 2015, the world came together for just one moment when the body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, washed up on the shores of Bodrum, Turkey. The photo went viral, trending on twitter and other social media platforms. The same tragedies happen every day to an untold number of Syrian children, yet they do not receive the same recognition. The stories are buried under a constant flow of social media posts and viral videos. Even the death of Aylan Kurdi has now been forgotten. But we can no longer turn a blind eye to the help and support these refugees need, especially the children.

In January 2014, I arrived in Istanbul, Turkey for a six-month study abroad program. I was immediately captured by the sights and sounds of the city. My time there was my first experience living in a big city, and I loved every second of it. But something from my memory is missing.

In 2014, the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey approached and passed one million, with approximately 100,000 residing in Istanbul at that time. The question I pose to myself now is why had I not seen them? Was the child selling gum on the corner of the street a refugee? What about the woman begging passersby for donations, her child at her side?

Two years later, after numerous interactions with experts, I am much more aware of the refugee and humanitarian crisis created by the conflict in Syria. It is easy for us, miles and continents away, to neglect crises that do not directly affect our daily lives. Turkey is host to 2.7 million Syrian refugees, the highest in the world. Half of the Syrian refugees in Turkey are under the age of 18.

Nearly 260,000 refugees live in temporary housing units, with the rest residing in urban settings. This puts a major burden on Turkey to support the refugees financially. Turkey has allocated approximately $12 billion towards humanitarian relief for the Syrian refugees, but the international community has provided only $512 million in aid to help Turkey support its Syrian refugee community.

In an attempt to prevent a “lost generation,” Turkey has also worked to provide education to refugee children and job permits to adult refugees. 50% of refugee children are not in primary school, and only 22% of refugee adolescents receive secondary education. Even with such numbers, Turkey has created temporary schools for refugee children to learn Turkish and English, and continue their schooling. In 2017, all refugee children in Turkey will be required to attend Turkish public schools for better integration and socialization. A study by psychologists Selcuk Sirin and Lauren Rogers-Sirin shows that these children also have mental health needs to be addressed, with 45% exhibiting PTSD symptoms. Among those refugee children, 44% also show symptoms of depression, and 20% are diagnosed as clinically depressed (i.e. suicidal). How can we continue to ignore these statistics when they show that refugee children are suffering from disaster and mental health deterioration at a rate more than 10 times that of other children worldwide?

The U.S. accepted its 10,000th Syrian refugee this year, a number that pales in comparison to Turkey, and even Germany. In 2015, Germany welcomed more than one million refugees, 40% of which were from Syria. Unfortunately, we are witnessing a rise in xenophobia throughout the U.S. and other Western countries. The current administration has done little to help end the war in Syria and must be held accountable for the lack of support in the humanitarian crisis.

The future administration must step up and take action where the current administration left off, but seems unlikely in the current political climate.

Negative rhetoric against refugees that has intensified recently has only served to add fodder to the fire of xenophobia, heating the hate of those who are against immigrants and refugees seeking to build better lives in America. Syrians are fleeing their homes due to prolonged conflict, and many others from around the world still look to America as a place of opportunity and a more peaceful future for themselves and their families. Persecuting immigrants and keeping them out goes against the very foundation of America. Immigration is a central part of our history and will continue to be an essential part of our future.

The Syrian conflict has created the most serious refugee crisis since World War II. It has global ramifications, and so it requires global commitment to be resolved. Beyond accepting more refugees, we also need to support countries where large refugee populations have already been settled. This is known as burden sharing, which is a key term used when referring to the humanitarian crisis not only by Turkey but also by former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and designate Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres. Turkey is one of the U.S.’s closest allies. It has been commended by the international community for its above and beyond support of its Syrian refugee community, but there is still more to be done.

Turkey cannot provide a sustainable support system to its Syrian refugees without the financial and political support of its allies in the international community. Earlier this year, former president of Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), Dr. Fuat Oktay, visited Washington D.C. to discuss the need for international cooperation and expressed disappointment over the limited financial contributions from the UN and EU to Turkey. Dr. Oktay called for the international community to substantially increase aid to Turkey in order to address concerns about the “lost generation” of children living outside of the temporary refugee centers who are less likely to receive aid due to limited quantities.

In the U.S., we need to overcome the growing xenophobia and racism to realize that refugees are as human as we are. We should treat the refugees we have taken in with respect and provide them with opportunities for healing and success, but we should also accept more as a part of the burden sharing so needed during this current crisis. Politicians in the global community need to stop demonizing and dehumanizing refugees by using them as political ploys. It is time to stop turning a blind eye to this crisis and to allow our understanding and empathy to guide us as we learn more and do more for our Syrian brothers and sisters.

About the author: Caysie Myers is a coordinator at Turkish Heritage Organization and focuses on humanitarian crises and aid response, specifically the Syrian refugee crisis.