Syria: the world's 'shameful failure'

Migrants arrive at the Sicilian harbor of Catania, April 23, 2015.Reuters

Something has been troubling me about the whole 'Mediterranean boat people' crisis. Not just the epic scale of the human trafficking and the harrowing tales of over-loaded ships sinking and thousands of migrants drowning, though these are shocking enough. Not even the miserly response of many Western governments, including our own, to the unfolding saga, though such mean-spiritedness fills me with shame.

What has particularly disturbed me is the ubiquitous use of the word 'migrant' to describe the boat people. This is a word which is never a million miles away from its pejorative twin, 'economic'. An economic migrant is seen as someone prepared to move to another country simply to secure a better life. Understandable perhaps, but not always tolerable, especially when receiving countries have their own demographic and economic challenges. Britain cannot take more than a handful of 'migrants' because its own creaking NHS and welfare system cannot bear the strain. Much better for the 'migrant' to stay in his or her own country.

This perception is reinforced by often second-rate reporting in the UK press which has suggested, or at least implied, that many of the migrants attempting the hazardous sea crossing to Europe are from sub-Saharan Africa. A recent rather lurid piece in the Daily Mail mentioned the words 'Africa' or 'African' almost a dozen times and accompanied the article with lots of pictures of black faces. Even the BBC has fallen prey to the 'mostly Africans' cliché, albeit in relation to particular localised groups of 'migrants'.

The clear implication is that most migrants are just poor Africans escaping economic hardship in their own countries, and taking advantage of the anarchy and growth in people smuggling in North Africa (particularly Libya) to grab a boat across the Mediterranean to improve their lot.

Of course, many of those trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean are from Africa. But the hard facts tell a slightly different story. According to the EU's own border agency, Frontex, the biggest single country of origin for the over 220,000 people who reached Europe via a sea crossing in 2014 was not in Africa at all. It was Syria. And official figures for the first four months of 2015 tell a similar tale, with Syrian 'migrants' numbering more than twice those of the next biggest country of origin, Eritrea.

Syrians are desperate to leave their country not for selfish economic reasons but because it is now into the fifth year of a brutal and intractable civil war which has claimed as many as 300,000 lives and led to the displacement, internally or in neighbouring countries, of almost 12 million people, or over half the pre-war population. It is the most calamitous civil conflict of our modern age and has led to the greatest displacement of people since the end of the Second World War.

So perhaps someone can explain to me why a Syrian family who escape the savage violence in their own country and find some kind of primitive safety in a tent or a converted chicken factory alongside almost 4 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan are 'refugees' who are tolerated, if not exactly encouraged, whereas a Syrian who tries to do the same in Italy or Greece is a 'migrant' with questionable motives who needs to be actively deterred?

The simple fact is that most of those embarking on the perilous trip across the Mediterranean, whether Syrian or Eritrean or whatever, are not doing so for 'economic' reasons, but because they are in fear of their very lives. Why else would they take such a risk? Which makes the pronouncements of some British ministers – for example the statement last year by a junior Foreign Office minister that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean should be discontinued as they acted as a 'pull factor' for migrants – all the more regrettable.

One might be prepared to forgive the callous attitude of many Western governments to the Mediterranean migrants crisis, and the widespread ignorance as to why so many people are prepared to risk their lives in the dangerous sea crossing, if there were a greater and more generous response to those 'refugees' who remain in the region. After all, did our own Prime Minister David Cameron not say before the recent G7 Summit: "We need to do more to stop these people leaving their countries in the first place....that's what we are using our aid budget for...we need to deal with the causes of this migration, not simply with its consequence".


Amen to that. Except that the world is not dealing with the migration crisis at source. It has no meaningful plan to stop the violence in Syria (the last Syrian peace talks broke up in acrimony in Geneva sixteen months ago with no plans to return to the negotiating table) and its response to the refugee and IDP (internally displaced person) crisis has been lamentable, with each successive humanitarian appeal from the UN being bigger in scale (because the scale of the crisis has grown exponentially) yet receiving less and less support from the world's governments.

As the UN's own figures show, in 2013 the UN's US$4.4m humanitarian appeal for Syria was just 71 per cent funded. The following year an appeal for US$6bn was just 58 per cent funded. We are almost halfway through 2015 and yet this year's US$7.4bn appeal is barely a quarter funded. As a result, Syrian refugees and IDPs have been denied even the most basic aid, with cash assistance towards housing (usually the biggest cost for refugees) being sharply cut and even food assistance being at risk.

No wonder Amnesty International, in a scathing report published this week entitled the The Global Refugee Crisis: a conspiracy of neglect, condemned the indifference of the international community.

Amnesty's Secretary General Salil Shetty put it bluntly: "We are witnessing the worst refugee crisis of our era, with millions of women, men and children struggling to survive amidst brutal wars, networks of people traffickers and governments who pursue selfish political interests instead of showing basic human compassion...The refugee crisis is one of the defining challenges of the 21st century, but the response of the international community has been a shameful failure."

But perhaps it is the sheer scale of the crisis which has blinded the international community? Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan-born author The Kite Runner and a goodwill ambassador for the UN, returned recently from visiting Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. He wrote in New Statesman of the nearly 12 million displaced persons from Syria, 3.9 million refugees in neighbouring countries and 7.6 million IDPs, saying: "These are important numbers. But it is a hard thing to picture millions of faces all at once. Numbers have a way of making them merge, turning them into a blur of human tragedy, a calamity so sprawling, that it undermines our ability to truly see it."

As Christians, we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the numbers. We have to respond with a mixture of compassion, to meet the immediate need, and righteous anger, to get our governments to change course. The Syrian refugee crisis is indeed one of the defining challenges of our age, and if governments will not rise to that challenge, then we in the Church must surely do so.

Jeremy Moodey is Chief Executive of the development charity Embrace the Middle East, which has launched an emergency appeal to support Christian-led relief work amongst Syrian refugees in Lebanon. You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyMoodey.