Stopping Europe’s Refugee Crisis at the Source

To halt the flow of people fleeing war, poverty, and oppression, the international community needs to redouble aid efforts where they're needed most.


The 27-year-old mother who sat across the table from me in northern Iraq fled her home more than a year ago, as the Islamic State extremist group shocked the world by capturing Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Her life has been in limbo ever since. From Mosul, she went to a nearby village, but as the fighting spread, she was uprooted again and again, until she and her two boys, age seven and four, finally landed in the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, sheltering in a camp of tents and container structures that now houses some 4,000 people. They’ve been there for more than a year. And yet, even if the international coalition fighting the Islamic State ever recaptures Mosul, she vows she’s not going back.

She’s not alone.

The roots of the European refugee crisis that has captured the world’s attention are in places like Iraq and Syria, as well as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Yemen — places where violent conflict, oppression, and poverty create hopelessness. The journey from there to Europe is long, arduous, and shockingly dangerous. Shipwrecks over the weekend claimed at least 39 lives, including 15 children, according to the United Nations refugee agency; nearly 3,000 people are thought to have drowned so far this year. And yet, according to Frontex, the European Union’s border control agency, more than 500,000 desperate people have made such perilous journeys to Europe’s borders this year, illuminating the depth of despair that underlies the calculus made by families as they risk their lives and those of their children.

The current debate in Europe over how many refugees and migrants to accept will hopefully result in better lives for the greatest number of people. However, even if Europe and the United States together are as generous as possible in accepting people for resettlement, it will only scratch the surface of the need. So now is the time to redouble international efforts to provide aid to the conflict zones that are generating this exodus. That means increasing emergency aid to those who are displaced in the region; providing jobs, educational opportunities, counseling and other assistance that will strengthen them and their host communities for what might become extended periods before they can return home — and intensifying the international community’s focus on resolving the violent conflicts that drove them to this condition in the first place.

Fully 34 percent of those who crossed the Mediterranean into Europe in the first six months of this year — even before the more recent surge — were from Syria, according to the United Nations. However, this number represents only a fraction of the problem. There are currently some 4 million Syrian refugees, plus another 7.6 million of internally displaced Syrians, and a whopping 12.2 million citizens inside Syria in need of humanitarian assistance. As millions of families are displaced multiple times, and with nearly 250,000 Syrians killed so far in this vicious war, the number of people choosing to leave the country can only escalate.

Lebanon and Jordan, already fragile, and politically tumultuous Turkey together shelter 3.6 million Syrian refugees, according to the U.N. In Lebanon, one in four people is now from Syria — an unimaginable ratio for either the United States or Europe.

Iraqi Kurdistan, where I visited last week, has 250,000 Syrian refugees. Nearly half of the 3 million displaced Iraqis, torn from their homes by the onslaught of the Islamic State and its aftermath, have also fled to the Kurdish region, where now one in five people is a displaced person. Local infrastructure — water systems, electrical supply, schools, and health systems — are not built to serve that many people. Communities across the region have generously hosted refugee and internally displaced families, but their resources and, often, patience are wearing thin as the conflict drags on and their own lives are deeply affected. Schools in Jordan are running double shifts to accommodate Syrian children, and that still does not begin to meet the need.

The five-year Syrian war is contributing to a global humanitarian crisis that is forcing record numbers of people from their homes. According to the U.N., globally there are now some 60 million people — roughly equivalent to the entire population of Italy — displaced either internally or as refugees due to violence, conflict, and repression. And this sustained level of crisis is draining resources and attention. The U.N. has been able to raise only 38 percent of the $7.4 billion it says is needed this year to care for Syrians fleeing the fighting and only half of the $704 million appeal for Iraqis displaced by the Islamic State. The needs in Yemen, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Central Africa Republic fall even further from public view.

The result is that millions of people who’ve fled violent conflict now living lives of desperation, in camps of tents or containers, or squatting in vacant buildings; many have depleted any savings they may have had. Few find work — they’re typically prohibited from working by host country policies for refugees — and often, health care is inaccessible and their children are barred from schools. They battle the recurring trauma of their escape, and they swallow the daily indignities of trying to survive.

An activist in Erbil told me that the risk of domestic violence in the Iraqi camps is pervasive because of the psychological toll of the conflict and the hopelessness of being stranded in a camp for years on end. No wonder so many are taking tremendous risks to escape to Europe, she said. “They choose death in the sea to get out of their conditions here,” she told me.

In the Syrian crisis, millions of children and young adults inside and outside the country will not receive an education, despite an effort by humanitarian agencies to mount an initiative to ensure education for Syrian refugees under the banner of “No Lost Generation.” The campaign, started in October 2013, was spurred by the urgency of dealing with the trauma and educational needs of Syrian children, many of whom have known little other than war. The goal was to reduce the risk that some, in their despair, would end up “replicating the hatred and violence they had experienced.” The initiative raised only 34 percent of the $885 million calculated to be needed in 2014. In the absence of more robust funding, millions of Syrian children — and now Iraqis — are missing years of schooling. As one civil society activist in Erbil told me, “We have seven internally displaced camps here, which equals seven time bombs, as people sit without work or education for year after year.”

That these protracted crises are now spilling into Europe underscores the danger of assuming that the problems of violence, conflict, poverty, and oppression elsewhere in the world can be ignored. European countries struggle to find a solution to the volume of refugees that has shown up on their doorstep. The United States has offered to take in 10,000 over the next year. But there are immediate and long-term solutions in the critical conflict zones that cannot be ignored.

The international community must not divert or reduce funding for refugees and those internally displaced in the regions closest to the conflicts. Non-governmental aid organizations, often key contributors of private funding, typically raise more in one day after a calamitous natural disaster than they do in years of a complex crisis. And there’s a need for a much broader sharing of the burden among countries.

Secondly, it is painfully clear that most Syrian refugees will not go home anytime soon. This level of protracted conflict and displacement is challenging the global humanitarian system to look at longer-term solutions. Over the last five years of the Syrian conflict, the U.N., the World Bank, host country governments, and local and international non-governmental organizations have made significant strides in seeking new ways of working together to address the crisis more effectively. They are pursuing a shared goal of moving beyond merely enabling people to survive, and instead emphasize building resilience, with a focus on psycho-social assistance, jobs and educational opportunities that will strengthen them for the longer term. Another element of the resilience effort is ensuring investments to fortify water and electrical infrastructure, schools, and healthcare in those countries and communities shouldering the bulk of the displaced.

But many barriers remain. Institutional mandates often keep funding stove-piped into distinct activities, making it difficult to move beyond the traditional sequencing of relief and then development, when it actually needs to occur in tandem and with coordination. Host-country policies also often prohibit refugees from working and their children from attending school, for a variety of reasons, including language or competition for jobs in tough economies such as those in the Middle East that have been slammed by the drop in oil prices, a factor that seriously hobbles Iraqi Kurdistan. And funding continues to fall far short of escalating needs. As the U.N. experiences cuts in funding, even essential food, shelter and health support is reduced–the World Food Program recently announced another round of cuts in basic food distributions for Syrians, leaving families scrambling for essentials, much less the support they need to equip them for an uncertain future.

Where there is hope for returns in the foreseeable future, the international community needs to begin preparing the ground now. Military forces will drive the Islamic State out of occupied areas eventually and the international community needs to reduce the risk that conflict will recur as tensions and trauma linger. In Iraq, thousands of families have already returned to Tikrit, a city in northern Iraq that was wrested from the extremist group’s control in April by a combination of U.S.-led coalition air strikes and Iraqi regular and militia ground forces. The returns required careful negotiations and inclusive dialogue among survivors, families of victims and entire tribes accused collectively of collaborating with the extremists. Wounds run deep, leaving an urgent need to start working now on rebuilding the social fabric. And that can be done in some cases with the people displaced wherever they are sheltering in the meantime.

And finally, the international community needs to look harder at how to prevent conflict, corruption, oppression, and poverty from spiraling into terrible violence in the first place. The 27-year-old mother from Mosul, for example, said the reason she won’t go back even if the Islamic State extremists are driven out is that she felt unsafe even beforehand because of local power struggles that often turned violent.

Next week, the U.N. will launch the Sustainable Development Goals. In a historic leap forward from the Millennium Development Goals, the new targets include Goal 16, which lays out the need to “provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels,” as a critical underpinning for peace, prosperity, and justice. The Millennium goals seemed unbearably unattainable when they were launched 15 years ago, but we have seen progress — halving hunger, tackling extreme poverty, and cutting maternal and child mortality in half — except in those countries wracked by conflict and fragile government. So even as the new goal of justice and accountable governance seems quixotic in the face of such brutal conflicts, it also provides a new basis for collective conversation and focused diplomatic and development efforts on the sources of so many of these festering, sustained conflicts. We are inspired to focus on inclusive, accountable government as absolutely key to addressing the roots of conflict and enabling the kind of development that gives people hope for the future.

So as the international community rightly assists the refugees who are making their way to Europe at such enormous risk, donors and aid agencies must tend to the greater need in the Middle East. And ultimately, no amount of humanitarian aid will be sufficient without addressing the roots of the crisis.

Short of that, people will feel they have no choice but to keep coming. Another young woman at the table in Iraqi Kurdistan, Rahda, 24, is eyeing Europe because she has relatives there. She’s a medical institute graduate who worked at a pharmacy before the Islamic State group drove her out of her home. She can’t find work in Erbil because she doesn’t speak Kurdish. Another woman, Amal, whose name means “hope,” has given it up. She’s married with three children in their 20s and just over a year ago was earning a living with a shop of her own and driving teachers to and from work part-time. Now she can’t find a job and wants to get out of Iraq altogether. She too has relatives in Europe.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

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