The Plight of Refugees, the Shame of the World

The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, a staggering 60 million people displaced from their homes, four million from Syria alone. World leaders have abdicated their responsibility for this unlucky population, around half of whom are children.

The situation is sadly reminiscent of that of refugees fleeing the destruction of World War II and the Nazi onslaught. Then, too, most governments turned their backs, and millions who were trapped perished.

We are mired in a set of myopic, stingy and cruel policies. The few global institutions dedicated to supporting this population are starved of resources as governments either haven’t funded them or have reneged on their pledges of funds. Wealthy and powerful nations aren’t doing their part; the United States, for example, has taken fewer than 1,000 refugees from Syria.

The World Food Program was recently forced to cut its monthly food allocation to refugee families in Lebanon to $13.50 per month, down from $27 in January.

In Iraq, the United Nations announced that a “paralyzing” funding shortfall was causing it to shutter health care services, directly affecting a million people. That means that hundreds of thousands of children will not be vaccinated against polio and measles — a terrifying development risking the resurgence of these diseases in the already devastated region. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees calculates that 750,000 Syrian children in neighboring countries are out of school simply for lack of money. One result has been a huge rise in child labor, with girls in their early teens (or even younger) being married off.

Last year, I visited a volunteer-run school for refugees in Reyhanli, a town at the Syria-Turkey border. During a break, a teacher showed me heartbreaking pictures of what had happened to his former pupils in Syria, when the regime had used incendiary weapons on the school complex. As we held back tears, two young girls playfully approached us, wanting to play-box with their teacher — a volunteer had brought play boxing gloves for children. The teacher hid his phone with the pictures of burned children, their small bodies on hospital beds, wrapped in gauze. In the courtyard, a gaggle of girls played soccer, shrieking with delight at every goal attempt, successful or not.

Children are resilient, when given a chance. It’s a shame how few are.

Of the four million refugees from Syria, about two million are in Turkey and one million in Lebanon. The wars in the region may widen. Turkey has announced that it will open up its Incirlik air base to United States operations against the Islamic State, and has also started a bombing campaign against Kurdish insurgents in Iraq. The three- decade-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey had previously claimed 40,000 lives, though a fragile truce had held for the last few years. A reignition of full-scale fighting would spell further disaster for the region, and for Turkey.

Across the border, a short distance from the school I visited on the Turkey side, a refugee camp in Syria lay in tatters. Volunteers risked their lives to smuggle in a little bit of food so the unlucky souls there could eat occasionally. Despite copious amounts of will and personal heroism, these young men and women could do only so much.

Accepting, feeding, immunizing, resettling and helping this many people can be done only at an institutional level, with worldwide organizations. At the moment, most of this burden is on a few neighboring countries — Turkey, Lebanon and now Greece — that get little to no outside help. Unsurprisingly, many refugees are risking their lives to reach Europe.

A crisis of this scale cannot be met with individual heroism, however admirable. Huge numbers of people cannot be sheltered through ad hoc charity, however well intended.

In mid-July, a Palestinian teenager whose family faces deportation from Germany asked Chancellor Angela Merkel, in perfect German, why her family couldn’t stay, and why she couldn’t just stay in school and study like everyone else. Ms. Merkel had said, in a dry speech: “Politics is sometimes hard. ... But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands, and if we were to say you can all come ... we just can’t manage it.” At that, the girl burst into tears and Ms. Merkel was taken aback. Her halting efforts to comfort the girl were recorded worldwide.

“Politics is hard” is just not enough.

It’s clear that our leaders aren’t stepping up to the gravity of the moment. We can, and we must, push them to do the right thing. If distributed properly, the cost is not that high. Today’s world is much richer than during World War II, and it’s not tangled in global war. In 2014, the entire World Food Program budget was a paltry $5.4 billion. The United Nations refugee agency’s budget is a mere $7 billion. To put these numbers in context, Amazon’s market capitalization climbed recently by $40 billion in after-hours trading after it announced that its web-hosting services were slightly more profitable than expected. Saving millions of refugee children fleeing war apparently isn’t worth a fraction of an evening’s speculation on a single stock.

Last month, the world lost a quiet hero, Nicholas Winton, who saved almost 700 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia, by placing them with British families right before Hitler invaded. What was overlooked in the celebration of his remarkable life — he never sought credit for his good deeds — was his deep regret about the thousands of children he couldn’t save. The world’s governments turned their backs on these children. Have they learned nothing since?

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina.

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