Europe Must Rethink Its Response to the Refugee Crisis

25/09/2015 11:16 BST | Updated 24/09/2016 10:12 BST

"It's become normal to hear of friends and family dying. Can you imagine what that feels like? Nobody can unless they too have been in Syria like we have for the past four years. This war has killed the humanity in people. People have just become numb, they can't feel anymore, they don't hope anymore. This is why we had to leave."

I'm standing in Subotica bus station in the north of Serbia where CARE is providing relief to refugees passing through the country. There are crowds of refugees anxiously waiting for their bus to arrive. People are confused and shouting so I suggest we move outside to talk more comfortably. Gaby lets out a long sigh, he is afraid of missing a bus and does not want to take his eye off the announcement board: "Can we just stay here? I haven't slept for nine days." His friend is acutely distressed. He needs to use the bathroom but, as in almost every element of their perilous journey from Syria, people are profiting from their desperation. They are charging refugees to use the facilities and Gaby's friend spent his last money on his bus ticket.

It is not the greeting they had anticipated: "we left one war zone to find ourselves being attacked in another," one man cried desperately after he and his young family were tear-gassed when they'd rushed towards the border crossing with Hungary hearing rumours it had reopened. "Look, feel how her lungs are still struggling" he said as he thrust my hand on to his two-month-old baby's chest to feel the weak rise and fall of her frail ribcage.

Contrary to popular assumption, these refugees aren't opportunistic migrants trying to steal our jobs in the EU. Many have witnessed their families being killed or, like Gaby, have been kidnapped and felt if they didn't get out now, they never would. "I never wanted to leave my country but this was our only option in the end. We have nothing in Syria anymore, our homes have gone, our families have been killed". They called this journey the 'death march'.

Even those who had managed to escape to the relative safety of neighbouring countries are now being forced to move on. Since December 2014, the World Food Program has had to implement successive cuts to the food voucher program in Jordan, which used to provide each refugee with sufficient food monthly, simply because there wasn't enough donor funding to continue the program. In August 2015, food assistance was cut in half to just US$13.50 per refugee per month, and over a third of refugees have just been informed that they will no longer receive any food assistance from September.

Across the region, the level of assistance has not kept pace with the dramatically increasing number of people displaced. The current debate is failing to recognize that one of the reasons why refugees have started moving at scale to Europe now, and not earlier, is because of repeated cuts to humanitarian assistance people now receive in the region.

The UK Government has admirably led the humanitarian response in the region. At EU meetings and at the UN General Assembly this week it is imperative that it encourages the international community to seize this moment to tackle the brutal conflict in Syria and the mounting refugee crisis.

Vitally, we need to increase pressure to end the ruthless barrel bombing and other attacks on civilians. Despite a UN Security Council resolution banning the use of barrel bombs in December 2014, over 11,000 have been dropped by the Syrian government since then, with an estimated 1,500 in August 2015 alone.

Political debate in the UK and other Western states is increasingly weaving the refugee crisis into a narrative on military options targeting the Islamic State, implying the group is the only cause for displacement. In CARE's daily work with refugees in the region it is very clear that a large majority of refugees have fled because of on-going fighting between government and opposition forces, and, in particular, the indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighbourhoods. Three quarters of the current four million refugees were displaced prior to the rapid advance of ISIS in Syria in July/August of 2014. The barrel bombing has caused by far the largest devastation, loss of life and displacement. As important as it is to focus on countering violent extremism, doing so must not drown out the voices of people displaced by violence inside Syria.

Politicians can continue to procrastinate over where refugees will be hosted, in what numbers and how this may be funded. But, critically, this will not address the root causes, and the problem will continue to grow in the months and years to come: this can only mean a long term political resolution to the conflict.

For Gaby, his friend and the millions like him two urgent changes are desperately needed. First of all, global leaders must take seriously the need to stop indiscriminate attacks on civilians inside Syria - it is by far the poorest and most vulnerable people left behind in Syria who face the gravest risk on a daily basis. UN Security Council resolutions protecting civilians from the violence, including barrel bombs, must be upheld as an urgent priority and Iran and Russia must be brought to the table to be part of a solution on this.

Secondly, a much larger investment in humanitarian and development assistance in the region surrounding Syria is required immediately; it is more cost effective and will reduce the pressure on people taking dangerous routes to Europe. The scale of assistance required is equivalent to the post World War II 'Marshall Plan' for Europe, where is Europe's 'Marshall Plan' for Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey?

There are of course no easy or quick fixes for the refugee crisis, but framing the crisis as a European one and skewing our responses to reflect European counter-terror or migration agendas will do little to alleviate the situation.

The horrors of the Syrian conflict are bewildering, and undoubtedly present some stark moral and political choices for European and world leaders. The question is whether or not they have the conscience to finally tale real action on them?