Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe Is Testing Its Humanitarian Nerve

Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe Is Testing Its Humanitarian Nerve

The shocking image of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy found lying face down on a beach near the Turkish resort town of Bodrum has left the world pulverised with guilt and horror of this human tragedy. It has exposed the plight of refugees from mainly Syria, caught between the barbaric opponents of a civil war for over four years. The knock on effect is now a crisis epic in size in Europe. According to the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, "over half a million people from the Middle East and Africa have crossed the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea so far this year."

Brutalised by barrel-bombs of the ruthless Assad regime, with added Russian cruise missiles now, and barbaric terrorist groups such as Daesh (ISIL), Syria has become near- impossible to reside in, with infra-structure destroyed and the economy decimated. Helping Syrians is a clear moral duty and this should be taken up by the whole world under the auspices of the UN. Syria's neighbouring countries have taken in the largest share of refugees but need help to provide education and jobs, not just camps on the borders. Managing the Syrian crisis along the entire chain of displacement needs a co-ordinated policy and intervention.

There must also be a concerted effort to contain the war and stop the bloodbath that has cost over a quarter million lives so far. Without a political solution misery in the region will not stop and the world will never be safe. This could rather re-ignite a new Cold War driven by sectarianism, terrorism and imposed wars. The international community must do its best to stop the proxy war between neighbouring and global powers. But that is another discussion.

Europe may have had a wishful thinking that a bloodbath in a far away land like Syria would not directly affect it, but the rapid influx of refugees and then the sickening scene of Aylan Kurdi roused its moral conscience. The shared humanitarian instinct was stirred up by the political courage of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor; subsequently shaping the nature of debate on human sufferings. The continent could not simply ignore it; most of Europe have now opened up their gates. Europe is rich and socially stable and whilst it is true it cannot take all the refugees it has to take the major burden after the neighbouring countries.

Sadly, Eastern Europe is not yet prepared for it; Hungary is building a 175km-long high fence (steel barrier) along its border with Serbia to confront what it says is a "threat to European security, prosperity and identity".

On our own shores an extraordinary public pressure convinced the Government to do something for the Syrian refugees. The UK pledged 20,000 over five years from the refugee camps in the neighbouring countries. British people, known as top charity givers in the world, came up again with their offer of time, money and homes for those who would be coming. According to Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), "one in three Britons have contributed in some way to a nationwide relief effort." Across the English Channel, France has agreed to take 24,000. For Britain and France these are small figures, but this human tragedy has displaced the politics of fear, insecurity and prejudice with social conscience in most European countries.

One good thing about developed democracies is when politicians dither on some national or global issues, the civil society and ordinary people step in and make up with their proactive actions. Overall, the response to this refugee crisis of global proportions, the biggest since WWII, from ordinary European people is inspirational.

One European country that some of us in the charity sector visited recently proved moving to us in helping others in their need. The "Welcome Refugees" (Refugees welcome Stockholm) initiative by Swedes, supported by their Government, is nothing short of amazing in terms of human solidarity with people in destitution and trauma. The news that Volunteers headed to Stockholm's central train station recently to welcome refugees with clothes, food, and coffee tell the world how ordinary Swedes have been moved by the sufferings of Syrian people. Refugees are being seen as just like them, ordinary or professionals, but who fled their homes and took the great risk of travelling long distances with vulnerable children and women. Very few parents would put their children in danger like this unless they are genuine.

On one night we visited a school, Kampetorpsskolan in Hagerston, which gave temporary shelter to 300, mostly Syrian, refugees including many children. This was being supported by the Swedish Red Cross (Roda Korset), Stockholm City Mission (Stockholms Stadsmission), Save the Children (Radda Barnen) and the British Charity Muslim Aid. The volunteers were from all corners of life, some working with those charities, others students from universities.

In our visit to Stockholm Central Train Station (T-Centralen) we met people from the Swedish Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) and Swedish Red Cross who have temporarily set up their offices there to deal with incoming refugees by trains. Refugees are given health, emotional and basic financial support on their arrival. No immigration checks there! They are given the choice to stay in Sweden or move to another country. The whole atmosphere appeared welcoming, non-intrusive and relaxed.

The sudden arrival of Syrian refugees has both overwhelmed and divided the EU. While Europe is responding to the humanitarian crisis in a variety of ways, the EU should now work hard with regional and global powers to find a political solution in Syria so that the country once again becomes habitable for its people.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, author and parenting consultant.

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