We have all seen the heartbreaking imagery of refugees desperately trying to escape war and persecution for the safety of Europe. Some, like the now infamous photograph of Syrian man Laith Majid in tears clutching his two children just off the Greek Island of Kos, have ended happily. Others, notably the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi on the shores of Turkey, ended tragically.
Most of the refugees seeking asylum in Europe are from Syria where a war, now in its fifth year, has sparked the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today. Incomprehensible levels of violence continue with all sides showing callous disregard for human lives and basic dignity. Four million people – the greatest population exodus since World War II – are seeking refuge outside of Syria’s borders.
Tackling a crisis of this magnitude is going to require the world coming together to not only open borders to more Syrian families, but also to increase humanitarian funding to Syria and its neighbors and push for a political solution to the war.
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When refugees arrive on European shores, they must be welcomed with dignity and respect. The people making these incredibly dangerous journeys are desperate. They have been bombed out of their homes, lost livelihoods and denied food, water and health care.
However, just because boats are not washing up on U.S. shores does not absolve this country of its moral responsibility to Syrian families. We welcome President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. will take in at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next fiscal year, a six-fold increase from the past year. To date, the U.S. has taken in only 1,500 Syrians since the war started four years ago, all while the tide of people seeking safety outside of Syria has only increased.
It is also important to remember that while it may seem that most refugees are headed to Europe, that is far from the truth. Most are living in neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Lebanon. These countries have seen their populations swell as the war in Syria intensified.
At the same time, millions more are still suffering inside of Syria. While we are not seeing images of them across our television screens, it does not mean their misery isn’t intensifying by the day. They are the ones without the means, whether due to financial constraints or security, to flee. Many are unreachable to aid organizations like Concern, as frontlines constantly change and humanitarian access has consistently been denied.
Despite the scale of the need, international donor funding is decreasing. The UN launched the largest appeal in its history – $7.5 billion – to provide humanitarian assistance inside Syria and the region. But it remains grossly underfunded with a shortfall of $5 billion this year alone.
In real-life terms, this means vulnerable Syrian families are enduring deprivation of life’s most basic resources, with food vouchers and other essential services being cancelled or significantly reduced. For this reason, we strongly believe that aid budgets should not be used to fund the refugee crisis in Europe, but rather to support those countries shouldering the majority of the burden, and inside Syria itself.
Governments cannot forget where the needs are the greatest and where the weakest and most vulnerable live. There is capacity and resources within Europe to handle the current caseload. That is not the case in Syria and the neighboring countries. The funding available for Syria is already inadequate to meet the needs; any further diversion of funds would be catastrophic.
However, the solution is bigger than giving Syrians refuge and delivering humanitarian relief. To curb the rise in global population movements, the Syrian war needs to end.
Later this month, world leaders will meet in New York for the UN General Assembly. We urge leaders from the United States and other governments to use the General Assembly as an opportunity to call on all parties in the conflict to begin rigorous peace talks. Beyond any other measure, peace in Syria would have the greatest immediate impact on the current refugee crisis.
Until then, more Syrians will continue to die needlessly – whether inside Syria or as refugees trying to find safety by taking perilous journeys by land and sea.