Syria & Beyond Interviews: The Year The World Stopped Caring About Refugees

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HADALAT, Jordan (14/01/2016) - Stranded Syrian refugees wait to cross the border from their makeshift camp in Syria to Jordan through the Hadalat border crossing near the city of Ruwaished in the northeastern Jordanian territory Jan. 14, 2016. Photo by Annie Sakkab

PHOTO: Syrian refugees stranded at the Jordanian border, April 2016


Anealla Safdar and Patrick Strickland of Al Jazeera English interview refugees and activists about how the world has turned its back on those fleeing war, destruction, and deprivation:


The number of refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean this year rose to an annual record.

More than 5,000 people lost their lives at sea as they took on perilous journeys to escape war, poverty, and persecution – often all three. In 2015, some 3,771 refugees died while crossing the Mediterranean, up from 3,279 deaths the year before.

In short, 2016 has not been an easy year.

A toddler was the first refugee to die in the Mediterranean in the deadliest January on record. In March the Balkan route was permanently shut, trapping tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Greece and slowing Aegean Sea crossings to a trickle. In May Kenya declared it would close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. In June Britain voted to leave the European Union, thanks in large measure to a campaign run by the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party which stoked fears over incoming refugees. In August, a leak revealed that refugee children were being sexually assaulted at Australia’s Nauru prison camp. Deportations of Afghan refugees from Pakistan swelled this year, with 100,000 repatriated in September alone. In October the EU cleared a deal to deport an unlimited number of Afghan refugees from Europe, and in November the United States voted for Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate who consistently berated refugees during his campaign.

However, the refugee crisis is now often spoken of in terms of economics and security – especially during election season – as opposed to empathy.

Al Jazeera asked refugees, human rights organisations, experts working with refugees, and those who attempt to make dangerous passages a little safer, what the year 2016 meant for refugees around the world and what they should expect from 2017.

Aboud Shalhoub, Syrian refugee in the Netherlands

For me 2016 was okay. I am living safely and peacefully with my family in Europe; we now have a normal life. But thousands of homeless families remain locked at borders.

They are forced to live in tents in poor conditions. That’s because some political decisions have led to banning undocumented immigration in any form – closing borders, using of violence, tear gas, and arrests – to stop the refugee flow.

But at the the same time on the news, we see how much Europe and the world sympathises with refugees. They campaign to bring food and clothes to refugees under the banner of humanitarian aid. They give you food and clothing but at the same time tell you, “just don’t cross the borders” or “go back to your home”. It was our homes being devastated by wars, famine or violence, that forced us to leave our countries.

In 2017, I hope to see something really simple: real action for humanity, not just talk as we have so far seen. I don’t mean opening borders and campaigning. I mean making different political decisions to solve the refugees crisis.

We became refugees because we have war in our countries. The solutions for our crisis are to stop dictatorships, stop the fighting groups, stop sending weapons and stop displacing people.

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Syrian children at the Zaatari camp in Jordan, February 2013

Rami, Syrian refugee in Athens

The world got bored with refugees in 2016. Politicians wanted to stop refugees coming. Islamophobia and the problems that happened ‘because’ of the refugees – fascists used these things in a bad way. The situation got worse. There are still people on the left who fight till the end, because they believe in “no borders”, and solidarity.

Detaining people in Greece or Italy is a first step to stop refugees from coming. Europe has said it doesn’t want any more Muslims or refugees, but a lot of people need protection because people are living in bad conditions in Syria or Iraq. In Syria, you have two bad options – a…dictator or Islamists. When you see your kids’ bodies shaking while they sleep because they are dreaming of death or violence – it’s not normal.

If I could say something to everyone, it would be: Stop killing people. Stop violence.

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A Syrian refugee family in Turkey, July 2016

Preethi Nallu, Refugees Deeply editor

With global displacement continuing at unabated levels, triggered by inextricably linked reasons, from conflict and climate change to economic deprivation and statelessness, 2016 challenged our understanding of the term “refugee”.

Against the cacophonous reports of ‘droves’ of people trying to enter Europe, we must press the reset button. We must ignite global collective consciousness towards this new era of migration. It is the defining issue of our time.

The year 2016 proved that militarising the Mediterranean and fortifying borders are not tenable solutions. With mutating smuggling networks that extend from the Logar villages of Afghanistan to the depths of the Sahara, combating the illicit migrant ‘trade’ is not as simple as shooting smugglers on sight or erecting new barriers.

While the EU-Turkey deal has thwarted arrivals to Greece for one season, it is merely a bandage on an infection. Italy’s new record this year, with more than 171,000 arrivals by sea, is proof that such deals simply shift the routes.

Irregular, illegal, clandestine, migrant, refugee, asylum seeker – barring reductive definitions, the media must explore and connect the conditions that are driving millions of people across the globe to cross borders and embark on life-risking journeys.

Over 2017, I hope to see panic-stricken reports outnumbered by realistic acknowledgement of what it will take to absorb those who are already in our communities. The only way forward is to explore pragmatic ways of changing our economic systems, political priorities, social identities and unparalleled levels of consumption that have led to the so-called “unprecedented” levels of displacement.

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Refugees cross a river near the Greek-Macedonian border (Stoyan Nenov/Reuters)

MSF Sea, Doctors Without Borders Mediterranean team

In 2016 the world catastrophically failed millions of people fleeing war, persecution and despair. Calculating politics and egocentrism won out over moral and legal obligations to offer protection and assistance to those in need. Countries across the world implemented harmful migration and asylum policies – increasing the suffering of people on the move by routinely denying them humanitarian assistance and any form of dignity.

Like a contagious disease, walls, fences and restrictive border measures disseminated all over the world with deadly consequences: 7,200 people died at borders globally, with more than 5,000 in the Mediterranean Sea alone.

States continued to look for cynical measures to keep people in need out of sight, signing agreements with third countries conditioning development aid on a border control agenda. The EU-Turkey deal is perhaps the most reprehensible, as it has shown the world that you can outsource the responsibility to offer protection while dangerously restricting the right to seek asylum.

2017 must be the year where we choose to re-embrace human dignity and the value of human life. If not, the world will continue in failing to provide protection for the most vulnerable, instituting more suffering on those that deserve far more than the indignity they have been subjected to.

Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights programme director

There is no sugar-coating how bad 2016 was for refugees … But the largest and nearly unnoticed mass forced return was by Pakistan, which forced about 400,000 Afghan refugees and another 250,000 unregistered Afghans to return to their still dangerous and unsettled homeland.

Little wonder hardly anyone paid attention. The EU was busy brokering a deal with Afghanistan to accept back rejected Afghan asylum seekers and to work with the EU to deter others from fleeing westward. It wasn’t about to criticise Pakistan or to defend the rights of Afghan refugees.

The wealthiest countries chose to ignore the deteriorating conditions in 2016 that caused the number of internally displaced people in Afghanistan to grow by more than half a million, the highest number of newly displaced people since 2001, on top of the 1.5 million internally displaced people recorded in Afghanistan at the end of 2015. Most of the returnees from Pakistan joined the ranks of the displaced, increasing everyone’s misery and contributing predictably to more destabilisation in the year ahead.

Will anyone care? Those with the power to make a difference from the United States to Australia seem more intent on building their own walls than in defending the right of people fleeing for their lives. Perhaps the tipping point will come in 2017 when cumulative knowledge of trapped civilians in places like Aleppo multiplied many times over will transform the privileged from their me-first mentality and finally bring a sense of a common humanity. But as 2016 closes, that feels like a faint hope at a heavy cost.

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Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan

Alarmphone, activist network providing hotline for refugees in distress at sea

European governments reacted violently to the historic migration movements of 2015, making unauthorised migrant journeys lengthier, costlier, more dangerous and deadly….The Dublin laws are being forcefully re-installed, and mass deportations are looming large for 2017.

The sea was further militarised, with EU forces now even training the Libyan coastguards in how to intercept precarious travellers from escaping a war-torn place. And the death toll keeps rising.

Nevertheless, people still do make it across: This year, more than 350,000 people arrived in Europe via the sea.

We will continue to support these disobedient movements in 2017. In the year to come we will struggle on to make sea crossings a little less dangerous, as we have done in the past two years, when we supported more than 1,750 boats. We are determined to speak up against those who show hostility towards the newcomers, who preach hatred and seek to divide us.

We will welcome those who had to risk their lives to find protection in a new community, a trans-border community that is inclusive and open, based upon the principles of global justice and the freedom of movement for all.

We believe that a world without borders is possible, in which both Frontex and the smugglers would then have disappeared.

Milena Zajovic, spokesperson for Are You Syrious?, information agency for refugees

2016 confirmed a crisis of humanity. Unfortunately, this isn’t a new phenomenon. Many of us in Are You Syrious? grew up in the middle of the ex-Yugoslavian war. I was a refugee in the 90s. My sister, who also volunteers, was born during bombing. Some of us survived sieges and torture camps.

And we all remember how we hoped for the international community to help, and how betrayed we felt when we realised they’d simply stopped caring. After the horrors of Vukovar, Sarajevo, and Srebrenica, so many said ‘never again’. But we are now facing almost identical horrors, just on a larger geographical scale.

I feel ashamed of Balkan countries where most know how war felt. Unfortunately, political decisions to close borders push victims of war, poverty or political persecution into the hands of smugglers. It pushes them out of reach of many humanitarian groups, strips them of their right to international protection, first aid or legal support. This time last year, we were greeting the refugees in transit camps. Now we find them beaten in the fields.

I just hope refugees will find strength in their hearts to forgive us for all the additional trauma and the betrayal they felt when they asked for international help.

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Civilians flee fighting near Iraq’s Mosul, October 2016

Ramy Abdu, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor chairman

The year 2016 was indeed a nadir for refugees, with not only the highest number of deaths at sea so far, but also a growing xenophobia. The latter boosted the popularity of right-wing politicians and saw some governments build expensive, divisive walls as they sought other ways to simply turn back refugees, rather than deal with root causes and humanitarian implications.

Likewise, the oldest group of “warehoused” refugees – the Palestinians – lived for the 10th year under occupation, and every measure of their oppression increased.

However, there is reason for optimism as well, with surveys showing the majority of people welcome refugees and are increasingly backing action to support Palestinian rights, such as boycotts. This points to governments and politicians being clearly out of touch not only with the humanity of their citizens but also with the long-term benefits immigrants offer, including refugees.

Unfortunately, the situation for refugees may get worse before it gets better, depending on the results of some upcoming elections. As external powers wage proxy wars in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Iraq, terrorist acts also will continue to occur on their soil, and asylum seekers and immigrants will be blamed. It is the responsibility of those of us who work with refugees to do a much better job of giving visibility to the significant contribution made by these individuals historically and today.

Simon Cox, migrant lawyer

2017 will see five trends continue:

1. Refugee self-determination. People under threat fighting to reach safety and stay there.

2. Solidarity. Ordinary people organising outside current failed structures to rescue, support and defend refugees.

3. Exporting control. Rich countries demanding poor countries obstruct and accommodate refugees.

4. Monetisation. Corrupt regimes such as Afghanistan and Niger taking Western money and charging more bribes for border crossers.

5. Circular refugees. Research suggests three out four of Afghans sent “home” make their way back to Europe.

The missing piece? Serious conversation about these three failed tactics.

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