Where Would You Go?

By Daryl Grisgraber
A group of migrants, including Syrian refugees, aboard an Italian coast guard rescue boat. Reuters Photo/Antonio Parrinello

Last week, Amnesty International issued a report on Syrian refugees in Egypt, which revealed that some Syrians are now trying to leave Egypt by dangerous means like sea crossings to Europe. In recent weeks the media has been full of stories of people – including many Syrians – drowning at sea between Alexandria and European ports. Hundreds of others are being held in detention after failing in their attempts or being arbitrarily arrested. Others have already been deported to Syria.

It is essential for the world to understand and push back against these human rights violations. In doing so, governments and the public should consider what those violations mean for desperate individual Syrians.

Put yourself in a Syrian’s shoes. You have fled the conflict in Syria and ended up in Egypt, where the host community is hostile toward you. Now imagine getting on a boat in the hope of getting to Europe, only to be caught and sent back where you started: Syria. Your children aren’t with you because they drowned at sea during your attempt to protect them and find them a safe place to live.

Why would any Syrian travel to Egypt in the first place, or take such a dangerous ocean voyage? The reasons are complex. The first thing to know is that most people in Syria do not have the option of escaping. But let’s say you are one of the “lucky” ones and make a plan to get out. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey are already overwhelmed by the Syrian refugees who have arrived, and they are struggling to adequately support all of them. In all three countries, governments periodically consider closing their borders, there are increasing tensions between local communities and refugee populations, and the material and physical hardships of refugee life are well-known.

Iraq might be an alternate destination, but the northern border crossing is far from many of Syria’s major cities, and the population in that region – including the Syrians – is predominantly Kurdish. While there is no policy that prevents non-Kurdish Syrians from entering northern Iraq, many of them simply prefer to be in a more familiar culture.

The next choice is generally Egypt. While it is far away and requires expensive travel to reach, Egypt initially welcomed Syrian refugees and offered them services and protection. The cost of living was also manageable compared with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. But in the past few months, a number of complications have arisen there. Syrian refugees have become easy scapegoats for Egypt’s social and political tensions, and they were forced to acquire visas as resentment toward their presence became stronger. 

Some Syrians would prefer to seek refuge in Europe, but crossing through Turkey has become extremely difficult. Greece has implemented much stricter border controls since last year, and Bulgaria – which had previously accepted Syrians – has begun pushing back against further arrivals. How else would you get there if not by sea?

Human rights violations against refugees – like the ones that Amnesty highlighted in Egypt – are outrageous enough on their own, but they are also suggestive of other everyday hardships that leave refugees with more difficult lives and less protection. They mean that one more country can be scratched off the list of potential safe havens. And in Egypt specifically, they mean that desperate people will entertain the possibility of dying at sea in order to escape the insecurity, even knowing that if they reach land they may not find much more of a welcome.

We can help change this. Most Syrian refugees would prefer to stay in the region, as they are eager to go back home once Syria is safe. But for this to happen, the countries hosting them need more help from the rest of the world. This might mean providing development assistance in places like Jordan and Lebanon, where the massive Syrian population has put pressure on hospitals and job markets, affecting both locals and refugees alike. Or it could come in the form of financial aid to Turkey, which has handled its Syrian refugee response independently for more than two years but is feeling the strain of continuous arrivals. It could also mean paying for better sanitation services and educational programs in northern Iraq.

There are so many possibilities, but we must start acting on them. Lives are being lost every day.