On the ground in Greece

I have just arrived in Greece to assess the situation for newly arriving refugees on the country’s outer islands. In a global context of increasingly harsh rhetoric that conflates refugees with security threats, we plan to gather first-hand stories from Syrians fleeing the ongoing and devastating war in Syria that has displaced a staggering 12 million people.

The vast majority of Syrian refugees have sought protection and support in the countries immediately bordering Syria, including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as in Egypt. The number of arrivals has been overwhelming, and in a place like Lebanon, for example, Syrian refugees now comprise around one quarter of the country’s population. Unfortunately, humanitarian financial support from the international community does not come close to meeting the needs. As of last month, the United Nation’s appeal for the Syrian regional refugee crisis was less than 50 percent funded. Beyond lack of aid, educational and employment opportunities for refugees are also scant.

Over the past year alone, several hundred thousand Syrians have decided to make the harrowing journey by boat, across the Mediterranean Sea, to Greece, and then onward to other parts of Europe to seek asylum. On the Greek island of Lesvos, thousands of refugees arrive every day on the northern coast, many in over-filled, small rubber dinghies. As winter approaches and the weather deteriorates, the sea crossing will only become more treacherous.

The purpose of RI’s mission is two-fold. First, we plan to develop a deeper understanding of the root causes of this current wave of migration by hearing from the displaced people themselves. Certainly, Syrians are fleeing the war, but why have so many decided that it is no longer viable to live as refugees in the initial country to which they fled? What portion of new arrivals are now traveling directly to Greece from Syria by moving as quickly as possible through Turkey? And what challenges do they face along the way?

Second, we will assess the humanitarian situation for refugees on Greece’s outer islands. What are the immediate needs for new arrivals, and what gaps must be filled? How effectively is the Greek government coordinating with the UN Refugee Agency and non-governmental aid organizations to provide basic services like food, shelter, and health care? In addition to Syrians, there are also refugees arriving from Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Somalia who are in urgent need of support. How are they being treated upon arrival and what kind of access to services do they have?

Following the summer’s enormous migration of Syrian refugees across the Mediterranean, and in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Paris last week, a major spotlight has been shone on the Syrian refugee movement into Europe – and much of it, unfortunately, in a negative light. While the French government has quickly and courageously confirmed that it will make no change to its commitment to welcome Syrian refugees, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation on Thursday to place harsh restrictions on the resettlement of Syrians and Iraqis to the U.S., and dozens of governors declared that they would not welcome Syrian refugees to their states.

In times like these we must remember that refugees are not the cause of insecurity and violence. They are people who are suffering from the devastating consequences of war and persecution, and it is our obligation to do everything we can to help.