The plight of refugees, the shame of the world

The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, a staggering 60 million people displaced from their homes, four million from Syria alone. World leaders have abdicated their responsibility for this unlucky population, around half of whom are children. The situation is sadly reminiscent of that of refugees fleeing the destruction of World War II and the Nazi onslaught. Then, too, most governments turned their backs, and millions who were trapped perished.

We are mired in a set of myopic, stingy and cruel policies. The few global institutions dedicated to supporting this population are starved of resources as governments either haven't funded them or have reneged on their pledges of funds. Wealthy and powerful nations aren't doing their part; the United States, for example, has taken fewer than 1,000 refugees from Syria.

The World Food Programme was recently forced to cut its monthly food allocation to refugee families in Lebanon to US$13 (S$18), down from US$27 in January.

Syrians crossing illegally into Turkish territory. The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with a staggering 60 million people displaced from their homes, four million from Syria alone.
Syrians crossing illegally into Turkish territory. The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II, with a staggering 60 million people displaced from their homes, four million from Syria alone. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In Iraq, the United Nations announced that a "paralysing funding shortfall" was causing it to shutter healthcare services for one million people. That means that hundreds of thousands of children will not be vaccinated against polio and measles - a terrifying development risking the resurgence of these diseases in the already devastated region. The UN High Commission for Refugees calculates that 700,000 Syrian children in neighbouring countries are out of school simply for lack of money. One result has been a huge rise in child labour, with girls in their early teens (or even younger) being married off.

Last year, I visited a volunteer-run school for refugees in Reyhanli, a town on the Syria-Turkey border. During a break, a teacher showed me heartbreaking pictures of what had happened to his former pupils in Syria, when the regime had used incendiary weapons on the school complex. As we held back tears, two young girls playfully approached us, wanting to play-box with their teacher - a volunteer had brought play-boxing gloves for children.

Today's world is much richer than during World War II, and it's not tangled in global war. Last year, the entire World Food Programme budget was a paltry US$5.4 billion. The UN refugee agency's budget is a mere US$8 billion.

The teacher hid his phone with the pictures of burned children, their small bodies on hospital beds, wrapped in gauze. In the courtyard, a gaggle of girls played soccer, shrieking with delight at every goal attempt, successful or not.

Children are resilient, when given a chance. It's a shame how few are. Most of the refugees from Syria are in Turkey, with some in Lebanon. The wars in the region may widen. Turkey has announced that it will open its Incirlik air base to US operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and has started a bombing campaign against Kurdish insurgents in Iraq.

The four-decade-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey had previously claimed 40,000 lives, though a fragile truce had held for the past few years. A re-ignition of full-scale fighting would spell further disaster for the region, and for Turkey.

Across the border, a short distance from the school I visited on the Turkey side, a refugee camp in Syria lay in tatters. Volunteers risked their lives to smuggle in a little bit of food so the unlucky souls there could eat occasionally. Despite copious amounts of will and personal heroism, these young men and women could do only so much. Accepting, feeding, immunising, resettling and helping this many people can be done only at an institutional level, with worldwide organisations. At the moment, most of this burden is on a few neighbouring countries - Turkey, Lebanon and now Greece - that get little to no outside help. Unsurprisingly, many refugees are risking their lives to reach Europe.

A crisis of this scale cannot be dealt with by individual heroism, however admirable. Huge numbers of people cannot be sheltered through ad hoc charity, however well intended.

Recently, a Palestinian teenager whose family faces deportation from Germany asked Chancellor Angela Merkel, in perfect German, why her family couldn't stay, and why she couldn't just stay in school and study like everyone else. Dr Merkel had said, in a dry speech: "Politics is sometimes hard. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands, and if we were to say you can all come... we just can't manage it." At that, the girl burst into tears and Dr Merkel was taken aback. Her halting efforts to comfort the girl were recorded worldwide.

"Politics is hard" is not enough.

It's clear that our leaders aren't stepping up to the gravity of the moment. We can, and we must, push them to do the right thing.

If distributed properly, the cost is not that high.

Today's world is much richer than during World War II, and it's not tangled in global war. last year, the entire World Food Programme budget was a paltry US$5.4 billion. The UN refugee agency's budget is a mere US$8 billion. To put these numbers in context, Amazon's market capitalisation climbed recently by US$40 billion in after-hours trading after it announced that its Web-hosting services were slightly more profitable than expected. Saving millions of refugee children fleeing war apparently isn't worth a fraction of an evening's speculation on a single stock.

NEW YORK TIMES

• The writer is an assistant professor at the School of Information and Library Science, University of North Carolina.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2015, with the headline 'The plight of refugees, the shame of the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe