The Refugee Crisis: what can we do?

The Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis has been prominent in the news recently, even more so this week as NI prepares to welcome a number of refugees into the country. Carys asks some key questions in this informative piece.

Many of us have been shocked by the refugee tragedies and misery of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and other nations. Some have been particularly shocked at the image of Aylan Kurdi, a three year old who drowned fleeing the war in what is being heralded as the worst refugee crisis facing the European Union since World War II. This image brought the reality of the refugee crisis to the forefront of our consciousness. This week as we accept 50 refugees into our care in Northern Ireland, many of us are left asking: what exactly is the refugee crisis and what can we do to help?  

What is the refugee crisis? 

The refugee crisis is the rapid increase of refugees entering Europe in search of Asylum after desperately fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries. In many cases those who face perils at home have faced further dangers, both at the hands of the sea and at the hands of their smugglers, whilst attempting to enter Europe. 

Who are those attempting to enter Europe? 

The refugees currently entering Europe are from countries of unrest, primarily Syria. More than 4 million Syrians have fled to Europe. Together with Afghanistan and Somalia it comprises half of Asylum seekers. 

Other source countries include Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq and more. 

More than 750,000 migrants are estimated to have arrived by sea so far according to the International Organization for Migration, exceeding the number in 2014 which was 219,000 over the whole year. 

How are they making the journey? 

Many are making this journey both by land, on trucks and by rail, as well as many making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean sea. Refugees pay the smugglers between 2000- 3000 pounds for passage  Smugglers exploit vulnerable and desperate individuals by making them pay extraordinary amounts for safe passage. Some traffickers then exploit them and force them to work as slaves to earn their passage. 

What are the risks of the journey?

A major risk of the journey that has made the refugee crisis so tragic has been the many deaths that have occurred. Europe’s external borders are known to be one of the world’s deadliest for refugees. 22,400 refugees have died trying to reach those borders between 1996 and 2014. This has increased recently with the Mediterranean crossing accounting for 75% of all refugee deaths in the first nine months of this year. That equates to 3,072 deaths. Altogether. To put this in perspective the next deadliest region is East Africa that has caused 251 deaths. 

Many have drowned using unseaworthy vessels that have capsize, of suffocate in packed holds of ship and cargo containers. 

Some of the major crisis’ that have occurred are as follows: 

December 2015: 50 refugees move to Northern Ireland

August 27th: two boats from Zuwara, Libya, carrying around 500 refugees sank. 

August 27th: 71 people were found abandoned in Austria after being suffocated in the back of a lorry. 

April 19th Off the coast of Italy’s Lampedusa Island an estimated 800 people lost their lives in a ship wreck. 

Human Trafficking and the Refugee Crisis

It is easy to get confused between smuggling and human trafficking. This is especially the case in the news currently when smugglers are being referred to as “traffickers” or “people traffickers” in relation to the refugee crisis. 

There are three major differences between a smuggler and a human trafficker. The first is that once smugglers bring individuals to their destination their interaction is over. In contrast to this in the case of trafficking the exploitation often continues or even starts on arrival. In the case of smuggling the travel is always undertaken voluntarily which is not always the case for victims of human trafficking. Finally, smuggling always occurs across borders whereas trafficking can occur within borders, such as from Belfast to Newry. 

Therefore, in relation to the refugee crisis not all smugglers are human traffickers. However, this does not mean that human trafficking is not a big issue in relation to this crisis. The threat of human trafficking is threefold. 

The first threat is to the refugees before they have left Africa or Asia and are attempting to escape the horrors of their origin country. The desperation of these individuals trying to escape makes them extremely vulnerable. Individuals who are escaping are so desperate to escape the trials of their home nation, such as Syria, that they will trust anyone to give them safe passage to Europe. This makes the refugees easy targets as they leave the country.

The second threat is on the voyage. Many individuals are abused and exploited by their smugglers and are forced to work as slaves either on the boats, beforehand or on arrival to pay for the crossing. Others are just simply abused by smugglers who are in a position of authority. They are still in an extremely vulnerable position, if not a more vulnerable position, as once they have committed to the voyage there is no hope of escape. They are totally at the mercy of individuals they have had little choice but to put their trust in, only to be abused. Refugees have told reporters that once you have paid for the passage you cannot leave and are then abused and forced to work as a slave for gangs for months to earn the crossing to the EU. 

The final threat is on arrival. Once they have arrived at their destination these refugees are still vulnerable. Although they are no longer threatened by the horrors of their home country, or by the wrath of their smugglers they are still on their own, with no protection and often without the language skills needed. They are now vulnerable to traffickers on a different continent who wish to exploit them in a similar way. 

Another possible threat is that the smugglers are in fact traffickers and on arrival, hand them over to live out their lives as slaves. 

Refugees or Migrants?

In the media many of the Refugees seeking asylum are being referred to as ‘migrants’ and the two terms have been used interchangeably. This is an important distinction that needs to be made. When someone is seeking asylum because of economic reasons, they’re a migrant. Whereas, when someone is escaping violence or threat, they’re a refugee. A refugee and a migrant are different in terms of their needs and also in terms of the legal mandates in how we are meant to treat them. A refugee is protected under international law by the 1951 refugee convention. The conventions basic point is that they cannot be returned or expelled when their freedom or life is under threat. They also have help to integrate into society and find a job as well as getting access to welfare benefits and social houses.

Why now?

There was a spike in the amount of people travelling by sea due to the warm summer conditions. Previous to this spring the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan were the main recipients of the exodus of Syria. However since spring the warm weather and calm waters make it less likely for the crossing to be dangerous. However, that does not negate all dangers. Furthermore, the smugglers bringing individuals across the sea are doing so for the purposes of making money. In an effort to Maximise profits for as little journeys as possible the smugglers are overfilling the boats greatly increasing the risk. 

Another reason for the increase of refugees is that the lawless conditions in the Middle East and northern Africa have allowed smuggling to grow and flourish unchecked.  Many refugees see Libya as an open door to the Mediterranean due to the country’s deteriorating security.  These lawless conditions were triggered by the Arab uprising that has caused a great many conflicts and begins the story of the Syrian crisis. Since the Arab spring uprising in 2010 there has been a ripple effect that seems to have escalated into both the push factors that are making refugees leave and creating the conditions that enables individuals to migrate. For all of these countries Europe is the richest and safest near place of refuge. 

Why is there a crisis in Europe?

The crisis in Europe is caused by the sheer volume of Refugees seeking Asylum. The volume of Asylum applications is causing administrative deadlock so that individuals cannot be processed fast enough to be allocated a destination country before they move on. 22 European states exist in what is called the Schengen area which is a zone of free movement. Due to this many refugees, instead of following protocol and waiting for their asylum application to be processed in the first country they land in they migrate to the countries they want to live in that tend to be wealthier nations with a  better welfare state. In June, the most recent month covered by Eurostat’s statistics, there were 568,000 Asylum applications pending. The whole process of asylum is on the basis of countries “opting in” therefore no country has to take any, this creates an unequal distribution of refugees. There is also no standardised level of care for asylum seekers meaning that there is an unfair distribution of care for refugees. 

Ultimately, there are a few states that are either the first contact on arrival in Europe or are the wealthier countries with better life prospects that are taking the brunt of the crisis. 

Currently some of the poorer European nations happen to be the first country of contact for refugees. This, as well as the sheer volume of the refugees, means that the standard of care, through lack of time and resources alone, can be low. It is here that we can help.  

What can we do?

When watching the news and hearing about the horrors that these refugees have been through many of us are left wondering how we can help. There are in fact many things you can do. Even the smallest and easy action can make a massive difference to these refugees’ lives.  Even the simplest things can make a big difference, like: putting your name on a petition, using a hashtag to make your voice heard; not going out this week or not buying that pair of trousers and instead giving money to the refugees; or even rummaging through your old things and finding something to donate costs you very little and can make a big change to a refugee. 

There are two things that you can do to help these refugees:

  • 1. Sign a petition

    If you think there should be a more compassionate Europe-wide response to the crisis then sign this petition

    If you want Britain to accept more asylum seekers sign this

If you think the government should be doing more to help, write to your MP about it, or sign this petition asking the Government to accept more refugees. 

European commission officials have said: ” It is easy to cry in front of your TV set when witnessing these tragedies. It is harder to stand up and take responsibility. What we need now is the collective courage to follow through with concrete action on words that will otherwise ring empty,” 

If this crisis has affected you please don’t just ignore those in need of your help. Help in any way you can, even just by lobbying your local politicians over social media. No one should have to face the terrible human rights abuses, exploitation and displacement that many refugees have faced and we should be doing all we can to ease their suffering.  

  • 2. Donate 

Volunteers are bringing essential items to refugees in Calais. Many only have the possessions on their back and can live in terrible conditions. You can donate goods too Calais Action or you can buy something from this Amazon Wishlist. Or you can donate money too different charities, a list of which is provided below. 

  • Migrant Offshore Aid Station: provides independent rescue boats for those at risk of drowning
  • Médecins Sans Frontières: The humanitarian agency has three rescue ships in the Mediterranean, on its biggest day alone they rescued 1,658 people.
  • Aylan Kurdi Fund: A fund named in honour of the young boy who drowned and caught the world’s attention. All proceeds go to the humanitarian agency Hand in Hand for Syria. 
  • Refugee Council: £100 could pay for the education and travel of two children for a week. 
  • Unicef: Is giving life-saving supplies such as clean water, medicine and psychological support. A donation of £9 could provide an emergency water kit for a family. 
  • Save the Children: A donation of £50 could buy two hygiene kits including soap, towels and toothbrushes.
  • British Red Cross: A donation of £30 could buy 28 mats to assist the Syrian refugees in coping with the cold.
  • Islamic Relief: We could feed three familes for a month on a donation of £210.
  • The crowdfunding website Just Giving has specific appeals for refugees in Calais. 
  • UNHCR is running camps, providing shelter and aid to refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, as well as helping refugees across Europe.
  • Donate to the crowdfunding campaign that raises money for volunteers to go to Calais and help :Over 3000 women, men and children are living in squalor in Calais and a group are going to help in October. They have set up this Indiegogo campaign to help them buy essential items for the refugees. 

Volunteer your time

  • If you want to help, there are people here organising volunteer trips to Calais and organising donations and fundraisers in the UK. 
  • If you are a Doctor you can get involved with Doctors of the World, who travel to Calais provide healthcare. You can volunteer, fundraise or donate to assist them in provding much needed medical care. 
  • There has also been a makeshift library set up in Calais which  – you can donate money or books to help provide the refugees with something to read. 
  • US refugee charity the International Rescue Committee has volunteering opportunities at its 22 offices. Including mentoring refugee families and helping refugees find jobs. The organisation also asking for donations. 
  • Help prevent loss of life at sea with MOAS. This organisation aims at saving the lives of refugees, who would otherwise drown at sea. They have a live counter on the site of how many lives they have saved so far – at the time of writing it is 11,124.  Donate to the heroic team of international humanitarians, security professionals, medical staff, and experienced maritime officers who are saving lives at sea here. 

At the time of posting this article, 11 families will just have arrived in Northern Ireland to find refuge here. They will be accommodated in secure and secret locations first; and then will be assisted in finding their feet amongst the NI community. We recommend contacting The Red Cross if you would like to be of assistance.

This process – both here and elsewhere – will take time. Some great advice we have heard:

“Be involved where you are for now. Real welcome takes time.”

“Willing hands, tough minds and tender hearts.”

“Make yourself available. Be there when called.”