The photograph of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and washed ashore on the Turkish coast, contributed to a substantial policy shift in Europe toward Syrian refugees last week.
Syria has been at civil war for over four years, forcing almost 4 million nationals into neighboring countries as refugees. As the war drags on, many Syrians have started to look at rebuilding their lives by immigrating to countries in Europe, North America, or Australia.
Meanwhile, anti-immigrant politicians and their supporters have worked to question why these refugees need to leave countries where the brunt of them are based.
“They were in no fear, they were in no persecution, they were in no danger in Turkey,” Australian Senator Cory Bernardi said of Kurdi’s family, according to the Independent.
A common critique among opponents of immigration is the idea that refugees are not under threat in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt — and should stay there instead of making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. But according to experts and aid workers, this notion is far from the truth.
“For the 4.08 million refugees already in neighboring countries — the vast majority of whom live outside of formal camps — hope is also dwindling as they sinker deeper into abject poverty,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. “Recent studies in Jordan and Lebanon, for example, have found a marked increase in refugee vulnerability amidst funding shortfalls for refugee programs.”
In Jordan, the World Food Program announced last week that aid had dried up and they would not be providing money to Syrian refugees for food anymore. Refugees are often not allowed to work in these countries — which forces them to either flee or live in refugee camps. Many prefer the daily struggle of finding menial labor to the camps though. The restrictions on travel and at times harsh conditions in camps means most refugees prefer to try and forge a life outside, especially if they have children.
Life outside the camps can be just as hard. Locals have long grown weary of the masses of refugees entering their countries. Politicians have contributed to this by aiming their countries’ ire at refugees. This has at times manifested in physical abuse by locals aimed at Syrians.
“Countries have failed to provide refugees with adequate protection from abuse and have faced challenges in providing them opportunities to build productive lives for themselves and their families,” Lama Fakih, Senior Crisis Advisor for Amnesty International, told ThinkProgress.
“In Lebanon, since the beginning of this year, the government has imposed additional requirements on Syrians seeking to enter, and they have all but closed the border to Palestinians from Syria. They have also created additional hurdles for Syrians trying to renew their residencies so that they can maintain their lawful status in the country,” she added. “Without that they risk detention and face additional hurdles in accessing public services, including police protection. Refugees can no longer register with UNHCR in Lebanon.”
With such conditions in supposedly safe countries, few options remain. One is to return to Syria — which Kurdi’s father, Abdallah, chose to do. The other is to try and find a better life in a third country. Europe has resettled a number of refugees, though international refugee agencies say that European countries (and the U.S. for that matter) are capable of hosting many more.
“In such a climate, it is no surprise that refugees are taking the difficult decision to risk everything and smuggle themselves to Europe or elsewhere,” said Fakih. “But the answer does not just lie in the region. Other countries need to facilitate the safe and legal passage of vulnerable refugees from neighboring countries. Refugees at sea should be met with protective measures, not efforts to push them back.”