Politics of Poverty

Syrian refugees or migrants? Either way, the US must do more

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January 15, 2013: Ahmed (19 years), Mohammed (5 years), and Sami (7 years) sit in the small room where they live in Beka Valley, Lebanon with their mother, Samira, and five more relatives. Their home is made from one wall of breezeblocks and finished with plastic sheeting and cardboard boxes. The floor is wet and icy cold, and the melting snow has created icy mud outside. Photo: Luca Sola/Oxfam

Just because the United States has the buffer of the Atlantic Ocean, doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t do more.

Lauren Hartnett is a Humanitarian Press Officer for Oxfam America.

In the last few days, we have been confronted by heart wrenching images and stories of people risking their lives to find safety in Europe. They are often referred to as migrants, but as we learn more about who these people are and where they are coming from, the term “refugees” has been used more frequently. Understandably, there is some confusion between the two:

According to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), migrants are people who choose to move to improve their lives. They may want to find work or better opportunities for education or to be near their families. If they decide to return home, migrants will receive the protection of their governments, and that’s what makes them different from refugees.

A refugee is more specifically defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

No matter the term used, this isn’t a new crisis: Many of the people attempting to enter Europe are fleeing the conflict that has raged in Syria for more than four years. More than 4 million Syrians have become refugees, leaving behind a country where political violence, barrel bombs and mortars have decimated homes and schools, destroyed water sources, and left people desperate for safety, food, and work. The majority of Syrian refugees remain in the region—in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. For example, right now, one in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. The need there is huge—and puts the numbers arriving in Europe into perspective. In Lebanon and Jordan, Oxfam is helping families get the essential supplies they need, while protecting public health with clean water and safe sanitation. In Syria, we are supporting repairs to damaged water networks and helping keep clean water flowing to hundreds of thousands of people.

Countries neighboring Syria have been unbelievably generous, but due to strains on their infrastructure and basic services, they have started to close their borders and enact more restrictions on Syrians who have entered. Coupled with drastic cuts in assistance and with increasingly few options, more Syrians are forced to make the long and perilous journey to Europe, where they end up in the stories we are now seeing in the news—desperate to find a place they are welcome and safe. Oxfam is also responding to the needs of vulnerable refugees in Italy who have been rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean.

We are watching all of this unfold from afar, but just because the United States has the buffer of the Atlantic Ocean, doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t do more. Oxfam is calling on the US government and other world leaders to take several actions to end the war in Syria:

First, they must prioritize the protection of civilians from violence and work towards a political solution to end the conflict. Key to both these objectives is the US using its influence to ensure Security Council resolutions are implemented, and working to impose an embargo of arms and ammunition to the country. As long as the violence against civilians in Syria continues, we will only be applying Band-Aid solutions that don’t address the source of the problem.

Second, donors must provide more funding to ensure that Syrians are safe and have essentials like clean water, food, shelter and health care. $8.4 billion is required to assist the 18 million people in need in Syria and across the region, but less than one-third of this funding has been received. The US government has been the largest donor, providing more than $4 billion to the region and promising an additional $41 million. But it needs to do more to push others to give generously. Even if the conflict ended tomorrow, the need will not go away any time soon.

Third, countries need to step up and resettle more refugees in a more efficient way. Oxfam and more than 35 other humanitarian and human rights organizations called on governments around the world to resettle at least 5 percent of the refugee population by the end of 2015. The United States’ fair share would be almost 70,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and a similar amount next year. However, to date, we have only resettled about 1,500. The US State Department recently said the US would welcome 1,000 to 2,000 this fiscal year and “thousands more” next fiscal year.

The US has a long history of generously resettling refugees fleeing conflict and Syrian refugees should not be the exception.

Learn more: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/take-action/save-lives/syria-crisis/

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