By Jillian Tuck on February 11, 2016
As the conflict in Syria continues to rage unabated, the needs of refugees who have been displaced by the conflict remain acute. Yet despite the internationally-protected human right of these refugees to flee and seek asylum, host countries refuse to recognize them as full members of their societies, and many European nations have adopted closed border policies that intensifies the crisis. The need to respond compassionately to this situation is as urgent as ever.
Thanks to the generosity of so many people, we have so far raised more than $610,000 for the UUSC-UUA Refugee Crisis Fund. With these resources, UUSC is working with grassroots partners in Jordan, the Balkans and the United States, providing emergency aid, ensuring access to legal help and resettlement support, and advocating for necessary changes in policy and public perception.
Five years into Syria’s devastating civil war, half the country’s population remains displaced from their homes, with over 4.8 million Syrians forced to seek refuge abroad. While a partial ceasefire was brokered in February between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and some rebel groups, fighting continues among several other major parties to the conflict, including the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As a result, hundreds of thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire continue to flee atrocities committed by state and non-state actors and the constant threat of violence from extremist groups.
In some respects, the situation for refugees is worse than ever before. Whereas earlier waves of Syrian refugees were generally able to cross the border and seek asylum abroad, newly displaced Syrians are encountering closed borders and tight restrictions on their movement on all sides. While Syria’s closest neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, had maintained a relatively open border in the early years of the conflict, all three have now effectively closed their borders to asylum seekers – due in large part to the failure of wealthier governments to step in to fill the gaps by adequately funding the humanitarian response and expanding their resettlement programs. Turkish border guards in some cases have actually gunned down Syrian asylum seekers who tried to cross the border. The result is that more than 150,000 civilians fleeing ISIS are now trapped in the desert outside the Turkish border, where they face the constant threat of airstrikes or of falling into the hands of armed rebel groups.
With no clear end to the violence in sight, the nearly five million Syrian refugees living abroad have effectively become permanent residents of the societies they inhabit. Host governments in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, however, continue to maintain the pretense that these refugees are merely temporary “guests” who should not be integrated into society or granted the full rights of citizens. Because of this, Syrian refugees are for the most part forced to live in the shadows. Denied formal permission to work and other basic rights, they must subsist on vanishing cash allowances from international organizations or eke out a living in the informal sector. The extreme financial vulnerability of refugee families has led to skyrocketing rates of child labor and other forms of exploitation, as well as to the loss of an entire generation of Syrian children from institutions of formal education.
The shameful conduct of host countries toward refugees, however, is only a foreseeable consequence of the policy choices of wealthier countries. At the start of this year, the European Union made an agreement with Turkey that has exacerbated the crisis. In exchange for returning refugees from Europe to Turkey and the nominal loosening of some of Turkey’s restrictions against refugees, European governments have effectively turned their back on the thousands of refugees trapped at Turkey’s borders or suffering exclusion in Turkish society.
After this bargain went into effect, Europe’s previously open reception centers in Greece and the Balkans were converted into closed detention camps, where refugees are effectively imprisoned while they await possible deportation to Turkey, and where violence against migrants is well-documented.
The United States, meanwhile, has done next to nothing to ameliorate the situation. The U.S. has resettled less than 2,000 Syrian refugees, despite a commitment to resettle 10,000 this fiscal year. What’s more, the U.S. is in the throes of a terrifying anti-immigrant and Islamophobic backlash that jeopardizes the safety of Muslims living in the U.S. and threatens to amend the current refugee program to include overt racial and religious discrimination.
UUSC addresses human rights violations against refugees and asylum seekers that are fueled by xenophobic attitudes, short-sighted immigration controls, and nationalistic policies. In whatever context we work, UUSC commits ourselves to the principles that migration is not a crime and seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. UUSC continues to affirm this truth as it pursues a multifaceted strategy in addressing the crisis at home and abroad:
- Emergency aid and resettlement support in Greece, Croatia, and Serbia: offering medical aid, mental health support, resettlement support, and more aid? to long-term refugees.
- Legal access in Hungary, Jordan, and the United States: providing legal assistance and awareness training, reunifying family members and assisting refugees in navigating the resettlement processes, including how to challenge discriminatory treatment.
- Advocacy in Europe and the United States: raising public awareness and sensitivity around refugee issues, challenging xenophobic sentiments and legislation, and upholding the inherent dignity of immigrant communities.
Greece: ensuring decent reception conditions
UUSC has been partnering with the Greek non-governmental organization PRAKSIS to provide immediate transportation assistance and basic needs kits to newly arrived refugees and their children on the Greek island of Lesvos.
Serbia: providing comprehensive mobile assistance along the transit route
The Asylum Protection Center (APC), our partner in Serbia, enlists a team of aid professionals to provide a comprehensive array of services, including legal support, humanitarian aid, psychosocial counseling, and language interpretation, to long-term and transiting refugees.
Croatia: offering support for long-term resettlement
UUSC is partnering with the Center for Peace Studies (CPS), which spearheads the Welcome Initiative, a collaborative effort of 50 organizations to address refugee resettlement, to provide immediate humanitarian support, and to advocate for more welcoming policies at the national and international levels.
Hungary: facilitating family reunification
With our support, our partners at the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) are working to provide full financial and legal support for refugee families who have been torn apart by war and are navigating the family reunification process.
Slovenia: providing humanitarian protection at the Croatia-Serbia border
Magna Children at Risk, a UUSC partner, operates medical humanitarian projects — including medical, surgery, psychological, and nutritional programs for children and their families —in two refugee camps at the Croatia-Serbia border.
Jordan: challenging refugee exploitation through legal trainings and assistance
The Arab Renaissance for Democracy (ARDD) — Legal Aid is raising legal awareness and empowerment through trainings and research to help Syrian refugees in Jordan navigate the risks they face due to discrimination, lack of formal recognition, and heightened vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.
United States: promoting positive dialogue, refugee integration, and a more welcoming public policy
In Southern California, the Arab American Civic Council is launching, with UUSC support, a “Refugees Welcome” initiative that supports the resettlement and integration of Syrian refugees. The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) is working to improve public policy related to refugees in Massachusetts. In Indiana, UUSC is partnering with Refugee Exodus to provide critical care to Syrian refugees while also practically confronting anti-refugee political agendas that caused Refugee Exodus a loss of vital funding. In Toledo, Ohio, UUSC is partnering with US Together to help newly arrived refugee families resettle with dignity in the United States and build their new lives in this country.
Through national policy advocacy, an integrated communications plan, and mobilizing UU congregations and activists, UUSC has been working to increase federal humanitarian assistance for refugees, to increase the U.S. refugee quota, and to forestall any attempt from politicians to introduce religious or ethnic discrimination into the refugee program, and to promote a welcoming environment for all refugees and asylum seekers.
- Releasing “Building Bridges: Refugee Support and Advocacy Toolkit” – a resource for congregations, student groups, and individuals to take action on refugee rights.
- Launching the Refugee Rapid Response Network to mobilize quickly and effectively around national and state-level legislation on refugees and asylum-seekers.
- Partnering with members and congregations to organize events such as the Monte Vista UU Congregation’s Refugee Welcoming Lunch, data parties with the Arab American Civic Council to develop a welcome guide for new Americans, and Know Your Rights trainings for Central American asylum-seekers with local congregations and RAICES.
- Presenting in large-scale UU settings such as the Annual General Assembly and the Walking the Walk Justice Summit of the UU Justice Ministry of California and the UU Justice Arizona Network.
- Mobilizing, through our work with the Ministerial Leadership Network and the Unitarian Universalists Ministerial Association, more than 600 Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign onto an open letter from faith leaders to Donald Trump calling upon him to retract his call for banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
- Connecting Unitarian Universalists to interfaith initiatives and events to welcome refugees as part of the Refugees Welcome Coalition.