Syrian Refugee Crisis Warrants Ongoing Attention

Chloe Vassot, Contributing Writer

When it comes to matters that do not directly concern it, the Western world has the attention span of a small child.

This is, in a way, understandable; people have lives and worries of their own, and the only international events that manage to catch the public’s collective eye are the flashy ones. There are many, many awful problems facing the world that land in the spotlight for an instant and are then forgotten. This is the normal way the world functions, but that does not make it entirely justifiable.

Human rights crises and injustices continue unchecked because the public tires of hearing about them and because governments aren’t pressured to take action.

A prime example of this is the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis that began during that country’s civil war. In August, the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries surpassed three million. The U.N. refugee agency called the crisis “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” yet that classification has not helped the situation.

Every so often, the public is swept up by a wave of humanitarian altruism; thinkpieces are published, and the call for international aid grows. But as the breaking news shifts, so does the public conscience.

I’m as guilty of this forgetfulness as anyone else. My memory was only sparked when David Miliband, former British foreign secretary and current president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, appeared on the Oct. 30 episode of The Colbert Report to talk about his organization’s work assisting displaced refugees and vulnerable people around the world. Miliband mentioned how so many refugees are left in limbo — “almost left without a future at all.” I wondered how over three million people with destroyed lives and in great need of assistance could be so easily ignored.

The truth is that it’s simple to forget. The thinkpieces have disappeared, and countries like the U.S. are focusing on their own conflicts in the Middle East rather than on responding to humanitarian crises.

Now, brave souls like António Guterres, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, are valiantly attempting to keep Syrian refugees on the minds of foreign leaders. Guterres recently pleaded for “a radical qualitative and quantitative change” in the international community’s response to the refugee crisis, citing the inaction that has caused innocent families to suffer tremendously.

The Syrian war has displaced 10.6 million of the country’s 22 million residents, and four out of five of the three million refugees in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq are women and children.

Miliband’s International Rescue Committee recently published a report detailing the harsh lives of women refugees. Leaving their homes to walk to the store — or anywhere else — exposes them to constant threats of harassment and assault, and one in three women said they feel too scared or vulnerable to leave their homes at all. The report was called “Are We Listening?” Right now, the answer is no.

It’s difficult to completely comprehend three million people when we can’t see each face or hear each story. The numbers dehumanize the situation. They make it easier to ignore these people whose entire existences have been upended — all too quietly, from an international viewpoint — by war and poverty.

Nada, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan, told the IRC, “We ask for humanity — for people to treat us like human beings.” This is precisely what we, as leaders and as community members, have failed to do. The viral video of a woman being catcalled in New York City engendered a tremendously strong response, but refugee women are exposed to similar and greater dangers every day without eliciting nearly as much attention.

In the street harassment video, we see the woman’s face and understand her individual story. By ignoring the individual in the three million Syrian refugees, we’ve given ourselves permission to easily ignore one of the most pressing global humanitarian issues of our time.

We must ask ourselves: Are we listening? The answer needs to be yes.