IU geographer: Syrian refugees present complex humanitarian challenge

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre

Around 12 million Syrians, nearly half of the country’s population, are displaced. More than 42,000 try to leave the country each day. As refugees seek basic living conditions worldwide, regional countries are increasingly strained financially and questions about the European response grow progressively tense.

Beyond the financial or logistical questions, the refugee crisis remains a humanitarian catastrophe first and foremost, an Indiana University faculty member made clear on Monday.

Elizabeth Dunn

Elizabeth Dunn

Elizabeth Dunn, associate professor of geography at IU Bloomington, addressed the current refugee landscape and subsequent global response in her talk “Refugees From Syria: A Global Humanitarian Crisis.”

The current encampment solution is failing, Dunn said.

The United Nations Refugee Agency’s Azraq camp in the Jordanian desert is heralded as the premier refugee camp in the world. It features flat pack metal shelters designed by IKEA and outhouses nearby. The camp was built to house people for the medium term, as opposed to typical tent housing that deteriorates in four to six months.

Despite Azraq’s ability to house up to 150,000 people and its supposed amenities, only 18,000 refugees reside in the camp.

“Refugees refuse to go there,” Dunn said. “This points to the death of the camp as a solution. It is about one to one-and-a-half hours from Amman. It is completely isolated from urban markets, and that is on purpose. It makes the likelihood of attaining any employment very low.”

Azraq’s allegedly modern camp lacks sewage treatment, water treatment facilities, adequate electricity and climate control.

“This is a place where summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees,” Dunn said. “120 degrees and you’re housed in a metal shipping container.”

For the majority of Syrians who are middle class and have the means to get to Europe, or send one family member ahead, the life-threatening journey is largely a political construct, Dunn said.

“One out of 25 who board a boat will not make it to Europe,” she said. “The death rate is really high and then things get more dangerous. These are people who could fly. The only reason they’re not allowed to get on a plane and fly is because European governments have refused transportation means.”

“These are not inevitable deaths,” Dunn said. “We need to lay these kinds of risks at the proper door.”

Adding to the complexity of a long-term solution, European Union countries fall at all points along the spectrum of support for and aversion to placement of refugees in their own countries.

“This is not just a just a clash of civilizations, as some are calling it, but a real clash of values,” Dunn said. “What is the value of European liberalism if you don’t stand up for human rights?”

U.S. efforts to help have been comparatively inadequate, Dunn said. Despite efforts by the Obama administration, the United States is accepting only 10,000 refugees out of the 11 million. Even if U.S. borders are relaxed, it is not likely that large numbers of refugees will be able to easily relocate here. Last year only 891 Syrian refugees made it the United States.

“The greatest need isn’t going to be for refugees here,” Dunn said. “The greatest need is for refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It’s important we don’t localize this problem.”

Accepting larger numbers may help with the crisis logistically but more importantly would signal a political shift.

“The question of resettling people is of political will, not a question of finances or logistics in the long run,” Dunn said. “We need to think of ways to reframe the discourse on resettlement. It has been radicalized by those opposed to it and we have to get away from that.”

Dunn pointed to the many lingering questions of resettlement, long term planning, effects on the international community and psychological effects on the refugees.

The questions involve individuals, not just huddled masses, Dunn said. Drawing on the many water metaphors used, such as a flow or stream of refugees, Dunn reminded the audience that the resettlement skills and needs of an architect from Damascus vary significantly from those of a rural goat farmer.

Despite a gloomy prognosis on the current international coordination efforts, Dunn pointed to the potential of localized problem-solving as a response to the crisis.

“The institutional infrastructure we have is not adequate to handle the magnitude of this crisis,” Dunn said. “We face a series of distinct crises that require a series of distinct solutions based individual geographical areas.”

Dunn is also available for comment on the 2016 election season. You can learn about her expertise and more at Decision 2016, a comprehensive online media guide for elections resources at IU.

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