Syria: what does it take to spark compassion?

Aid, Conflict, Emergencies, Humanitarian

The international community has failed so far to address the spiralling catastrophe in Syria. As Oxfam publishes its latest ‘fair share’ report on the international response to the conflict, Oxfam’s Head of Humanitarian Policy and Campaigns Maya Mailer (@MayaMailer) reflects on the recent display of public solidarity with refugees and asks what, if anything, a single photograph can change.

A few weeks ago, a single photograph appeared to have woken up the world to the reality of the conflict in Syria. The image of little Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body spoke to people in a way that thousands of words hadn’t or couldn’t.

A recent study suggests that 9,400 children have been killed I didn’t know what to make of the public reaction to that photo and indeed my own. On the one hand, I was baffled and frustrated: Really? It took a dead toddler washed up on a beach for there to be a groundswell of compassion for Syrians?

I’ve visited the refugee camps and sites in Jordan and Lebanon and I’ve spoken to families devoid of hope. I know that Aylan’s family’s tragedy is one devastating story among so many. Since the start of the crisis four and a half years ago, millions of Syria’s children have been forced to flee their homes.  A recent study suggests that 9,400 children have been killed. Who will remember them and those that will follow them? Their names, fears, dreams, their potential and their future have been lost to the world.

I understand why Syrian artist Neda Kadri drew this cartoon, which shows Syrian children welcoming Aylan to heaven: ‘You are so lucky Aylan! We are the victims of the same war but nobody cared about our death.’

Cartoon. Credit: Neda KadriBut I also understand why and how we become immune to the reporting of war and why it takes a picture of that kind to make an emotional connection – for a seeming faraway conflict to feel close and personal. As a mother of children the same age as Aylan and his older brother Ghalib, who also drowned together with their mother, I felt the power of that image. The photo of Aylan was eerily familiar; it
reminded me of a sleeping child. I couldn’t get the picture out of my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about what it must have taken for their parents to take the risks they did. Aylan and Ghalib were children like mine, except, the roll of the dice, meant they were born in a country ravaged by war.

Days after the picture appeared on our phones, screens and TVs and a public outcry ensued, several countries said they would resettle more Syrian refugees. The UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, overturned the UK’s steadfast line on Syrian refugees and promised to resettle 20,000 refugees over the course of five years.

But how much has really changed? A new report published by Oxfam today, Solidarity with Syrians, shows that the world’s rich and most powerful countries continue to fall badly short in helping Syrians inside and outside their country.

Solidarity with SyriansThe report tells of the ten million Syrians without enough to eat, as siege warfare is waged in a conflict that has cost more than a quarter of a million lives. It tells of a country in which more than half of the population has fled their

It tells of individuals whose stories, like Aylan’s, should be shaming for us all – a man like Ahmed, a refugee in Jordan who struggles to feed his family, is forbidden to work legally and whose food rations are dwindling as aid declines. Is it any surprise he tells Oxfam he is contemplating the dangerous route to Turkey and beyond?

Oxfam’s ‘fair share’ report – the fourth of its kind, see our 20132014 and March 2015 reports  – analyses the extent to which rich countries are providing their fair share in humanitarian funding and offering resettlement places to Syrian refugees.  

It finds that while some countries are performing better than others, there are few champions beyond Syria’s near neighbours and the laudable exceptions of Germany and Norway.

In summary: 

  • Only a handful of countries can say they are doing their fair share in both providing aid and resettling refugees: Russia (aid 1%, resettlement none) and France (aid 22%, resettlement 5%) have registered poor results on both counts.
  • The United Kingdom, the United States, and Kuwait, while giving considerable funds (the percentage of their fair share in aid is 229%, 72% and 538% respectively) have been less than generous in their offers to welcome the most vulnerable refugees (the percentage of their fair share is just 26%, and 8% while Kuwait has not resettled refugees.
  • Germany and Norway lead the way, giving generously in terms of aid (percentage of their fair share is 75% and 186% respectively), and resettlement (percentage of their fair share is 112% and 293% respectively).
  • By comparison, Jordan, a host country, is estimated to have spent $870m a year in relation to the Syria refugee crisis ,which represent 5,622% of its fair share.(This is based on a 2013 estimate of what Jordan would spend for a refugee population of 635,000, in 2015 the refugee population is now 628,000).

And pledges must translate into action. To date, of a population of some 4 million refugees, only 17,000 refugees have been resettled to a third country. Resettlement is not a panacea but together with family reunification, humanitarian admissions and other options detailed in the report, it offers a vital lifeline for some of the most vulnerable refugees. By agreeing to resettle refugees wealthier countries also show solidarity with neighbouring countries, who host the vast majority of Syria’s refugees (mirroring the global trend in that most of the world’s
refugees reside in poor and middle-income countries – see UNHCR factsheet). The world’s richest government can hardly call on their poorer counterparts to welcome refugees and uphold their rights, if they are so miserly (with some exceptions) in offering a safe haven themselves.

Nobody wants to be a refugee But as Dima Salam (not her real name), a young Syrian refugee now working for Oxfam in the UK, explains so movingly in another blog today, nobody wants to be a refugee. What she wants above all else is an end to the bloodshed.  And yet the violence in Syria rages on and is intensifying.

Oxfam doesn’t pretend to have an answer to how the conflict can end, but we do think that providing ever more arms and ammunitions to the warring parties, and dropping more bombs won’t get Syria any closer to peace. And we know that more civilians will be killed, and more children will have their lives cut short or scarred as long as that continues.

Today we are calling for the world’s most prosperous countries to provide their fair share of humanitarian aid and resettlement spots for Syrian refugees. But, there can be no substitute for a political solution, and rich countries, many of whom are embroiled in Syria’s civil war, must search for one.

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Children participate in a lesson about hygiene at an Oxfam community centre in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, on September 21, 2015. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam
Cartoon. Credit: Neda Kadri

Author: Maya Mailer
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.