yarmouk camp

yarmouk camp
Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Crisis. Part 1, An Introduction. By Bruce McLaren

Even though your humble writer emerges, drowsily, from his Winter hibernation, the more unfortunate inhabitants of Syria have had no such luxury. In olden days of yore Wintertime forced a cold halt upon warring. Military campaigns were launched in the Summertime, for instance when Hitler went East in 1941. Winter is not for fighting, as Hitler also found out on the outskirts of Moscow later that year when the oil in his tanks froze and almost one million troops fell casualty, often to the cold...

Such days are gone. Snow falls on Jerusalem and Amman and most certainly in the higher uplands and mountains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and the fighting goes on, hopelessly, relentlessly, and, seemingly endlessly. In the last 2 months alone another 250 000 Syrians have fled across the border looking for refuge. That brings the official UNHCR count to around 4 million, making the Syrian Refugee Crisis the largest refugee crisis in the world right now.

Since 1979 the largest refugee group have consistently been the Afghans, what with the USSR invading, the resultant sectarian mess with the mujahadeen and the taliban, and then of course everything that has happened since the US invasion. Every year since 1979 until 2015 it is the poor old Afghans who have been the largest group of refugees. For now, that dubious honor is being passed to Syria.

At least, that is, if the contentious Palestinian Refugee issue is set aside for the moment. The Palestinians claim there are 6 million refugees, making them the largest group. The Israelis, for their part, propose a much lower figure. The whole issue comes down to the much argued subject of "right of return", and heading into that area is akin to tip-toeing through a metaphorical minefield (an appropriate metaphor in this case). Let it simply be said that there are 59 Palestinian Refugee camps operated by the UN. That says a lot....

As the conflict in Syria slogs on with no viable end in sight Syrians have been leaving their country in droves. This series of blogs gives an over-view of the fate of these refugees, with particular attention being paid to the major countries that are taking in Syrian Refugees - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This first part provides some intriguing background for the intrepid reader, with the focus on the grand span of human history leading up to the UNHCR, the main governing body running most refugee camps today.

Other countries have taken in varied numbers of Syrian Refugees. Germany has taken 40 000. Sweden has taken 20 000. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina have all taken a few thousand each. Italy has taken about 4000, France has taken about 1500 and the UK about 500. The USA has taken 100, which is still more than Qatar who have taken 32! China have not taken any but have made a donation of $200 000!

If one scans the ancient literature, from Medieval European and Icelandic, to Classical Greek and Roman, to older texts from the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Middle East, it is abundantly clear that in times of war and battle, mercy was rarely shown. The defeated were generally completely annihilated, the men killed, the women and children killed or driven off for a life of servitude. The vanquished often fade from existence, or historical visibility, the names of tribes and nations erased from the map.

Three thousand years ago, as you can see here in this bas-relief from the reign of Tiglath-Pilesar III, if you were defeated in battle you were almost certainly destined for a painful departure from life. Here we see three victims being impaled on wooden spikes. The Assyrians were big fans of the use of impalement. They most often chopped off the hands and feet as well to ensure the struggle of the victim was a particularly gruesome affair. The Assyrians liked to flay people as well. How could they be so cruel? Well, they are no different from us. Instance of people being impaled have carried on through the ages and skinning people alive is by no means limited to the Assyrians.

Assyrians impaling the vanquished

If one was fortunate enough to live (I guess), one might be deported to a far-flung part of the Assyrian Empire, far away from any kith and kin in order to break up any sense of ethnic identity or tribalism. Such would be your destined lot.

Assyrians deporting the vanquished

It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that it was that most magical of all races, The Greeks, who toyed with the earliest ideas relating to asylum and refuge. In Ancient Greece one of the minor deities was Asalaeus, who supposedly provided safety for those in need. "Asylum" comes from the same Greek root word "Asulon", meaning "that which should not be seized".

Cassandra Clings To Statue Of Asalaeus. Sneaky Ajax coming up behind

In Classical Athens the most famous place of asylum was the Theseum, seen below. Slaves who had been poorly treated by their masters could find safety in the Theseum and attempt to sell themselves to new masters. This tradition was carried over, unsurprisingly to Rome, where a temple of Asylaeus was dedicated on the Capitoline Hill during the reign of Tiberius. This particular Roman Temple probably represents the first true instance of "refuge" for that is what it provided, not for run-away slaves, but for new arrivals in the mighty city of Rome.

Theseum. Athens

"Refuge" is also often associated with "Sanctuary" and both terms are derived from the Latin. Temples, shrines and holy places were usually the chosen locations for those seeking refuge. Mind you, time and time again we have instance, right up into the modern era, of people seeking refuge in churches only to have the church set ablaze with the cowering asylum seekers burnt alive inside.

In spite of this we see, during the early Medieval period, sanctuary often being sought in churches. King Aethelbert, in the year 600 AD, wrote out the first definitive laws regarding which churches could serve as places of refuge. Many of these had a special chair, pictured below, known as a "Frith Chair" in which the runaway or suspected criminal could sit untouched as they got their affairs in order. Over the centuries this system became so unwieldy that by James II the original laws were abolished.

King Aethelbert. c.600 AD

Hexham Abbey Frith Chair

Refugee movements have increased dramatically in size into the modern era. By the late 1600's there were waves of Protestant Huguenot fleeing Catholic France for Holland, England and Germany. During WWI over 1 million Belgians fled across the English Channel as the Germans advanced.

Following the catastrophe of WWI the newly formed League of Nations issued a mandate in 1921, mainly in response to the White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. This Refugee Mandate was expanded a few years later to include the Armenians fleeing the Turks in Asia Minor. In the 1930's it was again expanded to include the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and in 1939 the Socialists fleeing Franco in Spain. Then, along came WWII, the net result of which was 40 million refugees. And to not forget the icing on the cake, in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel there was a mass exodus of Palestinians.

The Palestinian Refugee crisis was so severe that a separate arm of the UN was set up to address it - the UNRWA, or, the United Nations Relief and Works. All other refugee situations would be handled by a new arm of the UN, the UNHCR, or, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since 1950, nearly every refugee crisis has been primarily addressed by the UNHCR.

Right from the word "go" the UNHCR has had its hands full. In the 1950's the UNHCR was involved in Hungary and Hong Kong. During the 1960's, with mass-decolonization in Africa, the attention of the UNHCR focused on that continent.  In the 1970's there were continuing refugee crises in Africa, such as that perpetrated by Idi Amin in Uganda, but there were also significant refugee problems in Vietnam and Bangladesh. And, as was mentioned at the beginning, in 1979 began the current run of Afghan troubles.

Since then the UNHCR has been active in Bosnia, Rwanda and, more recently, Iraq. Today, the UNHCR has a staff of 6000, and approximately 100 planes and 50 ships to move supplies. In Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon they are the key organization addressing the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

The UNHCR logo

Next installment: The Syrian Refugees in Iraq...

1 comment:

  1. I found this blog of yours very interesting and informative. I hope you will be able to continue your research regarding this matter.
    Its so sad to see all what is going on and how it is hurting the soul of mankind.