Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
“If the pain and oppression had a voice, you could hear it in the Zogra refugee camp north of Aleppo.” These anguished words by Jamal Hassoun summed up the feeling of many refugees as 2018 came to a close. Hassoun was displaced from his town in Idlib to the refugee camp, which floods swept through at the advent of 2019. Video footage posted last Thursday showed tents, dilapidated buildings and waterlogged roads in refugee camps in Idlib and Aleppo suburbs in Northern Syria.
The Zogra camp houses around 1,700 families, most of them forcibly displaced from their homes following an agreement nine months ago between the free Syrian army faction and the Syrian regime backed by Russia.
Camp residents complain of the lack of relief and insufficient assistance to meet their growing needs, given low incomes, high prices, widespread unemployment, and lack of job opportunities. In particular, the refugees have a dire need for heating materials, winter clothes, and rainproof insulators, which many cannot afford.
So as 2019 began, hundreds of thousands of Syrians were still trapped. On the border, many wait in camps for an immigration officer to decide what the future might hold, perhaps one day in the United States, but more likely elsewhere. According to Syria Regional Refugee Response, there were 5,664,649 Syrian refugees as of December 31, 2018, including 363,306 living in camps.
“Sawsan” from Deraa has been living in a refugee camp in Jordan since the war broke out in her city of Deraa in southern Syria. “Seven years is enough time to lose your memories of the outside world,” she said. “I was 11 when I first entered this camp, and now I am 17, and I don’t know if the tent has become part of me or I have become part of the field.”
Remarkably, 920,000 Syrians became displaced within the first four months of 2018, although the war began in Syria in 2011. These numbers belie the claim that after the Syrian regime took over the country, normal life would return. To many refugees, that was just an empty promise, and they believe they would become a target of security forces once they set foot in Syria.
The United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR) is expecting 250,000 Syrians to return to Syria in 2019. The returning refugees will face obstacles like lack of documentation, disputed property ownership, and fear of Syrian security forces.
Safaa Ali, a Syrian refugee and a student who studies media at the University of COMU (Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University) in Istanbul, has been living in Turkey for the last five years. She does not think that a radical change will likely occur in 2019 regarding Syrian refugees, although she fears it may be worse because the world has begun to ignore the Syrian refugee crisis. “I’m not going back to Syria,” Safaa explained, “because, even if the war ended, freedom is still out of reach in the current situation.”
Lebanon may be the worst place for refugees because of how the country has encouraged media attacks and demonization of the refugee community. The Lebanese government blames refugees for the country’s economic and other problems and threatens to send them back to Syria if it does not receive more funding from international donors. The wealthy Arab Gulf countries – which are not signatories to the Refugee Convention – still want to have nothing to do with the refugees.
As a result of these factors, the sense of betrayal and disappointment is palpable among Syrian refugees: it was present everywhere I looked in early 2019. Worse still, no honest solution looms on the horizon for those who have spent years hoping for one.