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Destination – Unknown, Future – Uncertain: Coping with the Grim Realities of Forced Migration

Roya Talibova wrote “Destination – Unknown, Future – Uncertain:  Coping with the Grim Realities of Forced Migration” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.


On September 2, 2015, the world stood shaken by the images of Aylan Kurdi – a Syrian toddler of Kurdish origins, as his fragile body lay lifeless on a sandy beach in Turkey, after it was washed ashore by the unforgiving waves of the Mediterranean. He was just one of the 12 people, including two other members of his family, who drowned when the 15-foot-long rubber dinghy illegally carrying refugees from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos capsized shortly after taking off. An outpouring of grief and rage reverberated in every corner of the globe, while the twitter hashtag “Flotsam in Humanity” captured the headlines of major news outlets. Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, described it as “the biggest indictment of collective failure” (1). Almost a year later, people from across the world woke up to the shocking images of another Syrian child being pulled from the remains of what used to be his house in Aleppo, before the airstrikes carried out by the Syrian government turned it into complete rubble. Unlike his brother, Omran Daqneesh was lucky enough to survive the typical daily ordeal of a Syrian child. Covered in a mix of blood and dust, bewildered but remarkably silent, Omran stared to the cameras from the back of an ambulance with the look that said it all: "Humanity has failed again!"

Death became a daily reality of every Syrian citizen since the civil conflict engulfed the country in 2011. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, as of September 2016, the death toll of Syria’s conflict stands at a staggering 300,000 people (2). Coupled with the fact that half of the country’s pre-war population left the country in a desperate attempt to flee the war since its eruption, Syria has already lost 11 Million of its citizens because of the conflict (3). This figure ignores the 6.6 million internally displaced Syrian citizens (4). Close to five million refugees were registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt. 2.5 Million of these are children aged 0-17 (880,328 aged 0-4; 1 million aged 5-11; and 650,000 aged 12-17) (5) Forecasts suggest a continued stream of refugees to neighboring states with an indefinite timetable for return (6). 

The trend in the rise of the number of forcibly displaced people is not only a result of the Syrian war, but also reflects the general trend in surge of intractable civil and ethnic conflicts that have proliferated over the last few decades. In the past six years, at least 15 conflicts have started or have been revived (7). A report by the UNHCR found 65.3 million persons—one in every 113 people, and the highest recorded number since World War II – were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution only in 2015. The average rate of forced displacement increased four-fold from six people each minute in 2005 to twenty-four people a minute in 2015 (8). Paradoxically, the global response required to tackle the refugee problems has been dwindling. Antonio Guterres, former United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Refugees described this phenomenon as a paradigm change, adding: “it is an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is dwarfing anything seen before” (9). The level of return of refugees to the countries of origin over the last decade accounted only for 10 percent of all returns over the last twenty years, illustrating clearly the problems with voluntary repatriation and the nature of protracted displacements.

Europe has turned into a cynosure for migration, with more than a million migrants and refugees crossing into the continent in 2015 (10). Although multiple illegal routes exist for a person to arrive in the European Union, the Western Balkan route, which is considered to be the deadliest migrant crossing point in the world, has by far been the most popular choice. According to the EU border agency, Frontex, 2015 witnessed a tenfold annual increase in people traveling from Greece on the Western Balkans route (11). In addition to a perilous voyage to Italy or Greece by the Mediterranean Sea, migrants have to walk a long trek through Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia and Hungary to arrive at their final destinations in Western Europe. The International Organization for Migration reported more than one million migrant arrivals by sea in 2015, as opposed to 34,900 by land. The dangerous conditions both at sea and along the Balkan land-route have led to deaths of thousands of migrants, most of them women and children. Nine out of ten refugee children arriving in Europe through this route are unaccompanied (12). More than 3,770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015 (13). Yet, the response to the migrant crisis by both the EU and the international community writ-large has been mediocre at best.

How do recent civil conflicts and the resulting upsurge in forced displacements affect the future of the EU? How different are the effects of the protracted displacement situations versus regular immigration on the development of the region? What are the challenges faced by the European countries in addressing the humanitarian and social crises created by the influx of forcibly displaced population fleeing from the war zones around the world? The continuing devastating nature of these conflicts will create negative short-term and long-term consequences not only for refugees, but also for the societies into which they will settle. Problems such as gaps in education, inability to re-join the workforce in a quick manner, remaining psychological trauma are the by-products of conflicts that set refugee community apart from regular migrants. As such, dealing with both communities in uniform manner and without addressing questions beyond physical security will leave the former community disadvantaged, marginalized, isolated, and, in some cases, radicalized.

What makes forced displacement a unique phenomenon?

1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of its nationality” (14). The term refugee has often been conflated with other terms that describe people on the move, especially with migrants. A migrant is a person, who makes a voluntary decision to move to a different country for an extended period for economic, social or familial reasons. Crucially different from refugees, who need international protection because of the dangers they face in their home countries, migrants, if returned to their countries of origin, do not face threats to their physical security. 

The term “conflict induced displacement” describes situations in which people leave their homes to escape political violence. People forcibly displaced by conflict often have very distinctive motivations for flight, which have important political implications. The single most important distinction between the general term “refugees” and a more precise term of “conflict-induced displacement” lies in the reason of forcible flight. While both terms describe people fleeing their homes against their own will in need of protection, the root causes of flight might be different for each. Conflict is only one of many causes of flight. A person can flee because of a natural disaster, economic injustice, political persecution, and or environmental degradation. The conflict-induced displacement affects people in situations of civil war, international intervention, genocide, militia and rebel violence, and other forms of armed conflict. 

The most important distinction between these two groups – migrants and forcibly displaced people - lies in the role of the ‘willingness’ of an individual to flee. Refugees flee their homes against their own will because they fear for their lives. They have to risk their lives to undertake dangerous and risky journeys not out of a strong desire to settle in prosperous European countries. Most of them feel as if it is their best chance at physical and economic survival given the circumstances they face.

Refugees and migrants are also generally seen and accepted differently within their host communities. There are significant differences in certain resources and status that these groups receive once they arrive in Europe. This differential treatment, coupled with the already vulnerable and destitute arrival conditions, risks to further estrange refugee communities. 

The Bottom of the Iceberg: Dark & Bleak

The circumstances under which individuals decide to flee from a conflict and the negative experiences on the way to their new settlement result in long-term consequences on the affected population and create socioeconomic problems for the societies into which they settle. The economic, social, physical, and political factors that drive people to make as drastic a decision as leaving all their belongings and fleeing into the unknown continue to influence their new lives in one way or another. Profound challenges associated with growing up in an environment of violence and uncertainty could be categorized into physical, economic and social welfare, and psychological challenges:

Physical Security

Physical security threats are among the most common problems facing refugees today. These problems include limited access to basic goods, such as drinking water, proper food, sanitation, access to services and infrastructure, and violation of physical integrity rights, including assault, rape, and human trafficking.

In conflict-affected settings, gender may play an especially important role. For example, in settings of displacement adolescent girls may become targets for would-be traffickers looking to supply a local or more distant sex trade (15). Refugees are frequently subjected to rape and other forms of sexual abuse either en route to or in their host countries (16). Amnesty International’s new research suggests that women and girl refugees face violence, assault, exploitation and sexual harassment at every stage of their journey to Europe (17).

Earlier this year, UNICEF has published a report entitled “Danger Every Step of the Way” that suggests that refugee children had gone through various forms of abuse and exploitation at the hands of smugglers and traffickers on their way to Europe (18). The EU criminal intelligence agency - Europol - reported that at least 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees have disappeared after arriving in Europe – 5,000 in Italy and 1,000 in Sweden (19). Children as young as seven have reported being sexually assaulted in official European refugee camps (20).

The concept of physical security should include not only prevention of exposure to armed conflict and violence, but also an understanding of the existential insecurity introduced by insufficient or irregular supplies of food and clear water, vulnerability to crimes and abuse by host population, and limited legal assistance.

Economic & Social Welfare

When refugees flee, they incur enormous losses in life-supporting resources, such as social support networks, neighbors, friends, relatives, real estate, and other financial assets (21). In addition to losing pre-owned resources and the sense of belonging, the decision to flee forces refugees to forgo, at least temporarily, future potential benefits, such as the ability to settle and/or move freely, be employed and engage in income-generating activities, own a property, etc. Especially, in host countries, where the basis of entitlement to civil, economic, political, and social rights is nationality, not residence, refugees end up being marginalized and left out of most economic opportunities. In Greece, for example, where the host community continues to cope with deep economic crisis and refugees are excluded from most forms of government-provided social welfare resources, many members of the host community feel that refugees may take away precious resources that they are already fighting to receive. 

Fragmented schooling and gaps in education also hinder the process of acculturation among children. The environment that would otherwise welcome a child to a world of education stability, in refugee cases, may inadvertently cause them to develop negative reactions about themselves (22). Research finds frustration experienced by refugee children to be associated with frequent relocations, cultural disorientation, problems understanding the instructor and gaps in basic skills (23). The difference in academic standards and language barriers might require individualized programming to cope with social isolation.

Psychological Well-Being

While many studies have found that the nature and outcomes of transitional processes during adolescence and youth do not directly and necessarily cause the young to become damaged or a threat to wider society, it has also been argued that young people growing up amidst political violence have an undeveloped sense of the complexity of moral problems (24). Medical research has documented existence of severe and lasting psychological aftereffects (25) (26); (27). “Refugees experience diverse stressors that accumulate over the pre-flight, flight, exile, and resettlement/repatriation periods”, which are further exacerbated by the enduring contextual post-flight stress, including marginalization, socio-economic disadvantage, loss of social support, acculturation difficulties, and cultural bereavement (28).

In settings of political violence and displacement, the responsibilities of children and teenagers can multiply literally overnight (29). Ordinary school children can suddenly turn into soldiers, community leaders, heads of household, or primary caregivers. These extended roles and responsibilities could morph into wider ones in host societies, such as translators and cultural brokers for parents and other elders. Overloaded with increasing adult responsibilities, children may suffer particularly from loss of status and anxiety about the possibility of achieving respected adult status. Alienation from the wider society is said to be one of the primary factors for adolescents to engage in radical and violent behavior. A psychologist working in Ethiopia with war-affected children has found that adolescents in conflict-induced displacement experience much difficulty in achieving their adult status and full membership in society. In turn, they choose to join a military force or a radical group as an alternative means to attain prized adult status (30).

Design and delivery of services and assistance to young people in conflict and post-conflict settings is especially salient under these circumstances. Without the assistance of mental health professionals and human rights advocates, repairing emotional and psychological damage caused by exposure to violence and displacement might become increasingly challenging. Furthermore, greater cultural access, such as freedom to engage in cultural, social, and religious customs and having access to the cultural institutions for practice, is associated with better outcomes because acculturative stress and cultural dislocation prove to have negative long-term effects on mental health (31). Medical studies also demonstrate that psychopathology among refugees is not an inevitable phenomenon in the aftermath of exposure to violence, but reflects factors that can be remedied by support on part of the host societies. While many NGOs and governments in the EU struggle to transition from “emergency response” to long-term resettlement, emotional and psychological support remains one of the most neglected aspects of refugee crisis response. 

How “Common” is the Common European Policy?

While a common European policy toward asylum-seekers has existed on paper (CEAS), the actual process of refugee acceptance, placement, service provision, and security guarantees vary dramatically from country to country. There is no minimum Europe-wide standard for handling refugees. Instead there are 28 disparate systems yielding uneven and suboptimal results. While in Germany, for example, refugees are entitled to social benefits, housing, and language courses, however those privileges are nonexistent in Italy (32). In Sweden, the rights granted to refugees, who are granted permanent residence, are immediate capacity to work, a choice of residence, and family reunification (33). Yet, even developed states such as Sweden have problems with service provision. Human Rights Watch has found the services for refugee children who have experienced sexual assault to be of concern, as there are no mental and physical health screenings upon arrival to the country (34). In Austria, there have been continuous concerns about lack of access to translators during medical examinations, resulting in inadequate care (35).

What Is Next?

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. Nevertheless, many countries facing refugee challenges and asylum requests prefer to resort to stricter regulations and restrictions rather than protection.  

The most important step in addressing the current crisis would be creation of a single EU asylum and migration system, which guarantees safe and legal settlements. Each host country should, in turn, have a national agency with an overall responsibility of refugee settlement, including tracking of guardianship appointments, provision of living arrangements, school enrollment, health and mental screenings and assessments by social workers.

The ‘Dublin System’ that privileges the northern European countries over the southern ones, where most refugees first arrive, should be re-drafted to reflect the realities of the current crisis. The greater implication of the Dublin System is not related to refugee rights, but to the disproportionate amount of responsibility bore by southern EU states. While southern states are expected to provide adequate resources to refugees as the countries of initial reach, they lack the human and economic capacity to provide these resources. Whether traveling by land or by sea, with or without documents, people fleeing from conflict zones should be allowed to freely cross borders.  

Despite the grim social and economic prospects of resettling in a new country, studies have shown that, in an enabling environment and in the absence of stifling policies and settlement strategies, the losses and afflictions refugees experience may unbridle new sources of energy and creativity (36). The risk of impoverishment may intrinsically be present in displacement, but with risk prevention and provision of safeguards, host governments can reduce the losses refugees incur (37). Not only can the losses of refugees be reduced, but there is a higher chance of refugees greatly bettering the communities they are resettled in. Where refugees are presented with an opportunity to engage in work, social programs, and publicly interact with others within the host community, there are often greater economic advantages and benefits to creating a more diverse and open society. Often when host communities are given the chance to see the benefits of refugees within their society, as opposed to viewing them as an economic burden or a cultural threat, refugees are able to adapt and integrate more quickly.

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Roya Talibova is a dual degree PhD student in political science and statistics at the University of Michigan interested in dynamics of armed conflicts. Prior to PhD program, Roya was a program coordinator for the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard University. Between 2009-2012, Roya was a Senior Advisor on United States at the Office of the President of Azerbaijan Republic. She has previously worked at the Department of Political Affairs at the United Nations and served as a Spokesperson for the UN Millennium Development Goals. Roya received her MPA from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, MA in international relations from Seton Hall University, and BA in international relations from the Azerbaijan University of Foreign Languages. 


The author and editor thank Christa Calbos for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


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