The Eclipsing Effect Of Syria

How can human suffering be measured? It is difficult from a moral standpoint to place hardships into a hierarchy. Yet, the status of Syria’s crisis as the “greatest humanitarian disaster since World War II”, despite its truth, has forced the world to degrade other struggles that exist the world over.

There are good reasons why Syria’s catastrophe is at the forefront of our concerns. The situation exceeds all others in terms of numbers, displacing more than 11 million people and killing approximately 470,000 in the past five years. Its dimensions are local, regional, and international – destroying Syrian society, provoking existing geopolitical rivalries, and creating a schism and “crisis” in Europe on the question of refugees. Of course, there is also the serious transnational threat posed by the terrorist group, Islamic State (IS).

In short: Syria matters.

But, the prioritization of crises has also created a caste of the most marginalized of the marginalized.

The EU-Turkey Refugee Deal – The recent refugee deal signed between Turkey and the European Union on March 18th illustrates this issue: it addresses the Syrian refugee question while dismissing the grievances of those fleeing other regions.

The agreement establishes that one Syrian will be legally resettled in Europe for every “irregular” Syrian migrant returned to Turkey from Greece (referred to as the “one in, one out” policy), which will cause the refugee population in Turkey to swell while absolving Europe of its moral and legal responsibility to protect asylum-seekers. Human rights organizations have been quick to criticize the agreement and the deal is certainly not a cause for celebration among Syrians.

But as one Amnesty worker explains, “hundreds of thousands of other people have even less clear legal status, are even more vulnerable and have even less support” – namely, the estimated 170,000 Iraqis and 40,000 Afghans that arrived in Turkey in hopes of travelling to Europe. There are also unknown numbers of refugees from Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, and other high-risk countries who are escaping violence and are equally deserving of asylum under international law.

Turkey has agreed to help integrate Syrian refugees in an effort to diminish the allure of Europe, but there is still ambivalence surrounding the rights of other nationalities. As a case in point, 30 Afghans were sent back to Afghanistan just hours after the EU deal came into force, despite their alleged fear of being killed by the Taliban (a legitimate fear, as the insurgency controls more territory now than in 2001). This violates the principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits states from forcibly returning refugees to a country where they face persecution and reveals that Turkey is far from being “an example for the whole world on how we should treat refugees,” as alleged by the EU.

Humanitarian Aid – The majority of aid is also diverted to the Syrian crisis: $16.8 billion has been contributed in total since the beginning of the war, and in 2015, a record-breaking 5.4 million people were assisted with life-saving services. Nonetheless, it is true that 13.5 million people in Syria still require humanitarian assistance and protection. However, there is, at least, a demonstrated effort among world leaders to respond in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, people in other countries who suffer from similar conditions become peripheral.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen has been pushed to complete collapse as a result of the past year’s conflict between Houthi rebels and the Saudi Arabian-led intervention. The war has displaced 2.4 million people and more than 6,200 people have been killed, including at least 3,000 civilians, more than a third of which were children. There are more Yemenis than Syrians in need of urgent humanitarian aid: 21.1 million (83% of the population), including 320,000 children at serious risk for malnutrition. Although the UN made a plea recently for $1.8 billion to meet the needs of the most vulnerable 13.6 million people, only 16% of the funding has been contributed thus far.

Role of the Media – While the war in Yemen is almost completely absent from Western media, news coverage on Syria’s war is extensive. In particular, images of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach, created greater awareness surrounding the plight of Syrians crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The devastating photograph came to symbolize the crisis and won the hearts of millions who imagined the boy as their own son. Moral and financial support for Syrian refugees naturally followed, along with continuous news coverage. But, what about the problems that have fallen short of being equally “newsworthy”? Other wars and disasters might lack a certain “liveness” or fail to establish an emotional connection, but still causes enormous suffering.

This matters because political weight is attributed in large part by the mainstream media, since it informs public opinion and creates bottom-up pressure on political actors. Our government tries hardest to find solutions to humanitarian crises that feels urgent among the domestic population, such as by sending aid, organizing peace talks, and protecting refugees for the areas of most concern to their own people. As a result, the grievances of some are given priority while others are forgotten without any real justification.

More dangerously, an uninformed public can allow for more permissiveness when the government is quietly involved in exacerbating an under-reported crisis. For example, some attribute the lack of reporting on Yemen’s war to the fact that the U.S. has been complicit in the Saudi Arabian bombing campaign against Yemeni civilians. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been extremely cautious with military action in Syria, which is largely because the whole world is watching.

This is why it is not enough to be a passive recipient of the news. As Professor Matthew Baum writes in his book entitled War and Democratic Constraint,

“In an era of rapidly expanding and diversifying media, [its potential] to influence foreign policy via its effects on citizen awareness of and attitudes regarding the activities of their leaders is…increasing.”

Therefore, we must actively inform ourselves and recognize that the attention we devote to an issue can have a ripple-effect that might truly impact the lives of others. We should also practice non-selective empathy and care about the grievances of more people. After all, the migrant crisis in Europe and elsewhere will only persist and expand across multiple regions (especially due to worsening economic inequality and climate change). Instead of allowing ourselves to spiral into a moral abyss when confronted with such challenges, we must develop new approaches and ways of thinking that are adapted to our increasingly globalized and border-less world.

Julie S.