In 2015, a global humanitarian crisis exploded onto Europe’s shores. As a result of conflict and persecution, the number of displaced people globally soared to a record 60 million – almost one per cent of the world’s population. More than half of them are children. While developing countries still host the vast majority of the world’s refugees, almost one million people arrived on Europe’s shores this year. Here are a few of the human stories behind the statistics:
Image via DFID/Flickr
It is the fourth winter of the Syrian war. Refugees continue to flee to neighbouring countries to escape the fighting. Eleven-year-old Muhanad (not his real name), pictured, ends up in Lebanon, where he faces an unusually harsh winter under canvas. Lebanon, which hosts more than 1m Syrian refugees, says it has “no more capacity” and restricts travel from Syria.
Meanwhile in North Africa, people fleeing conflict, poverty and persecution try to reach the safety of Europe by boat. Jean, who fled the Ivory Coast for Libya after his family threatened him, tells Amnesty International: “The smugglers were armed. Some of us were scared and did not want to go, but nobody could turn back. They gave us no maps, nothing. They just said: go straight ahead and that’s Italy!” He is one of 88 survivors when his boat is rescued off the coast of Malta.
Yara is a 23-year-old mother of four living in Lebanon – one of the 3.8 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries. She is struggling to survive. “Living in Lebanon is very difficult, and I can hardly manage. I have moved from one place to another 15 times.” Her husband was arrested and imprisoned in Syria. Recently, she found out he has been killed – from YouTube. “My son needs treatment and I am not able to treat him. So we have to travel to another country where they can treat my children and teach them. Here the children are crying all the time because I can’t afford to register them in schools. So the only solution is to travel.”
Image via Doctors of the World UK/Facebook
The voyage from Africa to Europe has become deadlier since Italy’s sea rescue mission was wound down a few months ago. But prospective passengers are undeterred. Abu Yassir, a Syrian man in Tunisia, tells al-Araby: “An end to the war and the dream of going home to Damascus is out of reach, so the death boats are a better option than the terrible lives we face in the countries we have sought refuge in… We can’t take it here any longer. There’s no work, housing or help. The only choice is to ride the waves to Europe.”
Yusuf (not his real name), 17, fled Gaza with a friend after his brother and cousin were killed last summer. “I left Gaza because of the war,” he tells Save the Children. “All around me was war and death, I wanted to change my life, I wanted to find a new life.” He was kidnapped and beaten in Lebanon before travelling on to Libya, where he and his friend paid smugglers $1,000 (£670) to take them to Italy. “The traffickers had guns and if you talked they said they would throw you overboard or shoot you. Sometimes the water came into the boat and we got it out with our hands.” Now in Italy, he is asked what his dreams are: “I want a future, I just want to be human.”
More than 1,200 people drown in the Mediterranean in the space of a few days, more than 800 of them in just one shipwreck. Ibrahim Mbalo is one of the few survivors. He moved from the Gambia to Libya for work but, as chaos engulfed his new home, Mbalo decided to head for Europe. He tells The Guardian he was submerged in the hull after water rushed into his boat. Underwater, a man clung to his clothes, forcing him to undress to escape. “Will I die?” Mbalo wondered. “Or will I survive?” He surfaced, and saw a boat. “I followed that boat. I followed and followed. And then they saw me coming.” Now, he says: “I want to work. I can do any type of job. Any type of job, I can do it.”
Meanwhile, refugees in Europe are being pushed back by border authorities, often violently – and in breach of international law. One Syrian refugee trying to cross from Turkey into Greece tells Amnesty International: “They took us to the river bank and told us to get on our knees. It was dark by this time – about 8.30pm… One of the police hit me on my back … he hit me on my legs and on my head with a wooden stick. They took us closer to the river and told us to be quiet and not to move. They took me away from the group and started beating us with their fists and kicking us on the floor. They held me by my hair and pushed me towards the river.”
Barrel bombs continue to rain down on Syria. Amnesty International releases a report detailing the “systematic and widespread” human rights violations perpetrated by President Assad and some opposition groups on the people of Syria.
In the UK, one of Assad’s former victims, 32 year old Nor (not her real name), tells The Guardian about her relief at reaching Coventry with her three children. Nor was arrested in Damascus: “I was electrocuted, hung upside down and beaten with a cable. There was psychological torture and abuse. They wanted the names of the people we were working with in Homs to help trapped neighbourhoods,” she says. “I didn’t give names because, if I had, people would die.” Once released, Nor escaped to Lebanon to find her children, applied to the UN’s resettlement programme and was issued with a UK visa. “It wasn’t until I arrived in the UK that I felt safe… I know I am secure now – me and my children are safe.”
Image via Guardian film screengrab
The UNHCR announces that one person in every 122 is now displaced. One of those people is Teddy (pictured), who fled the brutal regime in Eritrea. He tells The Guardian he was trafficked across the Sahara and spent a year in a Libyan prison (“My girlfriend is still there I think.”). He now finds himself in the Calais ‘jungle’, which is growing fast as Southern Europe sees a dramatic increase in new arrivals. “This is not good but compared to what I have seen it is OK.” He is trying to reach the UK – one of his friends recently succeeded by clinging to the underside of a lorry. “I got on three lorries last night but was dragged off each time by the police. It is over for me today.”
Four people die trying to get to the UK from Calais this month. In the face of growing media hysteria, David Cameron reveals he plans to deploy more dogs and officers to stop migrants in Calais from reaching the UK.
Image via Guardian film screengrab
Calais continues to hit the headlines in Britain. David Cameron warns of “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean… wanting to come to Britain”. In Calais, one refugee, David (pictured), is building a church: “You need sometimes some quality time with yourself. You can come here, you can read, you can pray, you can think so you have a fresh mind. It makes it easier for you.” David left Eritrea after his father died and spent years as a refugee in Sudan before trying to reach the UK, leaving his two- year-old son behind. “I want to bring him if I can. I want to be a good father for him. It’s hard, it’s very hard. But thanks to God, I am still happy and alive.”
Elsewhere, Hungary starts building a razor-wire fence to protect its border with Serbia.
Image via The New York Times/Facebook
Greece sees record numbers of refugees arriving on its shores. One of those refugees is Laith Majid (pictured), an Iraqi who is photographed clutching his family as they arrive safely in Kos after their boat lost air on the journey from Turkey. The New York Times photographer who took the photograph, Daniel Etter says: “When the boat landed, a middle-aged man got out. He was visibly shaken and had a hard time walking. When all his family finally reached the safety of the beach, he and his wife broke down in tears, hugging every single one of their children.” The family has since found refuge in Germany.
Another picture of another father is also shared around the world in August. Abdul Halim al-Attar, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, is photographed carrying his sleeping daughter while selling pens on the streets of Beirut. A crowdfunding campaign ends up transforming his life. Elsewhere, riot police at the Macedonia border use stun grenades to stop refugees from entering. In Austria, an abandoned lorry is found to contain the bodies of 71 Syrian people. In Hungary, police stop refugees from boarding trains to Austria and Germany. German football fans, meanwhile, go out of their way to make refugees feel welcome.
Image via fotolensa/Twitter
On 2 September, Alan Kurdi‘s small body is found washed up on a beach in Turkey. His father, Abdullah, says the boat’s captain panicked and jumped into the sea. “I took over and started steering, the waves were so high and the boat flipped… I was holding my wife’s hand. My children slipped away from my hands. We tried to hold on to the boat. Everyone was screaming in pitch darkness.” He tells reporters: “The things that happened to us here, in the country where we took refuge to escape war in our homeland, we want the whole world to see this. We want the world’s attention on us, so that they can prevent the same from happening to others. Let this be the last.” Within 12 hours, the photograph is seen on 20m screens around the world, and the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy transforms the debate around the refugee crisis.
But borders in eastern Europe continue to close. Teacher Rasha Alsayad, who travelled from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, is stuck at the border between Serbia and Hungary. She begs the world to adopt her daughter: “Take my kid and put her in Germany and any other safe place. It doesn’t matter… I [forfeit] my right to live a safe life. If you put my kid in a school, I will go back to Syria.” She and her daughter eventually make it safely to Germany, together.
A Hungarian camerawoman is filmed tripping up a man as he runs with a child in his arms. The man is Osama Abdul Mohsen, a football coach who fled President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria: “You could be killed at any moment. Every minute, there was a bomb in the street. It was a dangerous, a very dangerous, life. I’ve seen Bashar al-Assad’s army kill many people, and not in combat… If you say you want freedom, you could die.” He is offered a house and a job in Spain.
Image via Humans of New York/Instagram
“My husband and I sold everything we had to afford the journey. We worked 15 hours a day in Turkey until we had enough money to leave. The smuggler put 152 of us on a boat. Once we saw the boat, many of us wanted to go back, but he told us that anyone who turned back would not get a refund. We had no choice. Both the lower compartment and the deck were filled with people. Waves began to come into the boat so the captain told everyone to throw their baggage into the sea. In the ocean we hit a rock, but the captain told us not to worry. Water began to come into the boat, but again he told us not to worry. We were in the lower compartment and it began to fill with water. It was too tight to move. Everyone began to scream. We were the last ones to get out alive. My husband pulled me out of the window. In the ocean, he took off his life jacket and gave it to a woman. We swam for as long as possible. After several hours he told me he that he was too tired to swim and that he was going to float on his back and rest. It was so dark we could not see. The waves were high. I could hear him calling me but he got further and further away. Eventually a boat found me. They never found my husband.”
Meanwhile, in Syria, families continue to run for their lives.
Image via Humans of the Refuge/Facebook
Refugees continue their journeys across Europe as winter draws in. This boy is pictured crying as he waits to cross the border between Slovenia and Austria. Conditions deteriorate in overcrowded camps across Europe, with fires breaking out. When a group of people living in the Calais jungle protest their living conditions, police open fire, using rubber bullets, tear gas and concussion grenades.
Then terrorists attack Paris, killing 130 people. Unfounded rumours that some of the terrorists entered Europe as refugees circulate. Fears of a backlash grow. Migrants in Calais – including many who have fled from Daesh (Isis) – hold a vigil in solidarity with the French people: “We cried for France that night, we didn’t sleep,” says Dulbar Karem from Iraqi Kurdistan, now in Calais. “ISIL are not Muslims. Muslims don’t kill.”
The daily arrival of thousands of refugees on Greece’s island of Lesvos is documented in the film Stateless on Lesvos (above). Mohammed, who fled Russian bombs and Iraqi militias in Syria, arrives with 16 members of his family, after paying $900 per adult and half that per child to cross from Turkey: “There were only 40 of us on the boat, other people had much more. Thank God the smuggler wasn’t trying to kill anybody,” he says. “We heard people would welcome us very warmly.”
One refugee in Germany, Alex Assali, decides to thank Germans for their kindness by distributing food to homeless people in Berlin. His friend Tabea explains: “He really has lost everything; he had to leave his family back in Syria because people wanted to kill him. Even though he doesn’t have a lot, he goes on the street and distributes food to the homeless. His motto is ‘give something back to the German people’.”
Photojournalist Tinka Kalajzic, meanwhile, finds hope in a refugee camp in Dobova, Slovenia: “In Dobova, everything seems under control. Refugees are arriving in buses, and waiting for the registration inside of the big warm tents… They get food & water & clothes & blankets. And there are people and organizations who are taking good care of them.” She records a group of little girls repeating phrases including: “I am – happy! – And I am – healthy! – And I am – smart! – And I am – joyful! – And everyone is treating me well! – And everyone is being kind to me!”
It is now the fifth winter of the Syrian war. More refugees than ever find themselves spending it in camps across Europe and beyond, waiting to be allowed to live again. Meanwhile, in government offices across Europe, leaders continue to willfully fail to act: refugees, they insist, are somebody else’s problem.
But where governments have failed in 2015, people have organised. It is ordinary people who have opened up their homes to refugees in Germany and across Europe. It is ordinary people who are standing on the beaches of Greece, handing out food, clothes and smiles. And it is ordinary people who are taking supplies to Calais, and reporting what they see to the world.
It is also ordinary people who are giving their time, expertise or money to the organisations working to make a difference to the lives of refugees. If you would like to get involved, here are just a few of those organisations: Calais Migrant Solidarity | Doctors of the World | Refugees Welcome | Refugee Action | Save the Children | International Rescue Committee | Migrant Offshore Aid Station | Médecins Sans Frontières | Red Cross Europe | The Jungle Library | Calais Action | The City of Sanctuary movement. There are many more. Please feel free to add them in the comments.
Featured image via Facebook.
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