Written by Ramy Srour

“My government killed everybody, you know,” the desperate 30-year old Syrian refugee told a reporter from the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera last Saturday. I truly recommend that everyone take a look at this short 6-minute video. It turns our attention to something we seem to have overlooked over the last few weeks: that the situation in Syria is reaching a critical point.

In such a short video, with only a few words spoken in broken English, Khaled, the 30-year old Syrian refugee who escaped the devastation in his hometown of Dara’a near the Jordanian border, manages to convey the desperation and resignation of an entire people and of their tragedy.

But he also manages to convey something else: hope.

What else could have animated him and the other 500 desperate refugees on that tragic boat, but hope? Of course, desperation pushed them, but hope kindled them.

Khaled was one of the only 200 fortunate refugees who survived their sea crossing from Libya to Lampedusa, in southern Italy. Because of a fire that broke out on the 20-meter-long fishing vessel only 1 km away from land, at least 289 people have died on this fateful journey. Many of them were women and children. Many were refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

from cbs news

Refugees escape war on small and old fishing vessels. On their way across the Mediterranean, many often lose their lives. [Photo from CBS news]

The humanitarian focus

Now, the debate over Syria has primarily focused on the chemical weapons attack of August 21. In a recent post, I have already argued that the global focus needs to shift from the chemical issue to the far more complex and hard-to-contain humanitarian catastrophe.

The tragedy in southern Italy further supports that point.

Yesterday in Washington, Neal Keny-Guyer, the CEO of the U.S.-based Mercy Corps, said that the “Syrian crisis has become a ticking humanitarian bomb.” The metaphor could not be more fitting. I am not sure whether this bomb will end up exploding, but I think that the time-factor is a crucial component here.

Organizations like the Mercy Corps, Oxfam, UNHCR, and several others are currently doing a lot to address the humanitarian crisis on the ground in Syria. They raise money, send health and food products, and to the extent that they can, they assist wounded civilians in refugee camps in surrounding Lebanon and Jordan. But this is not enough.


International organizations such as UNHCR and Oxfam assist civilians in refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. [Photo credit: BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)]

The dangers of the sea-route

Because of the obvious security challenges of gaining access to civilians on the ground in a violent and unpredictable civil conflict, these organizations aren’t reaching as many people as they could.

The consequence is that many Syrians have given up on help coming from the outside, and have decided to take their own destiny in their hands. They are simply leaving the country, not just heading for neighboring countries. They are heading all the way to northern Africa, and then onto Europe.

According to recent estimates, as many as 2 million Syrians have fled the country since the outbreak of war. Most of them have poured into Lebanon, a small country of 5 million people, now hosting nearly 1 million Syrians. For obvious reasons, Lebanon—and to some extent Jordan—have attracted most humanitarian organizations because of the large influx of refugees there.

But the recent tragedy off the coast of Italy shows that the humanitarian crisis is hard to contain or predict, and that it can take an awful turn. Desperate refugees are putting their lives at risk by buying for themselves a place on the rocky boats that leave daily from Libya’s shores. Their destination? Hope. But on the way, death lurks behind each wave.

Governments, not just humanitarian organizations, need to wake up to this situation. They need to either make sure that the refugees taking the sea-route actually make it to the other side of the Mediterranean, or they need to find a solution altogether that would bring the war to a stop.

Hope and human dignity

The sad part in this story is that those who have made it to Italy aren’t doing that well either. According to Khaled, they sleep outdoors with no cover or shelter, because the camps simply don’t have the proper infrastructure. Hygiene is another major issue.


Poor hygiene is a major problem in refugee camps. Poor living conditions often impact health of refugees. [Photo: Medicins sans Frontieres]

The European Union has finally decided to turn some of its attention to the refugee crisis in southern Italy. It is time that the other world powers turn all of their attention to the crisis on the ground in Syria. Some countries, including the U.S. and British governments, have increased their aid, but it’s still far below the $ 4.4 billion target set by the UN. More importantly, aid alone may not suffice. The sooner the international community puts an end to the civil war, the sooner people will stop putting their lives at risk.

So far, hope is their only option.


One thought on “Syria: A ticking humanitarian bomb

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