Global Refugee Crisis

NOTE: The borders along the Balkan Route officially closed in March 2016. As a result, much of the statistics and information here have changed. Nonetheless, the original data have been retained for posterity as a way of characterizing the situation when it was critical and extremely in flux.

Global Refugee Crisis: Polygenesis, Management, and Resettlement FAQ
Troy E. Spier
Last Updated January 2016

1. What is the Global Refugee Crisis (GRC), and what has caused it?
The Global Refugee Crisis (GRC) is described by many as the worst global exodus since World War II and by others as the worst humanitarian crisis in the history of the world. To simplify the matter greatly, we can describe the GRC as a situation caused by many factors that has led to the internal and external displacement of millions and the death of hundreds of thousands. Although media reports tend to focus on the chaos in Syria, we need to understand that the GRC is polygenetic, i.e. no single impetus propelled the world into the situation we now face. Instead, some of the factors include the following: the Syrian Civil War, the presence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the spread of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS and ISIL), the Somali Civil War, the continued warfare in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and spillover from Boko Haram in Western Africa. At the same rate, the impact of the GRC is also felt in the Americas as people flee violence, rape, and persecution in places like Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. However, an often undiscussed contribution would be legislative change. For example, the Republic of Macedonia instituted legislative change in June 2015 that allowed refugees to pass through the country via public transportation, as long as they did so within a three-day period. While this seems like a relatively small change, similar – de facto or de jure – legislative change across Europe has permitted the refugees to take a relatively safer, though still extremely dangerous, journey to their final destination, as opposed to crossing from Northern Africa.

2. What is the difference between a ‘refugee’ and a ‘migrant’?
Many people use these two words interchangeably; however, there is a large difference between the two that must be clarified. A prototypical ‘migrant’ is an individual who leaves one area for another in search of economic prosperity. On the other hand, a prototypical ‘refugee’ is forced to flee his or her country due to warfare, persecution, natural disaster, or any number of other life-threatening reasons. While there are also (economic) migrants crossing the borders into Europe, the majority of the individuals we see are legitimate refugees. Furthermore, the difference between the two can be further clarified by considering agency and volition. The former refers to the individual or force in control of or contributing to the situation, while the latter refers to whether the response is voluntary or forced.

3. Aren’t most or all of the Syrian refugees men? Why won’t they stay and fight?
According to the current figures from the UNHCR, there are 4,596,161 registered Syrian refugees. Of this total amount, females constitute 50.7% and men constitute 49.3%. Children under the age of eleven constitute 39.1%, and teenagers (ages twelve to seventeen) constitute 12.7%. Adult males constitute 21.4% and adult females constitute 23.9%. The final 2.9% constitutes anyone over the age of sixty. Consequently, it’s hasty to state that the majority of the refugees are men; on the contrary, the majority of the refugees are children under the age of eleven. The statistics are consistently being updated, and the most recent can be found here. Many Americans have made the argument that Syrians should stay in and fight for their own country, using the American Civil War as an analogue. An important point of consideration, however, is that the Syrian Civil War doesn’t simply comprise two sides; instead, we see as many as ten to fifteen disparate groups fighting one another, and that number doesn’t even include the foreign powers who are involved, e.g. the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc.

4. Where are the refugees coming from, and where do they want to go?
Based on my personal experience working abroad and on the official figures, most of the refugees are coming from Syria and Afghanistan. Large numbers are also arriving from Iraq, and other countries of origin include Pakistan, Iran, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, etc. Many refugees are not certain about their country of final destination. Historically, many said they wanted to go to Germany or Sweden, but many are also arriving in other countries, including the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, and Finland. As borders continue to close or tighten, we could see a further shift in the country of final destination.

5. What are the refugee camps like in Europe, and how many are there?
At this point in time, most of the refugee camps are equipped with similar capabilities and resources. Typically, domestic and international volunteers arrive with their own funding and purchase local food, water, milk, blankets, diapers, baby formula, etc. Other times, large containers filled with donated items are shipped from one country to another. Although there are large NGOs present in many of the camps, their presence is not always constant and their resources often extremely limited. New camps have developed when others have fallen into disuse due to new routes, and the currently existing camps can be found here. Finally, the route across Europe is treacherous. Assuming that we begin in Turkey, the refugees typically pay smugglers for a dinghy boat to get to Lesvos Island, from which they will take a ferry to Athens, Greece. Then they will take public transportation, usually a bus, to Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border. After crossing into Gevgelija, they will take a train to Tabanovce near the Serbian-Macedonian border. Then they walk through a field to get to Miratovac before continuing to Preševo. At this point, they will take a bus to the Croatian border (typically Šid), from which point they will ultimately pass through Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. Finally, these camps are bifurcated according to the primary purpose for its existence, i.e. transit camps serve a population in immediately need of certain basic resources, while registration camps serve a governmental purpose in providing the appropriate legal documentation for continued passage, though many volunteers also distribute basic resources at such camps.

6. What is the vetting process in the United States?
As previously mentioned, refugees must constantly obtain official documentation through registration at some of these European camps. They cannot simply walk up to the official and ask for them; rather, they need to provide their biographical information and share their story about departing from their home country, i.e. they need to be able to prove, in order to qualify for refugee status, that their life was in danger. Assuming they want to be granted admission to the United States, all of this documentation must be provided to the UNHCR. Only approximately one percent of the people referred to the United States will actually be eligible to move to this country, but the process is quite long (potentially two years) and difficult. After the initial referral has been made, a search of criminal databases is undertaken to ensure that there are no “red flags” from the National Counterterrorism Center, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, etc. As long as no concerns exist, the next step involves the acquisition of biographical information, fingerprinting, and multiple interviews to verify that the story is accurate and consistent. Then come the medical evaluation, cultural orientation classes, and government decision over final location prior to the purchasing of airfare, which must ultimately be paid back by the refugee. Upon arrival in the USA, the refugees will integrate into society and are required within one year of residence to apply for a Green Card, which once again requires additional security clearances. More specific information from the White House can be found here.

7. Which national organizations are helping with resettlement?
Before a refugee gets on the plane to the United States, the federal government has coordinated with approved organizations to resettle individuals as quickly and effectively as possible. Some of these include World Relief, International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services, Ethiopian Community Development Council, and Episcopal Migration Ministries. If you’re interested in seeing what types of smaller, more local organizations are offering services in Pennsylvania, please look at the spreadsheet in progress here.

8. How can I help?
Not everyone can travel abroad and commit their time, effort, and money to intensive humanitarian aid work – and that’s OK! The first step is to remain constantly informed about what is actually taking place in the world, and that includes not simply reading one source of news. In fact, many Facebook groups exist for local and international volunteers to coordinate their efforts and discuss what they are actually experiencing in the field. However, if you live in a state where the elected politicians have voted against refugee resettlement, one great way to contribute would be to lobby these same politicians and involve as many people as possible. Now that you know about the vetting process, you will be better equipped to debate the issue. The second step is to inform others, and this might come in the form of starting discussions online through a Facebook group, holding events in person, etc. The third step is to donate, and this depends on the level of your involvement and connectivity. If you would like to help locally, there are organizations and faith-based institutions that regularly collect tangible items (e.g. clothing, hygiene products, household items, toys, etc.) and monetary donations. If you would like to help internationally, there are many independent volunteers and small NGOs that can be reached on Facebook. Realize that larger NGOs tend to spend the majority of donations on staff salaries, marketing, and overhead. Consider viewing the Refugee Map first, however, in order to see where the most needs are. The fourth step is to get involved locally, and this could come in the form of tutoring those who are learning English, going out for coffee to discuss cultural differences, accompanying someone to a doctor’s appointment or the supermarket for food, etc. And finally, the fifth step is to remember that these people are no longer refugees – they are your new neighbors and should be treated as such.

9. What is informed consent, and why should I care?
All volunteers working locally or internationally must understand informed consent prior to working in the field. Informed consent requires you to receive permission to document a refugee in any capacity, which includes taking pictures and writing down details or stories. Permission cannot simply be acquired through physical affirmation, e.g. shaking one’s head “yes.” Rather, the individual needs to understand in his or her native language – or another language that he or she speaks fluently – that something will be documented and that it will be used for a certain purpose. If you intend, for example, to upload a picture or story to Facebook, this needs to be communicated clearly. Keep in mind that asylum is not guaranteed, and this individual may be deported to his or her home country, which leaves open the possibility of consequences, somethings deadly, upon return. If you are working in a medical capacity and keeping records, these should all be anonymized unless you work with an NGO that has procedures already set in place. There’s no such thing as being “too cautious.”

10. Who wrote this? Why should I trust him?
My name is Troy E. Spier. I’m a trained public school teacher and a second-year doctoral student. I have spent three months working abroad with refugees, primarily at the Tabanovce Refugee Camp (Republic of Macedonia) and in the Moria Detention Center (Lesvos Island, Greece). I was initially in Macedonia on a Fulbright Fellowship, which was rescinded by the U.S. Embassy when they realized my involvement at the camp. If you’re interested, you can read more about that story here (in English), here (in English), or here (на македонски). I spent a couple weeks back in the USA after this rescission, giving invited talks, fundraising, and organizing a return trip, which led me initially to Lesvos Island and then back to Macedonia – with a few visits to Greece and Serbia in between. I am now back in the USA again and am organizing volunteer efforts in Pennsylvania.


Watch my TED talk by clicking on the picture above.