There are 19.5 million refugees in the world; 14.4 million under the mandate of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and 5.1 million Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
Syria continues to be the largest source; 4.3 million Syrians are refugees and 6.6 million Syrians are displaced internally. Half of these are children. Eighty-six percent of refugees are hosted by developing countries, with more than 30% in Turkey (2 million), Pakistan (1.5 million) and Lebanon (1.15 million). So far this year, almost 1 million refugees are estimated to have arrived in Europe by sea alone, according to the International Organization for Migration, but exact numbers are unclear.
Many refugees experience unbelievable hardship as they are forced to flee their homes, often leaving family members behind, and go in search of a better life. Here are real stories from just three of the 19.5 million.
Doaa is a 19-year-old aspiring student who was forced by the war to live a grinding existence with her family in exile.
Without a work permit in Egypt, Doaa struggled through day shifts for low wages. As the months passed, she was getting more and more scared. One day, a motorcycle gang tried to kidnap her on the street. The war in Syria that drove her family away was in its fourth year. And the people who once welcomed them in Egypt had become weary of them.
Despite all this, Doaa still had hope, because she was in love with another refugee, called Bassem. He promised to take her to safety in Europe where they would marry and build a new life. Doaa knew the risks. It was August 2014, and more than 2,000 migrants and refugees had already died crossing the Mediterranean that year. She didn’t know how to swim, but for the second time in her life, she felt she had no choice but to flee.
So Bassem paid his life savings to smugglers, $2,500 each, to get them onto an old fishing boat. It was so packed with people that Doaa’s knees were bent to her chest.
After two days at sea she started to get worried, and on the third day she told Bassem: “We will never reach the shore. We will all sink.”
On day four, another boat approached the vessel. It was rusty and when the passengers were ordered to get on, they refused. The smugglers left angrily, and then returned to ram a hole in the side of the hull. “Let the fish eat your flesh,” they shouted, and then they laughed. Within minutes, the boat capsized and sank, with 300 people trapped below deck.
“The sea went black,” said Doaa. “I heard people screaming, and water crashing. I felt like I was going to drown.” She watched the propeller cut a child to pieces. Miraculously, Bassem found a water ring. He held Doaa’s hand and treaded water. There were corpses everywhere. The 100 survivors came together in small groups and prayed for rescue.
But as day turned to night and to day again, many lost hope. Doaa watched as men took off their life vests and drowned. Sensing his end was near, a Palestinian approached with his nine-month-old granddaughter, Malek. “Please take the baby,” he said. “I am very tired.” Then he gave up and let the sea take his life.
Soon after, Bassem had also reached his limit. His last words were, “I am sorry my love. Please forgive me.” He drowned before her eyes. Later that day, a mother struggled towards Doaa with Masa, an 18-month-old girl. “Save her,” she said, “I will not survive.”
Doaa, the 19-year-old who could not swim, who had just watched her fiancé drown, was now in charge of saving two fledgling lives. They were crying, agitated, hungry and thirsty. So she told them stories and played with them. Another day passed, and then another. On the fourth day in the sea, Doaa saw a merchant boat. For two hours she shouted. They spotted her with search lights in the dark and extended a rope – astonished to find a young woman clutching two babies.
Malek died in the boat’s clinic, but Masa pulled through. Doaa’s heroism was praised in the Greek media. On 19 December, one of Greece’s most respected institutions, the Academy of Athens, gave her an award for bravery.
This year, her story has become more relevant than ever. More than 130,000 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean to seek safety and a better life in Europe, and tens of thousands died along the way. Across the EU, people are waking up to the tragedy unfolding on their shores. Some are responding with compassion, but far too many with xenophobia.
In June, UNHCR released new figures, showing almost 60 million people are now displaced worldwide. That is 8 million more than last year, already the largest number since World War II, and the biggest annual rise we have ever recorded. But these numbers need perspective – 86% of refugees are hosted in developing countries. Just a small fraction are seeking asylum in Europe. Still, many people in Europe are worried about security, the economy, changes to their culture. But to me, there is something very clear that overrides the rest: no person fleeing conflict or persecution should have to die trying to reach safety.
The simple truth is that refugees would not risk their lives on a journey so dangerous if they could thrive where they are. And migrants fleeing grinding poverty would not be on those boats if they could feed themselves and their children. And nobody would resort to handing over their life savings to smugglers if they could apply to migrate legally.
What if there had been a legal way for Doaa to come to study? What if Masa had been given the legal chance to unite with family members in Northern Europe? What if Bassem had a work permit? Why is there no massive resettlement programme for Syrians? And why are the neighbouring countries that host 4 million Syrian refugees getting so little funding for infrastructure and development?
And of course, the root question: why is so little being done to stop the wars, persecution and poverty driving so many people to flee for the shores of Europe? I believe if the public knew the story of Doaa, they would demand that all refugees and migrants on their shores be rescued, that wars end and borders be opened. They would embrace Doaa, whose heart is not just full of the fear that drove her away from home, but with the hopes and dreams that bind us all as human beings.
I suppose I am one of those who almost made it. You don’t hear much about migrants like me, because we didn’t die at sea or in the desert. We just didn’t make it to Europe.
I left home with the dream of getting to Europe, where I was told I would easily find a job which would mean I would be able to look after my siblings. My mother died when I was very young and our father basically abandoned us as he could not, or did not want to, take care of us. I felt I had no choice but to leave Ghana and try my luck in Europe.
After months of travelling through West Africa by whatever means, I eventually made it to Libya, where I paid €800 to men who promised they would put me on a big boat that would finally take me to Europe. It is difficult to explain and I have bad memories about this, but I had a terrible time in Libya. Those of us from certain African countries were treated very badly by men who kept us in dirty houses without much clean water and with very little edible food. They were very abusive and they seemed to enjoy the way they treated us. It did not matter to them that we had paid them all this money.
Finally, one day, after several weeks of waiting, I was one of about 75, mostly Africans, who were shoved onto a small rubber boat in the early morning when it was still dark. A few in our group initially refused to get onto this boat because it did not look strong or even big enough to carry all of us to Europe. The men in charge had weapons and were very aggressive. They were simply not interested in our complaints about the boat.
We did not make it to Europe.
Instead we spent five days aimlessly floating around and basically lost at sea. When the boat started losing air, we thought we were all going to die.
As our food and water ran out, we eventually drifted towards the Tunisian coast where we were rescued and sent to a detention centre in Tunis. I was in this centre for a month before I was freed.
Emmanuel was rescued from the detention centre and returned to Ghana with IOM assistance and was provided with reintegration support, including a small grant that helped him start a business transporting yams to the market.
When I arrived back home in Ghana, my friends and relatives wanted to know why I had come back with nothing. There I was back home, when others were busy earning good money and looking after their families. Many wanted to know when I would try again to get to Europe.
However, I do not see myself as a failure. For me, the most important thing is that I feel lucky to have survived at sea. I am alive and that is what matters. Although I did not make it to Europe, I genuinely do not regret trying to get there. It was the only option I felt I had at the time.
One thing is certain, if I had opportunities here, I would not have been so desperate to try and go to Europe the way I did. If young people like me had jobs and a way to earn a living, we would not set off on these dangerous journeys.
After my experience, my advice to other young people is do not to make this journey. I know many of them may not listen and perhaps I too would probably not listen if I was very desperate to leave, but it is better to try very hard and make it here at home.
If you have to go, do it properly.
My dream now is to expand my business and end up employing other young people who will then no longer be desperate enough to try and put their lives at risk in this way.
I didn’t make it to Europe and I’m fine with it. For now, I have no desire to try that journey again.
I am very hopeful about the future.
I wish many other young people could be too.
Story told to Itayi Viriri, Media & Communications Officer, International Organization for Migration
Um Nawwaf will never forget the day three years ago, when the shells were raining down on the family’s home in Ghouta, Syria. “My daughter was looking for a place to hide, but she fell on a rock and hit her head and since then, she has been suffering from epilepsy. That was the final straw – we simply had to move.”
Fearful for her children, she fled to Jordan, while her husband stayed in Syria. She now lives alone with her five children in a small apartment in Mafraq Governorate.
Um Nawwaf describes how hard it is to be a refugee: “I can barely afford to put a roof over my head. My son Nawwaf had to drop out of school and find a job to help me with the expenses.”
Barely holding back her tears, she says: “My heart breaks every time he leaves for work. He’s only 13 years old.”
For the past two years, Um Nawwaf has been receiving support from the International Committee of the Red Cross through its cash assistance programme, which is run in cooperation with the Jordan Red Crescent Society. “The money helps us pay the rent, fuel and electricity bills, in addition to buying food and other essential items. It makes our lives bearable.”
Most of the Syrian refugees living in host communities in Jordan depend on aid provided by humanitarian agencies. With the protracted nature of the conflict, many of them have exhausted their savings and other assets. With the arrival of winter, the pressures of daily life can only increase.
Some 3,000 Syrian families, the majority of whom are households headed by women, have been benefiting from the programme, through which they receive monthly cash installments – the amount depends on the size of the household – paid via a local bank.
On average, the amount is $100 per household and is intended to cover various daily expenditures. In addition, over the four months of winter, the supported households receive four installments, each worth $150, to cover heating-related expenditure.
For the Syrian refugees living in Jordan, life is a daily struggle. Humanitarian assistance makes their lives a little easier, but life is a constant mix of fear, anxiety and hope for a better future.
With a glimmer of hope in her eyes, Um Nawwaf says: “I wake up every day telling myself that this is a temporary situation and that things will get better soon. I hope so.”
Story from the International Committee of the Red Cross
Image: A Syrian refugee holds her baby after arriving aboard the passenger ferry Eleftherios Venizelos from the island of Lesbos at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis