Desperate conditions in Syria compel migrants to flee
Those people who have found their way to Ireland have escaped shocking poverty
A ruined street in the al-Katerji district of Aleppo, Syria. Photograph: Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
For four years, Sami lived with the daily sound of mortars rattling his fourth floor apartment in Damascus.
“Every day, every hour, people were dying. Two of our daughters’ friends were killed. Our youngest, who is 12, would not talk for a week. Their school work suffered. They were crying so much that they would not open their copy books for weeks.”
He and his wife are both civil engineers, but the scale of the fighting forced them to leave their offices on the outskirts of the city. “The economy has collapsed. I tried to find work in Lebanon, where I registered as a refugee. But there is no work there either and accommodation is so expensive.”
Sami (not real name), his wife and three daughters arrived in Ireland in April. His cousin, who is an Irish citizen, submitted an application to the Syrian Humanitarian Admission Programme.
A private sponsorship scheme set up by the Government last year, it gave permission to 114 people from Syria and the surrounding region to join relatives in Ireland. His eldest daughter is hoping to study medicine and he is happy that all three are now in school in Dublin.
The majority of Syria’s 11.6 million displaced, over half the population, have not been so lucky. They live in increasingly desperate conditions, both inside and outside Syria. Two-thirds of Syrian refugees across Jordan are living below the national poverty line. One in six lives in extreme poverty, with less than €1.20 to survive on a day. In Lebanon, 70 per cent of refugees cannot meet their minimum daily food requirements. The UN halved the value of food assistance for refugees there this month due to a shortage in funding. Three million children are not in school.
Deprived of any prospects and running low on savings, growing numbers have begun travelling to Europe. About 1,000 people a day are arriving off boats on Greece’s islands. Two-thirds are Syrian. Notwithstanding the great generosity from residents of the islands, many lack access to water, food and shelter from the searing heat. Onward journeys overland can be treacherous, exposing young girls, women, boys and men to exploitation and ill-treatment at the hand of smugglers.
Their reasons for making the journey vary. With opportunities limited in refugee camps in countries neighbouring their own, many feel they have nothing left to lose and embark on dangerous journeys to Europe, where they may have relatives.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees welcomes the announcement by Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald that Ireland will relocate 600 of these asylum seekers around the country. This is a positive development and is in addition to the 520 Syrian refugees to be resettled to Ireland by the end of next year.
The arrival of 600 asylum seekers to Ireland is also an opportunity to advance the key recommendations of the working group tasked with looking at improvements to the current asylum-processing system in Ireland, including direct provision. Made up of 26 different organisations, including key Government departments, NGOs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the working group report made 173 recommendations when it was published recently. These recommendations were fully costed and agreed by consensus by all members of the working group, including all relevant Government departments and State agencies.
This is not just good news for the State, which the working group projects should save €59.5 million by 2019 if all recommendations are implemented. It is good news for asylum seekers seeking a timely and fair decision so they move on with their lives.
“We now have an opportunity to get on with our lives and live them in dignity,” says Sami. The thoughts of refugees arriving in Greece and Italy are no different.
Sophie Magennis is head of office with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ireland