The ongoing refugee crisis hitting Europe is the worst refugee crisis we have since WWII. Although the majority of refugees are coming from war-torn Syria, others are seeking refuge in Europe from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sub-Saharan Africa and other conflict areas. It is a highly complicated, chaotic emergency situation that often leads people to feel overwhelmed, confused and unsure of what to do to help.
On a personal level, I have wanted to write about the crisis but had no idea where to start. I contacted Save the Children and obtained an exclusive interview with Francine Uenuma, Save the Children’s Spokesperson for Disaster and Humanitarian Emergencies to get a firsthand account of what is happening on the ground and how Save the Children is working to help out. Here is her story.
Quick overview on the Refugee Crisis in Europe from Save the Children:*
Save the Children is working to support and protect tens of thousands of homeless children and their families fleeing conflict, wars and persecution in the Middle East and Africa, many of whom are seeking a safe haven in Europe.
Since the war in Syria began more than four years ago, Save the Children has provided extensive support for Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and we are now moving fast to help protect refugee children as they move toward Europe. We are now seeking to expand our assistance to these children in many additional countries including Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Italy and Germany, among others.
This year alone more than 380,000 people have migrated to Europe from Africa and the Middle East, and we estimate that at least a third — and in some groups as many as one half — are children under 18.
Risk to Children: These child refugees are at great risk. Just recently for example, 34 refugees, almost half of them babies and children, drowned when their boat sank off a Greek island. Four babies, six boys and five girls died when the wooden vessel carrying them overturned. This won’t be the last tragedy we see in this crisis.
Protecting these children – and addressing their basic needs – is a tremendous challenge, and we are calling on the public for support. Over the past ten days we have seen a significant spike in U.S. donations to address the crisis.
The Dangers Children Face: Every day, more and more traumatized children – including many children who have seen their homes destroyed and their loved ones killed — are streaming into Greece, Serbia and Hungary in hopes of ultimately finding safety and relief in Germany and other European countries. These refugee children have been on the move for weeks, some for months. They are sleeping in the open or in public places, suffering from exhaustion and malnutrition and are highly vulnerable to exploitation and harm. The seemingly endless wars and conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq have reached a tipping point – many families see no alternative but to flee.
Nearly half of all registered refugees worldwide are children and youth, and their numbers are growing dramatically due to the ongoing conflicts, especially in Syria. So far in 2015 more than 380,000 desperate people have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea – tragically nearly 3,000 have died or are missing. In Italy alone, 8,566 children have arrived alone this year, without any parents or families at all, according to Save the Children and the Italian Ministry of Interior.
*This information was compiled for me to use from various press releases and resources used by Save the Children.
Interview with Francine Uenuma, Save the Children’s Spokesperson for Disaster and Humanitarian Emergencies:
Francine just returned from Greece and the Serbia/Hungary border where Save the Children is working to provide humanitarian aid and services to refugees. Here is her account of what life is like on the ground and my questions about the refugee crisis.
Me: What prompted the massive increase of migration to Europe this year that has led to the current refugee crisis?
Francine: There are many factors and it is all quite complicated. Last year, we saw about 40,000 refugees arriving in Europe via Greece. This year, as the situation in Syria has become worse we have seen an increase in Syrians fleeing their country. This year alone more than 380,000 people have migrated to Europe from Africa and the Middle East, and more are on the way. It is hard to get exact numbers of the refugees because it is constantly changing, they are coming from many different places and routes, and are always on the move. It is a very complicated, chaotic situation.
Me: Where are the refugees coming from and how are they getting to Europe?
Francine: We estimate that 60% of the refugees in Greece are from Syria and the rest are coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. There are two main routes – through Italy and through Greece. They mostly come by boat and once they land ashore, they often walk miles to reach the nearest bus station or ferry that will bring them further into Europe. When the refugees land in Italy the situation is quite different as the Coast Guard is there and they normally land in a port. However, when they land in Greece there is no one there to help them. They generally land on one of three Greek Islands upon a rocky, remote shore and then they walk on foot for hours to get to the ferry station which will bring them to Athens. It is a perilous journey and they walk with nothing.
Me: Share a story about something you witnessed or experienced on the ground in Greece?
Francine: We were driving around Lesvos in our rental car and off in the distance we saw a dingy approaching the shore. We stopped and got out of the car to help. On board was a family of refugees from Afghanistan who had just arrived and were afraid. One woman had twisted her ankle and had a baby who was very cold. They arrived with nothing except enough money to get them to Athens via ferry. It was over a 70 km walk into town on a windy road to reach the ferry but there was no way the woman would make it with her sore ankle and the baby was sick. We weren’t able to help the entire group but did bring the woman and the baby to seek help. It was hard to separate them as they didn’t fully understand where we were taking them however we knew she would never make it there without our help. This is just one of many similar stories of refugees simply arriving ashore and are all on their own with no food, minimal water and/or belongings.
Me: You were also in Serbia along the border with Hungary. How is the situation there different?
Francine: It is an extremely challenging situation right now because people are constantly on the move and their location changes daily as borders open and close. It is very difficult to get aid out to families and children in need due to the unpredictability and chaos of people in constant movement. I was in Serbia when Hungary closed down the border and witnessed the fear, desperation and confusion on the children’s faces. For me, that was one of the hardest things to see. I heard many stories of tragedy and loss. Parents having to make a difficult decision to leave a loved one behind or parents who lost their children during the journey. Perhaps the hardest of all was seeing the children with their faces, crying and pressed against the newly erected fence at the border of Hungary. They were so confused and scared.
Me: What is Save the Children doing on the ground to help?
Francine: Save the Children has staff working to support and protect children and their families at informal camps in Lesvos where thousands of refugees are living in informal camps. We are planning to provide a protective environment for children in these camps while also helping set up emergency shelters and distributing food, basic hygiene items and baby kits.
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, Save the Children has set up mother-baby help centers near the city’s main train and bus stations that serve as major gathering points for refugees. The centers provide hygiene and food supplies for mothers and their children and offer parents a safe space to use the hygiene items. The agency also plans to provide support for mothers and children in one of the large “informal” refugee day-camps in Belgrade including a safe space for children to play.
Me: What can we do to help?
Francine: The most important thing is to donate. After the iconic picture of the drowned little boy in Turkey broke the world’s heart, Save the Children saw a big spike in donations by both corporations and citizens. People realized the horror of the crisis and felt compelled to do something. You can also advocate. To meet the growing crisis Save the Children has joined other humanitarian groups in calling on the United States and European Member States to support a comprehensive plan to strengthen protections for refugees and to expand quotas for refugees so more can resettle in Europe and the United States. We are disappointed in the administration’s announcement of accepting only 10,000 additional refugees from Syria. We can – we must – do more.
As the Obama Administration has acknowledged, The United States has an important role to play in helping Europe respond. The situation is extraordinary and it calls for an extraordinary response not only from European countries but from the United States as well. The international community including the United States must also step up its effort to provide assistance to displaced people and host communities in the Middle East as well as do more to bring an end to the conflict.
To learn more on the refuge crisis and/or donate to Save the Children, click here.