Syrians experienced the largest single-day exodus of the war on March 15, 2018. Seven years to the day since the start of the uprising in Syria, some 45,000 civilians fled their homes in besieged Eastern Ghouta. The fact that such large-scale displacement took place over the course of a single day as the conflict entered its eighth year is a stark reminder that the displacement caused by the war has not abated and will not end any time soon.
The expansion of humanitarian aid in Syria and its neighboring states has gone hand-in-hand with a growing restriction on refugees’ right of movement and ever-stricter control over refugees’ personal information and biometric data. UNHCR and the Syrian and Jordanian governments share two interests in particular: to raise humanitarian funds and to centralize information and control over refugee populations.
On January 26, 2017, video footage surfaced of 22-year-old Gambian national Pateh Sabally thrashing around in the middle of the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy. Hundreds of onlookers were caught on camera jeering, gawking, waiting on the scene’s dénouement. As Sabally’s torso slowly disappeared under the wet, the water reached up to his neck. As his arms shot straight up, with nothing visible below the elbows, at least one person shouted, “Africa! Africa, oh!” Another demanded, “Butta il salvagente!” (Throw the life preserver!) as a boat full of tourists bobbed mere yards from Sabally who dipped and resurfaced with slowing frequency
On May 31, 2017, Fatah commander Col. Bassam al-Saad was juggling three telephones—two mobile phones and one landline—at his office in Lebanon’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Ain al-Hilweh. As the commander of the Joint Palestinian Security Force (JPSF), the defacto military police of the self-governed camp, the colonel was in the process of overseeing the deployment of his roughly 100-strong force. Entering a particularly sensitive area in the war-torn Tiri neighborhood following devastating clashes in April between the JPSF and a local Islamist group, he was also juggling the ratio of police from each political faction to ensure a smooth operation.
It was a sunny and warm day in February 2015, in the midst of an otherwise atypically rainy and cold Sicilian winter. Awate and Drissa sat next to one other on the edge of the covered balcony at the small reception center for asylum seekers where they lived. Both wore headphones but their bodies moved out of sync as they followed the different rhythms that pumped into their ears. Driving past the center with his car window down, Roberto commented as I sat next to him: “They always seem so relaxed, with their headphones and flashy shoes. They are taken care of. I wish someone would think about me, too.” Roberto is an unemployed graduate in his mid-twenties, who was born in Sicily and lives with his parents just a couple of blocks away from the center. Roughly the same age as Roberto, Awate escaped indefinite forced military service in Eritrea, and Drissa fled abuses of both armed groups and state security forces in Mali. They both reached Sicily in 2014 after surviving a sea journey along the deadly central Mediterranean route departing from Libya. Unlike many migrants who arrive in and quickly leave Sicily, Awate and Drissa decided not to embark on another uncertain journey toward a northern European destination, and instead entered the institutional maze of Sicilian reception centers for asylum seekers. Awate was forcibly fingerprinted and thus obliged to apply for asylum in Italy according to the Dublin Regulation. Drissa felt exhausted after years on the move and a particularly traumatic sea experience—the boat he was on capsized and he was rescued by the Italian navy just when he thought he had no strength left to stay afloat. His plan was to stay put and try to find what he called “peace and stability” in Italy. However, what Awate, Drissa and many other asylum seekers mainly have found so far is a widespread climate of suspicion and resentment. The comment made by Roberto, their new Sicilian neighbor, is just a small sign of such tension.
In late 2015, hundreds of Sudanese staged a sit-in outside the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Amman, Jordan. Their hope was to obtain recognition of their rights as refugees and asylum seekers, and to receive better treatment from the agency. A previous protest in 2014 had ended when Jordanian police persuaded (or compelled) the Sudanese to leave the site. This time, however, after the Sudanese had camped out for a month in the posh neighborhood of Khalda, the police arrived in force in the early hours of a mid-December morning. They dismantled the camp and transported some 800 protesters and others—men, women and children—to a holding facility close to Queen Alia International Airport.
The typical image of the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan is one of suffering. Journalistic account after account introduces spectacular stories of devastation and loss. While perhaps dramatized, these tales are not false. Syrian refugee camps have forced hundreds of thousands of strangers to live together in austere, unequal and artificially constructed communities, which are subject to new national laws. To live in the camps is indeed to endure or have endured some form of suffering—but also to be part of a collective of survivors.
Conscription into the army or other government service for years on end, fear of detention and torture for real or imagined transgressions with no legal recourse, no prospect of schooling or meaningful work, and no personal freedom: The reasons Afar refugees in eastern Ethiopia gave for fleeing their homeland often echoed those I had heard from their countrymen in interviews I conducted in 19 countries over the last two years. But most I spoke with had another grievance—disempowerment and discrimination based on their ethnicity and culture.
When I was interviewing Afghan refugee writers and intellectuals in Iran in the mid-2000s, I soon realized that there was a gulf between their occupations and their aspirations.  The young poets who were the subjects of my research in the northeastern city of Mashhad often earned a living as manual laborers, construction or factory workers, or small-time street vendors. Some had woven rugs or made handicrafts as children, or engaged in other piecework in small workshops. They came together to read their poetry and short stories to each other on Fridays, their one precious day off. Most of them—both men and women—had benefited from at least a secondary education in Iranian state schools, and most hoped to continue on to university.
Hasan bounces in his chair, pencil tapping against the table as he bends over the first page of a math exam. He hesitates, before stretching his hand frantically into the air as he waits for help from the program facilitator busy with one of the handful of other boys scattered across the classroom. Hasan is a student at one of over 90 Non-Formal Education Centers opened in Jordan by the education NGO Questscope in partnership with the Jordanian Ministry of Education, funded by a grant from UNICEF. The program, aimed at providing tenth-grade equivalency certificates for refugee and Jordanian children who have spent years without formal schooling, has witnessed a dramatic expansion since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011.
As holiday shoppers empty their wallets to buy presents for family and friends, there’s been an outbreak of miserliness among our politicians—directed at some of the world’s most helpless people.
At least 30 Republican governors, and one Democrat, are vowing to bar Syrian refugees from their states. One family was actually turned away at the Indiana state line when the local resettlement agency got a nasty phone call from the authorities.
Ahmed, a 25-year old Afar who served eight years in the Eritrean infantry, fled his country in 2006. He went first to Djibouti, and then to neighboring Ethiopia but, finding no work and fearing the risks of crossing the Mediterranean Sea, he went back to his first place of refuge. I met him in Djibouti Ville—the country’s bustling deepwater port and only city—where he now struggles to carve out a life.