Freedom House

Syrian Refugees: A Plea for Humaneness

‘Because humaneness, one can understand, is not welcome in this land and, therefore, [it] decided to emigrate.’ Sadly, Konstantin Wecker’s lines seem to be timeless and transcend borders.

I was obligated to complete an Internship within the framework of my studies in human rights at the University of Vienna. My Internship took place at Amnesty International Austria. My adviser is in charge of Individuals at Risk and Urgent Actions. This work is embedded in the wider workspace of advocacy.

Initially I conducted all the Urgent Actions, send by the international secretary in London. These actions are mostly individual case reports, although they have to be seen representative for human rights violations in general. It was my responsibility to register them according to specific criteria. In this respect I wrote sample letters, drawing on each and every case, to the authorities, urging them to uphold international human rights standards. The so called ‘individuals at risk’ are long-term cases. All the different sections of amnesty work with these cases as well. In this way I learned about the case I will refer to in the following.

The failure of the international community to intervene in and accept accountability regarding the civil war in Syria, which has been going on since 2011, confirms this lack of humaneness. The number of victims is rising sky-high, unimaginable forms of torture are being applied, prisons and internment camps are overcrowded with people of any gender and age group and mass executions are on the agenda. One could write endlessly about these atrocities, but no words can do justice to this suffering.

Masses of people escape, seek refuge in other places, and hope for international help. It seems to me that we are failing. This failure can be explained on many levels. At this point, however, I wish to briefly present a level that, as it seems to me, is given too little attention in the media. This will be done by relating one individual fate.

Although I use this method, I need to point out that we should not be moved solely by the fates of individual people. We should be able to empathize on principle without having the need to ‘put a face on’ stories. To be able to develop this ability only with the help of personal stories seems deplorable. Recognizing and being sensitive to horror should be something that is inherent to us as human beings. Once more: So-called individual cases frequently stand for the experience of many; this should always be kept in mind when an individual case is presented.

Ali Özdemir, then a boy of 14 years, escaped with a small group from the Syrian civil war about a year ago. At the time, his nuclear family was already in Turkey and Germany. The reasons for their initial separation are unknown to me. The group wanted to cross the border into the Turkish town of Kiziltepe. When they were just a few meters from the border, a single bullet was fired. Ali was hit in the side of his head. The Turkish officers had neither fired off a warning shot nor given any verbal warning.

Ali was taken to several Syrian hospitals whose common denominator was their inability to provide him with adequate medical care. Therefore, he was brought to Turkey as a medical emergency. He spent two weeks there in intensive care. Ali survived. After his release, his family members in Turkey were finally allowed to take him in. Several months later, he received a visa to travel to his mother in Germany. As a result of his injuries, Ali became blind and lost his sense of smell; ever since this incident, he needs psychological help to process what has happened. To this day, those responsible have not been held accountable.

How can it be that people, especially fleeing people, have to find themselves in such situations? It is not possible for me to answer this question here, but it is possible to state the following explicitly and succinctly.

The border regions between Turkey and Syria are zones that particularly reflect the tensions that arise between laws that protect borders and meeting the needs of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. Turkish policies prevent refugees from crossing the border if they cannot produce a passport. This is a disastrous situation that is not without consequences. As a result of these policies, refugees without valid documents are forced to use illegal border crossings if they hope to have any chance at seeking refuge in Turkey.

Therefore, human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have called on the Turkish authorities to establish official border crossings that can be used by everybody without exception. It should be irrelevant whether valid documents or medical emergencies exist. Moreover, staff working along the borders should be given mandatory training regarding necessity and proportionality in the use of weapons, to prevent future incidents like the one that befell Ali.

Let’s assume Turkey meets these standards. What awaits the refugees on the other side?

Misery does not know borders. Who has the resources for such masses of refugees? Which country wants to host them? Who wants to assume responsibility?

In fact, refugees are frequently deported after they manage to cross the border. If they are not subjected to this procedure, they face circumstances that are anything but humane. Thus, it is difficult for Turkey to meet the basic needs of thousands of refugees.

To get back to above questions: I don’t know the answer.

But I am aware that the international community must assume responsibility. Indeed, it is just about incredible that countries such as, for instance, Austria make such a fuss about providing protection for people who deserve it. On top of it, Austria boasts about having absorbed people, yet, in numbers that are ridiculous when compared to the total amount of refugees who are still in danger.

We cannot be allowed to decide that we do not want people who need help, or that we will help only a certain number. After all, we must not divide people into those who are ‘worthy’ of living here and those who are not. If we think that way, then humaneness emigrated a long time ago; but where?

About Esther Jelinek

Esther Jelinek studies human rights at the University of Vienna. She began her MA studies in this area after completing studies in social work. Within the framework of this education Esther specialized in the field of asylum. She decided to pursue further knowledge in human rights since one is often confronted with enormous, multidimensional human rights violations in the asylum field.

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