Why so many are paying the high price for freedom

By: Andi Endruhn

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 1,015,000 refugees and migrants made the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, with almost 4,000 feared drowned. . During their travels, refugees and migrants often face harsh conditions, forced detention, and violence in transit countries. Photo courtesy of Georgios Giannopoulos.

In rubber dinghies filled with refugees wearing hastily tied down life jackets, the bright blue of the sparkling Mediterranean Sea turns from a picturesque scene to one of a desperate life and death struggle.


This treacherous journey has become synonymous with the Syrian refugee crisis. Beginning in 2015, the crisis took form with the mass migration of refugees from war-torn Syria to other nations with the goal of finding safety, escaping persecution and gaining refugee status.


How did we get here?

The Syrian war began as part of the Arab Spring movement in 2011. Originally protesting the reign of dictator president Assad — who had been in power since 2000 — the protests demanded the release of political prisoners of the regime. It quickly became bloody, and military security forces were sent out to subdue the protesters — some of whom would become those seeking asylum from the conflict that broke out from these demonstrations. 


The territories of the Syrian Arab Republic, Syrian Opposition, Rojava (created as Kurdish nationalists during the conflict), Tahir al-Sham and ISIL now exist where Syria once did. With ever shifting borders and constant conflict between factions — heightened by the intervention of international backers — civilians and protestors alike have found what was once their home, ravaged by ongoing war.

Out of the 25.9 million refugees in the world, as reported by the UNHCR, Syrian refugees continue to account for the most.

Who are they?

“The victims of this [conflict] are the people, whether they supported the revolution or not,” says Mohammed El Hazzouri. El Hazzouri researches the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Calgary along with Leah Hamilton, who has studied newcomer integration and public attitudes towards newcomers and refugees for over 10 years. Both El Hazzouri and Hamilton are faculty members at the Bissett School of Business.


Over the past several years, the sheer magnitude of Syrians seeking refuge has become substantial.

By March 2013, 1 million Syrians had become refugees looking for a new home — a number which doubled later that year. As of Oct. 2019, there were 5,643,069 registered Syrian refugees worldwide who had fled from the conflict zone to other nations, according to the UNHCR. Another 6.2 million were displaced within Syria, according to World Vision

With the Canadian election of a Liberal Government in 2015, Prime Minister Trudeau promised to rapidly resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada. He followed through on this promise, and Hamilton says this was spurred by an outcry of support after the publication of a photo of Alan Kurdi in Sept. 2015. Kurdi and his family had reportedly been trying to reach Canada when they had left their home in Syria.


However, stories like Kurdi’s do not encompass the entirety of the refugee experience. Although Syrian refugees are often viewed as a homogenous group, seen simply as Syrian’s fleeing a similar conflict, the reality is that each individual has their own story. 


“These are people from a variety of sociodemographic backgrounds who have lived in different regions of Syria,” Hamilton says. “Syrian refugees are not a homogeneous group."

Statistics from the Government of Canada and UNHCR, updated as of Dec. 1, 2019.

The reality

Canada, like many other countries, only accepts limited numbers of refugees due to current foreign policy. Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are more accessible. However, even when entering these countries, there are immediate challenges refugees are faced with.


“In countries like Lebanon, there’s been a lot of backlash and there’s prejudice against Syrian refugees because so many came so quickly to escape the conflict,” Hamilton explains. “A lot of countries don’t have humanitarian immigration programs. We know there’s millions of Syrian refugees in need of resettlement and there’s very few spots globally available for any refugees.”


Lebanon recently held a population of around 4 million — with refugees expanding the population to the current 6 million, resulting in a 37.5 per cent population increase.

To put that in context, a 37.5 per cent population increase in Canada from refugees would be the equivalent of 14 million refugees being resettled within Canada’s borders.


While many countries are participating in finding a solution for Syrian refugees, the stories of many families and individuals are less inspiring. Vast numbers of mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, and friends are experiencing dehumanization, begging the question: Why are so many still struggling?