Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Break the Official Silence about Not Doing Enough for Syrian Refugees


The power of the printed word and photos about Syrian refugees graphically remind me of "the refugee decade" in which I was centrally involved. It covered Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, South Asia, and the USSR from the mid-1970s into much of the 1980s. 

Since those times, refugee numbers have grown beyond imagining. In recent years, Washington Post pages have focused on Syria, an on-going producer of refugees. The Post's opinion articles have included impassioned calls for heightened public awareness and international response to the dire and increasing needs of Syrian refugees. More than ever, Syrian citizens and their neighbors in the region feel overwhelmed by dangers, needs, and the rising numbers. 

In a recent (April 19, 2015) opinion column, Who Cares about Syria, Valerie Amos, then U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, reported on "ordinary Syrians who are suffering...bombed out of their homes, tortured, abused and denied food, water and health care."

Ms. Amos championed the cause of Syrian citizens that were promised protection by their government only to be abandoned to an imperiled and uncertain fate. She has visited Syrian refugees numerous times in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey, countries where they have received asylum.

"During every visit," she wrote, "I was asked the same thing: Why has the world abandoned us? Why does nobody care?"

These question are directed, wrote Valerie Amos, "at our leaders, perhaps particularly at the permanent members of the Security Council," where the U.S. is a member.

One view expressed by Ms. Amos is that "narrow national interests are overriding broader global responsibilities, despite the efforts of the U.N. secretary general’s three special envoys to chart a way out of the crisis."

The Syrian government continues to speak about citizen protection while ignoring pleas to "stop targeting civilians and discontinue the use of so-called 'barrel bombs'," according to Amos's reporting. 

The UN cites the fact of the world now feeling overwhelmed by global refugee crises in numbers never experienced before. That's according to Antonio Guterres, the deeply concerned UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

More than a year before Ms. Amos's commentary in the Washington Post, "Unattended Misery: Americans Remain Strikingly Detached from the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria" (December 6, 2013) raised another alarm. Written by revered former U.S. ambassador and foreign service officer, Morton Abramowitz, the article also appeared in West Hawaii Today with the same dateline and headlined Syrian Misery Goes Unheeded

Ambassador Abramowitz wrote that "...our public and government have been complacent in the face of massive human suffering. Recall Rwanda and Cambodia*. More recently the U.S. public has watched passively for well over two years the continuing destruction of a highly developed state: Syria." (*Note: Both disasters received public demands for action.) In my view, nothing changed over the next year and up to now. 

Many nations, including the U.S., face new humanitarian challenges of seemingly impossible proportions. We have risen to such challenges in the past. We have shown that dedicated people in government, foreign service and civilian life can achieve dramatic turnarounds. In spite of the current difficulties, both Morton Abramowitz and Valerie Amos have praised the work under very trying circumstances of the humanitarian organizations in Syria and the region. 

As an avowed humanitarian nation, the U.S. government and the American public need to ask and answer: Will the U.S. lead again as in the refugee decade, rising to do far more than we thought possible on humanitarian fronts? Will we put in place bold policies and strategies as we did in the past when faced with equally, though different, global humanitarian challenges?  

The executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government need to break the silence on humanitarian action regarding Syrian refugees. Along with domestic and international partner organizations, the U.S., UN and others need to "put ordinary people at the heart of decision-making," as Ms. Amos calls for in her commentary. To do would require leadership by which humanitarian actions, such as "no fly zones," are woven into the fabric of government policies and responses at home. 

You might also like to read: 
Fred Hiatt, "The Defense of Inaction," The Washington Post, April 19, 2015

For this article, Mr. Purcell drew on the epilogue draft of his book manuscript. 

Jim Purcell lives outside Washington, DC.

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