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Shining a Spotlight on Europe’s Refugee Crisis

SPH forum calls for new approach to humanitarian aid


Nearly 3,000 refugees have died this year crossing the Mediterranean Sea. One of them, a three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan, captured the world’s attention. Aylan drowned off the Turkish coast last month, and a photograph of his lifeless body lying in the sand went viral.

But as some European countries, such as Germany, open their doors to refugees from Syria and elsewhere, the perilous journeys in makeshift rafts, on foot, and by equally unsafe conditions continue, with no plans to ease the exodus by sending planes, ships, or other transportation help, a panel of experts pointed out at an October 13 School of Public Health forum, titled The Health of Refugees: Europe in Crisis.

“Everybody knows they’re coming across in these boats, that people are drowning…or making very arduous journeys,” said Maria Sacchetti, a Boston Globe immigration reporter and one of the forum’s three panelists. “Some people got sick on the route, but everybody’s pretty much on their own,” noted Sachetti, who has reported on the crisis from Greece, Croatia, and Germany.

Amy Slaughter, chief strategy officer of the Cambridge-based nonprofit RefugePoint, and Sondra Crosby, director of the immigrant and refugee health program at Boston Medical Center, joined Sacchetti to discuss what the three called an unprecedented worldwide refugee crisis, driven largely by the war in Syria. This year alone, nearly 600,000 men, women, and children have fled to Europe, the majority from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea.

The United States has taken in just 1,500 Syrian refugees this year, but the Obama administration recently pledged to accept at least 10,000 displaced Syrians over the next year.

Slaughter and Crosby said that while the refugee crisis has only recently drawn the attention of most Americans, international aid groups have been sounding the alarm about Syria for the last five years, warning of an escalating humanitarian crisis.

Slaughter said deep cuts this summer to assistance for Syrian refugees in Middle Eastern host countries by the United Nations World Food Programme had drastically escalated the exodus to Europe. Since 2011, more than four million Syrians have fled their country’s civil war, most settling in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.

“I think whether it happened now or later, it was going to happen,” Slaughter said of the Syrian crisis. “And I think one of the reasons why is that the humanitarian system is simply bankrupt, and that we’re asking the humanitarian system to do something that it was not created to do.”

The panelists said countries that have taken in the refugees don’t have the systems and incentives to integrate and mainstream the newcomers into employment, education, and health programs—a gap they said needs to be addressed, possibly by attaching conditions to financial assistance provided to the host countries.

“Because the adults can’t work, they’re often sending their children out to beg and adopting all kinds of negative coping strategies,” Slaughter said. “I think it’s going to take a heavy hand and a large wallet to change the incentive system.”

Crosby, an associate professor at both SPH and the School of Medicine, said refugees arriving in recent weeks in Germany and other European countries already are overwhelming those countries’ health systems, including mental health services. With more than seven million Syrians internally displaced, and four million living as refugees outside the country, tens of thousands more are expected to seek asylum in Europe in the coming months.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Slaughter said. Asked what Americans can do to help, she suggested that the United States could “show more leadership” by accepting more Syrians, while also creating local programs specifically designed to assist resettled refugees.

She was concerned that anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric have been on the rise in the United States lately, undermining refugee advocacy efforts. “I think we need to shift the conversation,” Slaughter said, “from how to keep people out to how to best manage these crises…and minimize the negatives.”

Raising public awareness is key, according to Sacchetti. Because so few Syrians and Afghanis actually make it to the United States, “we don’t hear their stories,” she said. “I think there’s a real need for that, and it’s our responsibility in the media to try to tell those stories.”

While reporting in Lesbos, Greece, she said, some of the Syrian refugees she talked to were surprised that their plight was only now making news in the United States. They asked her: “But doesn’t the United States know about this?”

“They couldn’t believe that Americans weren’t well-versed in what was happening to Syria—that it took this little boy being found dead on the shore of Turkey to have this conversation.”

Sacchetti struggled to explain why the refugees’ plight was not stirring a stronger response in this country. “It’s a very good question,” the veteran journalist said. “And I didn’t exactly have a good answer for them.”

The Health of Refugees: Europe in Crisis forum was part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on Contemporary Issues in Public Health, a new SPH program.

Lisa Chedekel can be reached at chedekel@bu.edu.


3 Comments on Shining a Spotlight on Europe’s Refugee Crisis

  • Caren Wilson on 10.20.2015 at 9:19 am

    Don’t think that America is totally ignorant of what’s been happening to Syria. It’s hard to stay in the dark about the inside job. The United States made a specialty out of breeding extremists of all kinds. And this one might be their creature too,


  • Michael on 11.12.2015 at 2:52 pm

    There is 2 billion people in the world on low or no income.
    The US military/ State department are trying to control every country.
    You can feed them. Because I am not.

  • the handmaid's tale izle on 11.08.2018 at 7:34 am

    thank you.. great. i love this site.

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