Lost hope from a lost land: Ethnographic reflections on the Syrian refugee crisis

Lost hope from a lost land: Ethnographic reflections on the Syrian refugee crisis

Daniel Briggs

I walk in, once again, past the young families fanning their newborns in the shade, past the long lunch queue, past the open windows permanently open in the hope that it will relieve the humidity in the overcrowded tents and huts. I am led into a doorway where inside are the grandfather’s family. Two babies, no older than one, sit naked on the dirty floor while another traverses a stained bed. The first thing the mother wants is for me to speed up her application for refugee status and, even though they know I have no influence over the process. She then explains to me that the single bed against the wall are where her and her children sleep while only centimetres away sleep a family of four in another single bed. Above them sleep the grandfather in a single bed and another family in the single bed next to him. Sandwiched next to them are a set of four single beds; two next to each other and two above them. [Field notes]

These notes, from the cramped and complicated circumstances of refugee families in a camp in Melilla, North Africa stem from my ongoing work on the Syrian refugee crisis. The project is unfunded and this has given me important flexibilities to my approach to the complexity of the conditions I find on the ground as well as the need to move quickly to get to grips with the fast-changing nature of the crisis itself. Academic timeframes and incentives for funded work don’t sit well with this situation and the need for research to broadcast more widely the horror and desperation of those involved.

The Syrian refugee crisis is happening now and my project is focused on their experiences and how, over time, they are shaped by the wider political and social process involved in their movement and settlement. To date, I have interviewed about 70 refugees from various European countries mostly but not exclusively from Syria and am now in the stage of following their lives in the places where they have fled.

The Syrian exodus seems never ending because of the political complexities and entangled layers operating via the realpolitik and more direct action of Russia as well as other active players. In this context we cannot be soft liberals and think that there is some “hope” for Syria – my experience with the victims of conflict shows that the parties involved will stop at nothing and this will perpetuate the misery of the country’s people. Breakthrough peace efforts and ceasefires collapse within days while ‘breaking stories’ in other parts of the world mean that the reality of the conflict risks becoming lost to our conscience. Even serious events such as a boat capsizing and the death of 100 refugees ‘trends’ for a few hours before it is forgotten. Yet, waiting in ports and cities such as Izmir in Turkey, are many thousands of Syrians waiting to take the significant risk to leave – not that there was much choice for some anyway:

We are approached by someone who asks us if are interested in travelling somewhere and we sound vague and answer in English which seems to create suspicion and he starts making a phone call. We walk off slowly and cross the road again to the mosque area. This is the centre of Izmir. On the corner of the street is where the refugee queue starts and it goes for a few hundred metres. “Imagine how it was during summer and during the day now there are double the number waiting for the final call” whispers Bulent as we walk slowly from the light into the dark. The mobile phone lights illuminate the faces of young, old, families, some sit, some stand, all wait. All their belongings and life are in those bags. As I continue to trip on the broken pavement, I see a young boy of two years old playing curiously with his lifejacket and when he looks at me all I can see is an image of my daughter’s face. [Field notes]

One of the most frustrating things for me is how our collective conscience is only temporary –  attention to this issue is only fleeting. As with so many other human crises that have affected millions over recent decades it is impossible to shake the feeling that if we could find ways of sustaining and remembering those involved that we might then wake from our consumer-life slumbers and engage more concertedly. At a time of increased nationalistic feeling globally and the real gains of the far right among those worried and looking for scapegoats media depictions of refugees as ‘other’ or having political associations with terrorists (especially when large numbers of terrorists are European citizens) tarnishes integration efforts. Such portrayals betray the need for comfort and humanity by those who have been hunted out of their country, often selling everything to risk their lives by travelling to a new life somewhere else. Further stigmatization and humiliation is also generated by social policies designed to dissuade refugees coming to particular countries (Denmark for example with its “jewelry law” designed to confiscate wealth from refugees to pay for their stay and Norway’s threats of sending ‘false cases’ back to Russia despite the fact that many came through Russia anyway). Lastly, it is profoundly saddening to see how economic and political interests supersede human well-being and the rights of those who had fought for democracy.

So many of the people with whom I have been working have all but lost hope of return, mainly because they tried to stick it out in Syria until their lives were put in mortal danger. They have passed a state of hope and seem to be in one of mourning; news of a dead Syrian for them is akin to that of the death of a family member. When I talk to them about Syria, there is immense pain: not only because they feel they were driven out but because of the continued plunder of the country and political stranglehold Assad has over it. Often they feel that they are in a complicated situation mainly because, while they tried to put up with bombing, fighting and the possibility of death for so long, they had to leave their past behind in Syria and unfortunately, given the shameful political conditions in Europe, face major uncertainty over their futures. Naturally, some are relieved that their new parent countries have taken them in but beyond their immediate safety there is the concern that the social tide around them is shifting, particularly given the arrests of Syrian refugees who double as terrorists and major delays in refugee cases which is leading some to make for new countries in Europe. In the main, they try hard to integrate but there is more interest and effort in educating the children and young people in new culture and languages than in parents or elders. Many of the traumas they have accumulated they have to put up with but the children can be seen suffering as they try to come to terms with what they have seen in Syria and in their border crossings. These patterns vary depending on the national location of refugees.

Despite the misery I have seen we know that many governments have adopted a moral high ground, pretending that they are doing something to help yet the reality is that every country could do much more. This problem will continue to remain if ‘real intervention’ is defined by one country pledging to help 20,000 refugees by 2020 when the UNHCR has stated that there are now 4.8 million refugees registered outside their country and a further 6.6 million inside: 20,000 arrived in one weekend in one city in Germany last year. The pledges are pathetic and the tokenistic gestures are insulting to these peoples’ existence. Seeing the human faces and hearing the voices of those who have left and lost almost everything highlights the power of social observation in rooting an ethical response to this crisis. Social science requires normative and angry voices at times when injustice is so palpable and human dignity is being effaced so clearly. Perhaps hearing these voices is the first step to seeing more concerted political action, voices like these which would otherwise disappear – just like the motivation does to live a safe life when you have to return to your war torn country:

It is December 2016 when I meet with Fadil who I met in Melilla in August 2015. He tells me one of the people I interviewed – Najid – was sent back to Spain after losing an asylum appeal. The Dublin convention obliges refugees to stay in the country where they present themselves and once processed they can’t present as a refugee elsewhere. However, given the fragile nature of the economy in Spain, most people I met left straight away for France, Belgium and Germany. However, when Najid returned to Spain, he found no work and had no support so took an arduous trip back to Syria via north Africa. Fadil shows me a picture of them together celebrating freedom in Spain before telling me just before Christmas, Najid was later killed by the Syrian army. [Field notes]


Daniel Briggs is Professor of Criminology at the Universidad Europea in Madrid, Spain.