Most of the refugees and economic migrants who burst on the scene in late August are from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — victims of wars ongoing for four years in Syria, 12 in Iraq and even longer in Afghanistan.
Gains made by the barbaric Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have displaced millions more over the last 18 months.
No immediate, new twist in the Middle-East crisis precipitated the surge of humanity risking all to leave Turkey for Greece, in order to get, ideally, to Germany, which has promised to welcome them.
In fact, Turkey has proved to be remarkably accommodating toward some 2 million refugees on its soil, providing shelter and food, allowing internal movement, but restricting opportunities for permanent settlement.
So the Register asked experts and Christians with direct ties to the Middle East: Why has this humanitarian crisis emerged now, and what needs to happen to stop it?
Egypt-based Kevin Hartigan, Catholic Relief Services’ director for the Middle East and Europe, has worked for CRS for 25 years in particularly tense, difficult places, from Central African Republic to Pakistan.
Nothing tops the disaster currently unfolding in the Middle East, he says.
“The collapse of these societies, the destruction of these countries, of Syria and now Iraq, is probably the greatest tragedy I have witnessed,” observed Hartigan.
“What has happened in Syria is one of the catastrophes of our time,” he added.
Through local partners, CRS is active in every country touched by the crisis and has already served more than 700,000 Syrian refugees.
Hartigan described factors contributing to the current migration phenomenon.
“The Turkish government has been quite open in allowing refugees to move around the country. There is no major change in living conditions for the refugees, who have aspired to go to Europe for a long time.”
“What has changed is that a great number have decided now is the time to take their chance,” he said.
Turkish officials who used to prevent refugees from attempting the sea voyage to nearby Greek islands are looking away; Greek officials who once arrested undocumented people are facilitating onward travel.
As a result, there is a strong economic dimension promoting migration: Prices demanded by smugglers have dropped.
“Two years ago, if you were going to take this trip, it would cost you $30,000. It was more of a monopoly controlled by high-paid smugglers.”
Hartigan continued, “Now, refugees are using smugglers to get across the relatively short distance to the Greek islands, but are generally not using smugglers for the land route. And the price has dropped because the risk has dropped.”
“Once in Greece, people are essentially able to manage their migration themselves, using GPS and Facebook groups and a leader in contact with people ahead, free of smugglers,” he said.
But smugglers continue to make huge illegal paydays off of desperate people.
Father Muntaser Haddad of St. Thomas Syriac Catholic Church in Farmington Hills, Mich., told the Register his sister recently transited successfully from the Turkish coast to Bonn, Germany — for $15,000.
“Many families are waiting in Turkey, for nothing. My sister realized she had to go, because the U.N. office is doing nothing [to resettle refugees]. She paid a lot of money to take a dangerous boat to Greece; then they flew by plane to Bonn,” the priest recounted.
Father Haddad — who is from Qaraqosh, Iraq, a center of Christianity predating Islam that was overrun by the Islamic State (IS) last summer — expressed frustration that the U.S. government has not approved more refugee applications.
“We have made many applications [to sponsor refugees], but the U.S. government never responds. I don’t know why. These are Christians. We can support them. Instead, we can’t do anything besides collecting things to send,” he said.
“The U.S. has closed all the doors, all the doors, to our people,” the priest concluded sadly.
Asked about the percentage of Christians among the refugees flocking to Western Europe now, Kevin Hartigan said it’s not clear.
CRS and its partners do not ask people their religious affiliations, so they don’t have a firm estimate.
“We assume there are Christians among the refugees transiting Europe, but many of the Syrian Christians are displaced internally in Syria, uprooted from their homes, but still in the country,” he said.
Assyrian-American Helma Adde, a fourth-grade teacher on Long Island, whose father serves as pastor of two Syriac-Orthodox parishes in New York, decided to spend her summer this year visiting the ancient Christian communities of her ancestors.
She described to the Register the untenable circumstances for Christians in both Iraq and Syria, where they are under siege, threatened by civil war and the Islamic State — in fact, facing extinction.
She visited three refugee centers in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq. Most of the remaining Christians are members of the Chaldean Church, displaced when Mosel fell to the Islamic State.
The 37-year-old teacher estimates that while half of the Christians she met want to leave, to reunite with family abroad, the other half want to stay: “A lot of the displaced Christians say, ‘We want to get home. We need outside countries to secure our safety.’”
She also shared criticism of the U.S. “People say the demise of Iraq began with the U.S. invasion, that the U.S. does not care about the countries it invades.”
From Iraq, Adde and an American filmmaker, Jordan Allott, drove into Syria, protected by the Syriac Military Council, a Christian militia. The team was within a few miles of IS forces.
Ten years ago, there were around 110,000 Assyrian and Syriac Christians in southeastern Syria, bordering Iraq and Turkey. Now there are about 40,000 left, living “in a complete state of chaos,” according to Adde.
Nationwide, the Christian population has dropped from about 2 million to 1.5 million people.
“The ones who have stayed either did not have the [financial] means to leave or they want to fight for their land,” she said.
As IS takes over, people flee from one Christian town or village to another, where they sleep in churches or abandoned houses: “The Christians depend on one another,” but they are running out of resources and barely have electricity or running water.
Helma Adde saw the presence of Catholic Caritas in Syria, where they set up stations in neighborhoods. People line up to get care packages of essentials like rice. In Iraq, she saw Caritas providing safe transport, supplies and education for children.
But she also witnessed Christian villages ravaged by IS. Earlier this year, 33 villages along the Khabour River were destroyed. People fled with nothing but their clothes. IS took nearly 250 people hostage and wants a $20-million ransom for their return. Church leaders are negotiating, but they have not been able to raise the funds.
Adde’s journey is the basis of a film in progress, Our Last Stand: How Assyrian Christians Are Surviving and Bravely Defending Their Land, Families and Faith in Syria and Iraq, by In Altum Productions.
Syrian-born monk Father Andrew, age 38, from St. Aphraim Syriac Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Va., told the Register that for his Christian family members and friends living in and around Damascus, life is “functional but unsafe; not safe at all.”
He worries that his people have run out of options, because “our religion is based on peace, so we cannot survive” in a place riven by war and hatred.
“It is not a matter of simply bringing people from Syria to the U.S.; it is a matter or death or life,” he said.
Father Andrew said his appeal to the U.S. government is: “Help at least the Christians. We are victims.”
At a Knights of Columbus press conference in August, Catholic archbishops from Syria and Iraq said they believe the U.S. government is discriminating against Christians in the award of visas: Since October 2014, 934 visas have been granted to refugees from Syria — 28 to Christians and 906 to Muslims, according to Catholic News Agency.
Kevin Appleby, director of the Migration and Refugee Services Office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made two important points about the refugee crisis to the Register.
First, the refugees are not a “special risk” for our nation, so they should be allowed to resettle here.
“There is concern that Syrians are coming from a war zone, so there would be security issues with this population, but that’s a red herring. All refugees go through background checks. They go through more screening than almost any other group,” explained Appleby.
Second, he thinks the crisis is only beginning — unless we step up diplomatic political negotiations.
“These refugees are victims of terrorist groups and governments in the Middle East. They aren’t the perpetrators, so unless we do more to end the conflict in Syria, they will continue to come, because their lives are at stake,” he said.
Economist Firet Demir of the University of Oklahoma affirms that the migration crisis has only just begun.
“These people did not want to be refugees. No other country has faced as much disaster as Syria, with internal and external displacement,” said Demir, who has Turkish and Kurdish ancestry.
“We will see more of this,” Demir added. “Winter is coming; the numbers will just increase.”
Demir emphasizes that international political actors have done little to find a diplomatic settlement. In his view, the U.S. and Europe have ignored the crisis.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Qatar finance militants trying to oust the Syrian government, which is supported by Russia and Iran. Turkey initially supported President Bashar al-Assad, than shifted to the jihadists trying to overthrow the president.
“I am optimistic about the impact of the immigration crisis on Europe, because European leaders will probably exert more pressure to stop the civil war in Syria as a result, “ he said, adding, “And it can be stopped by restricting the flow of fighters and weapons through Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the main supporters, and Turkey is the main facilitator.”
In a viral video, a 13-year-old Syrian boy told Al Jazeera in Hungary, “The Syrians need help now; just stop the war. We don’t want to stay in Europe; just stop the war.”
CRS’ Kevin Hartigan agrees: “The level of desperation in Syria — as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan — is very high. War’s been going on for a long time. The people who make up the bulk of the flow into Europe are people who have exhausted their options. They really wanted to stay in their countries, or at least near them.”
“The crisis is a function of how miserable things are,” he observed.
Hartigan concluded, “We feel that the U.S. has to work aggressively for a diplomatic solution to war, because if the war continues in Syria, there will be no way to limit this human desperation.”