Hassan Akkad worked as an English teacher and freelance photographer in Damascus, Syria.
Now he is a “refugee,” a label that seems to have taken over his other identities and one that he wrestles with as the people he meets question why he speaks English, why he has a cell phone, and why he knows how to use social media. They expect “refugee” to mean something else, to look like something else. And many cannot imagine Damascus and the life that he and many Syrians lived. He knows he is fortunate, because he survived a horrific journey to arrive in the UK, and he enjoys the safety of a home that was opened to him by caring people. But he longs for his home. Akkad’s story is one of millions. He is part of an unprecedented refugee crisis.
According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there were 17.2 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate by the end of 2016, and the global refugee population was at the highest level ever recorded. These refugees were spread across the globe, with the greatest number in Europe (5.2 million, 2.9 million of which were in Turkey) and sub-Saharan Africa (5.1 million), followed by Asia and the Pacific (3.5 million), the Middle East and North Africa (2.7 million), and the Americas (692,700).
Despite the devastating crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s the refugees coming to Europe that have drawn much of the world’s attention over the last year. Millions of these refugees, like Hassan Akkad, have fled civil war and genocide in Syria and Iraq. Most of these people had first sought safety in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon. In 2016, Turkey was the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide with 2.9 million refugees. Pakistan was next with 1.4 million, followed by Lebanon (1 million), the Islamic Republic of Iran (979,400), Uganda (940,800) Ethiopia (791,600).
The legal and humanitarian frameworks designating the rights of refugees were established in the wake of World War II. Many of the domestic and international policies and institutional supports for refugees cannot effectively respond to both the scale of this crisis and the speed with which it is unfolding. While it may appear to your students that this crisis happened suddenly because it became more visible in the media, it has been building over years. There has been nearly ongoing war and mass violence in Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur, and South Sudan, to name just a few places. The refugee crisis has exposed the failure to respond to the needs of millions of people as well as the failure to effectively address the root causes, the wars and mass violence that have forced them from their homes.