This article is part of AOAV’s report, The Refugee Explosion. The whole report can be found here. Whilst the report introduction and methodology can be seen here. The key findings can be viewed here. The report overview of explosive violence and refugees can be read here, as well as on refugee destinations, here, asylum law in Europe, here, and political and economic developments, here. AOAV’s country findings for Germany, the UK, and Greece can be found here, here, and here, respectively. For AOAV’s resulting recommendations here. To read some of the interviews from refugees AOAV spoke to please see here.
The report found that 85% of all refugees AOAV spoke to had experienced explosive violence. 69% said that they or their family had been personally impacted by the explosive violence.
53% cited war as their reason for fleeing their home country – an additional 8% that had been impacted by explosive violence, cited safety as their reason for fleeing.
Whilst the level of psychological support offered varied by country, overall, 20% reported being offered such assistance.
It is clear that decade-long insecurity, brutal air campaigns, ruthless military commanders and frequent suicide attacks have been a significant cause for millions of people to leave their homes and families in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other countries.
Civilians have consistently born the majority of this violence – when explosive violence is used in populated areas, 92% of the casualties are likely to be civilians.
However, the link between explosive weapons and refugees is poorly considered across states and their implementation of international and regional law. In the light of ever-increasing refugee numbers fleeing explosive violence, the standardised international legal definition of a refugee needs to be adapted to the realities of 21st-century warfare, or greater efforts need to be made to ensure the rights of those fleeing indiscriminate violence.
The lack of clear, consistent mechanisms granting refuge to those in dire need has led to widespread and significant distress among those legitimately fleeing harm. The EU-Turkey deal allows refugees to be returned to a country in which they cannot be guaranteed adequate protection and likely in contradiction of the non-refoulement principle. It has also seen refugees in camps on the Greek islands remain for considerable time in often degrading or unsafe conditions. Deportations to Afghanistan and Iraq by some countries in Europe over the last few years, raises questions about the importance of refugees’ safety in such circumstances and seems to be a response to the prioritisation of national politics over the lives of vulnerable refugees.
Throughout AOAV’s research, Afghans were found, particularly, to face harsh circumstances in most of the countries examined. They were often left the longest in poor conditions and were also highly likely to face deportation across all the case study countries examined. More focus should be given to, and evidence provided for, the decisions as to whether such countries are, indeed, ‘safe’ to deport to.
The reverberating impacts of explosive violence are also far less understood than its immediate horror; from the psychological impacts to the political impacts on the countries that provide refuge to those fleeing such violence, more research needs to be done and more engagement on a policy levels needs to be undertaken.
The UK, Germany and Greece, together with most European countries, have seen sharp increases of anti-immigrant sentiment and hate crimes. It is the governments’ responsibility to do everything in their power to punish hate and race crime perpetrators and stigmatise such sentiment within politics and the press; all too often governments reinforce such sentiments through speech and securitisation actions.
AOAV found that despite the trauma many refugees had already faced, they were forced to endure further stress when they reached Europe. Many refugees are forced to live in poor condition and face the frustration of waiting for their responses for years that, after having witnessed the effects of brutal violence and war, exacerbates mental conditions. Refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan already suffer from collective, trans-generational trauma and are in dire need of support.
Psychological assistance plays a crucial role in rehabilitating refugees. Therapy sessions can enable refugees who suffer from insomnia, lethargy, nightmares, depression or PTSD, to start living a normal life. However, the infrastructure of public health systems in Europe are ill-prepared to cope with the exceptional psychological needs of refugees from war zones. Moreover, the level of psychological distress caused by explosive violence was not adequately recognised and very little support was offered.
There is a pressing need for further research to be conducted into the extent of psychological issues amongst the recent influx of refugees to the EU from Syria and multiple other conflict zones, and into the extent of mental health support already available for traumatised refugee populations.
The EU as whole has been overwhelmed by the levels of those seeking refuge in Europe. However, many EU states have done little to split the responsibilities evenly, leaving states such as Italy and Greece to bear much of the burden. Germany is a notable exception to this.
Whilst these states suffer, with infrastructure unable to cope and rising right-wing or anti-immigration sentiment, it is the refugees who suffer the most and whose needs are often the least considered among the deals and bureaucracy.
Germany’s decision to suspend the Dublin III regulation for Syrian nationals and open its doors demonstrated commitment to humanitarian values and the principle of burden sharing in the EU. Although the EU-Turkey deal closed these doors seven months later, more than half a million Syrians found refuge in the country since.
Other European countries have, in respect to their population size and economic resources, poorly responded to the refugee crisis. Many wealthy European nations including the United Kingdom and France have done comparatively little in comparison.
The Dublin decision publicly demonstrated that explosive violence can be a reason for displacement. The omnipresent images and reports of the war in Syria gradually made it impossible to ignore the human suffering, even though from a legal point of view, many Syrians do not fall into the category of a refugee under the Refugee Convention.
Germany also proved that, despite time limitations, infrastructure to accommodate large numbers of refugees can be efficient and adequate. While mass shelters remain a troublesome issue, the camps that AOAV visited in Germany were well-equipped, clean and allowed the occupants to live a life in dignity.
Hamburg and Bremen particularly, stood out as two federal states where organisational approaches to refugee housing, integration of refugees into the labour market and healthcare were outstanding. Many EU states would do well to look to Germany’s example as a responsible reaction to the refugee crisis.
The inadequate response by the majority of EU members, however, is far from the only problem, as it has followed-on from an equally inadequate response to its underlying drivers – including the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. There is a clear and urgent need for a more co-ordinated international approach – not just to tackle the refugee crisis, but also to confront one of its core drivers – explosive violence in populated areas.
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