Welcome to the February issue of the Observer.
This month we focus on the ongoing and rapidly escalating refugee crisis. This incredibly complex issue is no longer—and never really was—a Middle Eastern or a European problem. It is a global crisis that concerns everyone, especially those who work in the disaster field. After all, crises such as civil conflicts, natural disasters, and climate change overlap and don’t recognize national boundaries. The interconnected nature of these three issues is especially visible in the Fertile Crescent and Horn of Africa, the two regions that have generated the majority of refugees currently seeking asylum in Europe.
In Syria, the immediate cause of the conflict, which began in 2011 and eventually spilled into neighboring countries, was a regime change, however, religious, sociopolitical, and environmental factors also served as a trigger. For instance, a devastating 2006 drought that affected the Fertile Crescent and lasted for five years was a driver of civil unrest in Syria. Affecting 60 percent of the country, it caused widespread famine and water scarcity, gave rise to increased unemployment, and forced about 1.5 million people to move from Syrian farming regions to urban centers where, in 2011, the revolution was fought hardest. The extensive loss of livelihood created a fertile ground for civil unrest, observed Aaron Wolf, an Oregon State University water management expert who frequently visits the Middle East.
“You had a lot of angry, unemployed men helping to trigger a revolution,” Wolf told Smithsonian. As with most recent droughts, the 2006-2011 Fertile Crescent Drought was intensified by climate change, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Kelley et al 2014). Due to global warming, temperatures have risen and soil in the region—once known as the land of milk and honey—has gotten dryer, wrote Colin P. Kelley, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara and lead author of the study.
Because of this lack of moisture, the drought was hotter and therefore drier. Its impact on agriculture was disastrous, especially in Syria. By 2011, more than one million Syrians were without sufficient food. After first being internally displaced by the drought, many Syrians from rural areas have since left the country, joining millions of their countrymen who were forced to flee the brutal civil conflict that has raged for five years.
Similarly, in the Horn of Africa another drought had equally devastating consequences. This yearlong drought, which began in 2011, came on top of successive poor rains and rising inflation. It had a huge impact on crop and livestock production, food prices, and water availability. The situation was further compounded by armed conflict across the region. The future of the Horn of Africa is also bleak, according to a new study by researchers at the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. That study found that the region will continue to get dryer with rising carbon emissions (Tierney, Ummenhofer and deMenocal, 2015).
Climate-induced natural disasters haven’t only triggered the current refugee crisis; they also plague those in refugee camps and on their way to safer destinations. Last August, temperatures in Jordan and Iraq reached record-breaking highs. The heat wave brought even harsher conditions to the nearly one million Syrians and internally displaced Iraqis who live in basic tents in refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq.
In September, a heat wave hit Lesvos, a Greek Island that saw the arrival of half a million refugees in 2015 alone. Overwhelmed island authorities have consistently lacked the manpower and resources—such a water, food, and medicine—to respond adequately to the needs of such large numbers. The extreme temperatures in the summer of 2015 added insult to injury and, consequently, many refugees suffered from heat strokes, dehydration, and heat exhaustion.
Winter weather and cold temperatures have had an equally devastating effect on refugees, especially on those who live in makeshift encampments in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, but also in Northern France. Additionally, winter storms at sea have made the already perilous journey to Europe even more dangerous. Despite the dangers and hardships of this journey, deteriorating living conditions in refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries continues to push men, women, and children to make this trip. In January alone, 244 people have died at sea.
Despite such strong connections between climate, war, and other hazards, it’s unfortunate that more U.S.-based disaster researchers have not lent their voice to the discussion of the refugee crisis. Unlike Europe, U.S. disaster researchers and emergency practitioners have a chance to get ahead of the coming storm—that’s one of the reasons why we put together this issue of the Observer.
Contributors examine the challenges refugees face from a number of different angles and discuss shortcomings and successes in local and national responses to the crisis. Rather than focusing on the refugee crisis in general terms, articles shine a light on the experiences of refugees who are in crisis. By doing so, readers are encouraged to pause and realize that refugees are not just numbers, they are human beings who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They deserve a better future, just like everybody else.
Elke Weesjes Editor
Kelley, Colin P., et al 2014. “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought” PNAS vol. 112 n. 11 http://www.pnas.org/content/112/11/3241.abstract (accessed on February 11, 2015).
Tierney, Jessica E., Caroline C. Ummenhofer and Peter B. de Menocal. 2015. “Past and future rainfall in the Horn of Africa” Science Advances, Vol.1 No. 9. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/9/e1500682 (accessed on February 11, 2015).