A harsh winter for Syrian refugees

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A harsh winter for Syrian refugees


We went camping last week in Gangwon. In sharp contrast to the weather forecast, the temperature dropped largely at night, and the ground felt icy cold. I shivered throughout the night and left the tent as soon as the sun rose.

A companion, who was assembling a bonfire, looked at me as I sat down with my sleeping bag wrapped around my body: “You look like a Syrian refugee.”

I probably looked like one as I was shivering in the cold in one of the dozens of tents at the foot of the mountain. Imagining a Syrian refugee after seeing a winter camping site is what makes my fellow international relief specialists different from others.

The night before, we talked about the Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey that we visited last summer, and perhaps that fueled the imagination, too. How nice it would be if the refugees could have these winter sleeping bags?

Syria is a beautiful country, but it has been reduced to ruins since the Islamic State joined the civil war between the government and resistance forces. Over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and injured, and four million people - the largest number ever - have become refugees. But there seems to be no end. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, about 60 percent of Syria’s 18 million people - including the 7.5 million taking shelter inside the country - are refugees.

Let me first point out a few facts about refugees now that we are talking about them. There are definitions and categories for refugees under international law, but they can be divided between refugees en masse and individual refugees.

Until now, I was only interested in the masses at the relief sites, but since I have served as an adviser to the Ministry of Justice, I have paid closer attention over the past two years to individual refugees.

An individual refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

They may seek asylum in another country, and if they are granted refugee status, they will become permanent residents of that country and receive medical and education assistance and other benefits. Even if they are granted a humanitarian sojourn, they are barred from forcible repatriations, and they can find jobs in their host countries.

Although it is improving, Korea has a very low rate for granting refugee status, at only 4.2 percent. According to the Ministry of Justice, 12,000 people have applied for refugee status in Korea since 1994, but less than 1,400 were granted refugee status or a humanitarian sojourn.

Among them, 760 are Syrians, but only three were given refugee status, while over 570 were granted a humanitarian sojourn. While Western European countries are accepting Syrian refugees en masse, Korea has only accepted a few hundred people.

People who have crossed borders due to war or natural disasters are categorized as refugees. But if they are taking shelter in their own country, they are considered displaced. Of the more than four million Syrian refugees who have crossed borders, about half are in Turkey, 1.2 million are in Lebanon and the rest are in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

Lebanon is a country with only 4.5 million people, but it received 1.2 million Syrian refugees. That would be equivalent to 2.5 million foreign refugees living in Seoul, which has a population of about 10 million.

Imagine the situation. Large refugee camps would be established in central Seoul, and an enormous amount of funding would be needed to cover their living expenses. Foreign refugees would flood the streets, hospitals and schools.

The refugee issue is not just a global problem. It is an issue for the host countries and their people.

I worked in a Syrian refugee camp in southern Turkey, and only 15 percent of the refugees in the country were living in camps, while 85 percent were living outside on their own.

They probably thought they could return to Syria in a few months, but many have lived in refugee camps for five years now. And even with the international community’s support, their situation has continued to diminish. They are running out of money, and they have sold everything they can.

They are trying to leave to Europe, where jobs are potentially available, but they would have to pay brokers millions of won per person. And there is always the possibility that the ships carrying the refugees could be abandoned. Furthermore, winter is coming.

I was in an emergency relief mission in Afghanistan 15 years ago. And even though it was early spring, the winds made it extremely cold. During that winter, dozens of young children in a nearby refugee camp died from hypothermia. For malnourished children with weak immune systems, the cold often means death.

I was furious. They could have been saved if they had winter tents, blankets, clothes and simple heating equipment. There are now two million Syrian refugee children battling the winter cold. We must not forget about them.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 5, Page 29


*The author is an international relief worker.

by Han Bi-ya

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