WORDS | Alicia Scott
Syria has been in a relentless civil war for more than three-and-a-half years now, causing further devastation for a country with a deep history of conflict and struggles. The conflict first began in March 2011, when peaceful protests of over one-hundred thousand civilians broke out against Bashar Al-Assad’s oppressive regime. Despite the civilians’ powerful demand for basic human rights and freedoms, the Syrian Government forcefully retaliated through unscrupulous punishment of activists. The list of atrocities and human rights violations is extensive, but it seems in Australia at least, this issue is forgotten and ignored.
Since the outbreak of war, fighting and violence between government forces and rebel groups has intensified. There have been major towns flattened from bombings, surges of rebel groups taking up arms, and over one-hundred thousand lives lost during the conflict. It is estimated that just as many Syrians have died of chronic diseases due to their inability to access medicine and treatment, amid the country’s impoverished health system.
Connor Stead from Macquarie University’s Amnesty International Society, outlined Amnesty International’s recent involvement in Syria. “Amnesty has urged the Syrian Government to allow humanitarian access to rebel held areas, where civilians are suffering from starvation, limited access to water and shelter, and are exposed to devastating military activities.”
The staggering number of human rights violations is alarming. It is reported that the Syrian Government has systematically tortured and/or executed more than ten-thousand innocent civilians.
Connor stressed, “[The] value of humanitarian freedom and protection may deteriorate if the international community stands by and watches gruesome atrocities take place.”
Notwithstanding these horrific war atrocities, the sheer number of refugees has been the most crippling outcome of the war. Syria’s refugee crisis has been described by the United Nations as, “the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, stated that it was the worst catastrophe since the end of the Cold War.
Late last August, official numbers of registered Syrian refugees surpassed a record of three million people since the conflict began. However, this number does not include hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are yet to be registered. In addition to the refugees, a further 6.5 million people have been displaced within Syria due to the constant fighting between armed rebel groups and government forces. With a population of 23 million, this means nearly half of all Syrians have been forced to flee their homes in a devastating aftermath of civil war.
Across Syria’s borders, neighbouring countries have exceeded all reasonable expectations by taking in the vast majority of Syrian refugees. Lebanon has been hit with the biggest strain, hosting 1.18 million refugees.
Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and even Iraq are also bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee crisis. Initially, host nations welcomed the influx of refugees, however, it seems the sheer magnitude and duration of Syria’s civil war was grossly underestimated.
In a region already hosting millions of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, the Syrian crisis is putting enormous additional pressure on the resources and capacities of neighbouring countries. On average 3,300 refugees have arrived every day this year in host nations, creating further regional instability. These nations already lack adequate healthcare, water, and electricity, and the overall infrastructure cannot cope with an indefinite number of refugees. Consequently, tensions are high in host communities, as citizens and Syrian refugees often have to compete for limited healthcare, jobs, and placements in school.
After three-and-a-half years of conflict, Syria’s neighbouring countries and international humanitarian organisations are struggling to deal with the protracted strains of the refugee crisis. In September 2013, the UNHCR made a desperate request to the international community to help out Syria’s neighbours. However, a year has passed and the overall response has been lacklustre. Here in Australia, the government agreed to take a mere 500, a tiny 0.02 per cent, of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.
Connor stated, “Australia’s reaction to the United Nations call for refugee assistance in my opinion has been shameful…it is morally and ethically necessary to provide security and opportunities for self development to those who find themselves victims of oppression and the perils of war. As a leader on the world stage, we should be striving to play a much larger role in the relief work and condemnation of human rights abuses.”
The lack of mainstream media coverage of the Syrian Civil War in Australia is also a major concern, with the potential of hindering Australians’ awareness of the devastating humanitarian crisis.
Dr. Susie Khamis of Macquarie University has conducted research in marketing media and representations of Australian identities, with her expertise covering how mainstream media represents global issues. Susie explains, “All [media] representations are partial, edited, and
contrived snapshots of what’s happened in reality. It is highly unlikely that the 6:00pm
bulletin will feature war reportage that shows us bloody bodies, beheaded journalists, or
anything that is too confronting because it coincides with dinner-time.”
Susie addressed how the contentious notion of Islamophobia often holds certain influence over the mainstream media’s coverage of Middle-Eastern issues. “Within Australia at least, even though we have seen it in other Western nations, coverage of a lot of Middle-Eastern issues is now filtered through a prism or framework of Islamophobia, which most people attribute to a post 9/11 context… it is really unfortunate because we end up indicting a complete region unfairly.”
The Syrian Civil War continues to ravage Syria but also plays a role in a much broader context of Middle-Eastern conflicts. The stark reality of the refugee crisis, the experience of displacement, and the long-term economic and political solutions are likely to redraw the region’s political map. A more accommodating response from developed countries remains critical, as Syria’s neighbouring countries begin to make difficult, unavoidable arrangements in order to try and cope with the disaster.
While it is easy to switch channels or keep scrolling on, the reality is that the biggest humanitarian disaster of our time is right before our eyes, and there would be many people who can.