Syria & Refugee Crisis

  • Every three seconds, someone flees their home because of violence, poverty or disaster. Millions of refugees – many of them children - are trying to survive on the move. Oxfam is working tirelessly to give vital support to those who’ve lost everything.

Dear EU Leaders: Look at me

By Amal, Moria hotspot, Lesvos, Greece


Dear EU Leaders,

Spring has arrived- warming our bodies and our hearts. However, the refugee camp of Moria on the Greek Island of Lesvos, is still cold and prison-like. I have been in Moria for seven months now since I arrived in Europe, and there is only one thing I can be certain of is that I will be stuck here for a long time. I have requested asylum in Europe, but the next hearing for my case is 18 months away.

I invite all European politicians to visit us, to witness our hardship, and to see what life is like when your fate is in the hands of others – in your hands. Your hands are not tied – more humane migration policies can help us and give people here the protection, support and dignity they need and deserve. We need to #OpenTheIslands.

The EU-Turkey deal

My story is similar to those of millions of refugees from Syria and other countries. Conflict and persecution has torn our families apart, we had to leave our belongings behind, and our beautiful cities are no longer recognizable. We fled to survive and when we reached safety in Greece we were stopped and told to wait in inhumane conditions. That waiting has become living. While asylum seekers like me are waiting for their cases to be heard, our future is slipping away.

I am – we all are – trapped on Lesvos following the EU’s deal with Turkey, which was struck two years ago, in March 2016. As a direct result of the deal, Greece forces asylum seekers to stay on the island instead of being able to request asylum on the mainland or elsewhere in Europe.

The EU-Turkey deal has one main goal: to stop people from seeking asylum in Europe. But the effects of this deal on these people have been overlooked. They overlook the fact that a handful of bathrooms cannot be shared by the thousands who are forced to live in tents. That women and children face a real risk of sexual violence, abuse and harassment when they live in these overcrowded camps.

Lesvos, where Moria is, is a beautiful Greek island, but the camp is hell.

Being a refugee is not a choice

Every day I dream of going back home. But the place I call home is in ruins. When I think of home I think of my daily routine of working in a hospital in the morning and teaching English in the afternoon; I think of picnics in the park with my family over the weekends. Or just walking around Damascus, where I was born and raised.

Being a refugee is not a choice. I am stuck in Lesvos because I left my home when it became unsafe due to years of war.

If politicians came to visit Moria, I would ask them why they believe in policies that lead to overcrowded camps and insecurity for women and children. If European leaders came to visit Moria, I would ask them if they really think Moria is a place for people like me, like them. I would tell them that they have a responsibility to go home and remember us, remember what they see in Moria. I would ask them to let me rebuild my life.

Please send a tweet to Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and European leaders asking them to #OpenTheIslands

How can we go back to a Syria that no longer exists?

Authored by Shaheen Chughtai, Head of Campaigns, Policy & Communications, Oxfam Syria Crisis Response

Seven long years after the Syria crisis began, the situation remains bleak. Individual children, women and men continue to bear the brunt of a conflict marked by enormous human suffering, relentless destruction and a blatant disregard for human rights.

The harrowing news from Eastern Ghouta – the scene of intensified fighting in Syria’s brutal conflict – has pushed the war into the headlines again. Recent fighting in other areas, including Afrin, Idlib and Deir Ez-Zor continues to claim lives and leave families in desperate need of aid. During this protracted crisis, the broken lives of Syria’s women, men and children have too often been ignored.

Left: Hani*, 16, was displaced from East Ghouta in 2013, and now lives in a tent with his family of 8 in Herjalleh, Rural Damascus. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam. Right: Wael* and Husam* return back from their daily journey to collect drinking water for their family from a nearby water fountain, Herjalleh.

While making a film about Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan for Oxfam, I was truly humbled by the courage and resilience of the people I met. However, many are only just surviving amid harsh conditions.

One mother from Homs, Jawaher, told me: “Our houses are gone, how can I go back to something which doesn’t exist anymore?” Their homes in Syrian cities and towns continue to be pummelled into rubble, or are now occupied by strangers.

After seven years of conflict, the statistics are horrifying: at least 400,000 Syrians have been killed and over 13 million are in desperate need of humanitarian aid, including nearly three million people trapped in besieged and hard to reach areas, such as Eastern Ghouta. More than half of the population – nearly 12 million people – have fled from their homes, many of them several times. More than 5.6 million refugees are living in neighbouring countries, the majority in extreme poverty.

Jawaher, the refugee in Jordan who I interviewed for the film, told me her son had returned recently to Syria. From Idlib, he sends her text messages telling her the situation “is bad, very bad”. He has no heating despite the low temperatures and no aid has reached him yet. Aid agencies say they still cannot reach many people who need help.

Some aid does get through despite the challenges. Over the last year, Oxfam has helped an estimated two million people in Syria as well as refugees and the communities in which they are sheltering in Jordan and Lebanon. This has included providing safe drinking water, sanitation and vital food aid as well as helping refugees make a living.

Being a Syrian refugee is difficult, even if you manage to escape from Syria. Everyone who lives in the Jordanian capital, Amman, knows only too well about its high cost of living. Imagine being a Syrian refugee who needs to live, to eat, and to care for their children there. Despite efforts by the Jordanian authorities, many refugees – as well as members of the overstretched communities hosting them – are still unable to find work and rely on limited aid. This means the reality for many Syrian refugees, particularly the women in the region, is a life without meaningful work. What a terrible waste of talent.

Left: Ahmed, 34, a husband and a father of three children, is one of those who fled their homes fearing for their lives. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam. Right: Layla, 35, is a mother of six little children. Her husband has been missing for about two years. Photo: Dania Kareh / Oxfam

One Syrian young refugee in Za’atari told us she is creating her own luck, developing her writing skills as a reporter for a magazine on the camp. Now 20, Abeer hopes she will return to Syria one day and she has made it her goal to give something back to her country because of the way ‘it has suffered and sacrificed’. She longs to write a story of Syrians rebuilding their country and starting over again. But how much longer will this conflict continue and at what cost? The international community has provided billions of dollars and euros in aid to the region in recent years. That welcome aid has helped to keep millions of Syrian refugees alive and alleviated their suffering – but it has not kept pace with the sheer scale of human need.

The continued violence, bloodshed and suffering in Syria represents a catastrophic failure by the international community. Attempts to reduce civilian loss of life and provide humanitarian aid to people trapped by the fighting have been repeatedly undermined by military operations.

Time is long overdue for world leaders to do more to protect and assist civilians and prioritise a political solution to the conflict. The people of Syria deserve no less.


*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Bombing in Syria

The indiscriminate bombing of the besieged Syrian enclave of eastern Ghouta and neighbouring Damascus in recent days has shocked the world.

Dozens of children have been killed and homes destroyed in relentless airstrikes, and there is no end in sight to the conflict.

(Left) Children play games at an Oxfam hygiene promotion campaign at Dahyet Qudsaya shelter. Photo: Oxfam (Right) A group of children wash their hands as part of an Oxfam hygiene promotion campaign at Dahyet Qudsaya shelter in rural Damascus. Photo: Oxfam

Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, Oxfam has been working hard to help parents and children who have managed to flee the violence.

One of those children was 11-year-old Kareem. His family fled their home in eastern Ghouta, before the recent outbreak of violence, and went to rural Damascus in search of safety. Now they live in a shelter with more than 1,000 people who have also been displaced.

Kareem misses being a little boy and the friends he had before the conflict – which is now in its seventh year – turned his life upside down.

“I used to go to school every day and meet my beloved friends,” he said. “I miss playing with my friends on the way back from school, I miss my home, my belongings and I miss watching cartoons after finishing my homework."

Oxfam has been working in Kareem’s shelter, helping to prevent disease by promoting good hygiene practices. We also distributed hygiene kits to all of the children living there.

We are on the ground in Syria providing clean, safe drinking water and hygiene kits to children like Kareem, while we continue to provide water and sanitation to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

But the scale of this emergency is huge and we still urgently need your help.

Thank you.

We must act to protect thousands from the freezing winter on the Greek Islands

As December arrives, more than 15,000 refugees – both young and old – are facing into a cold and uncertain winter on the Greek islands. Inadequate shelter, water, sanitation and medical access has led to a humanitarian crisis within the EU’s borders. This will only worsen over the coming months unless 7,500 people are transferred from the islands to the Greek mainland immediately.

Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and the EU could end this suffering, and ensure vulnerable women, children and men are warm and safe over the winter period.

Tell the Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and your government to protect those fleeing from war torn conditions in search of safety and #OpenTheIslands

The reason these refugees are not being allowed onto the mainland is as a direct result of the EU-Turkey deal. Under the deal, the Turkish government are taking refugees to Turkey, but only those people who land on the islands. Therefore refugees are being kept on the islands at all costs. While the Greek people have shown enormous solidarity and welcome to those fleeing persecution, the Greek Government now needs to play a stronger role.

EU member states should immediately and publicly call on the Greek government to transfer at least 7,500 people from the islands to the mainland. No one should be kept on the islands without accommodation or access to services, especially when there is space for them elsewhere.

Since the EU-Turkey deal came into effect, the Greek islands have been transformed into places of indefinite confinement. Thousands of refugees have been trapped in abysmal conditions, some for almost two years.

Asylum seekers live in abysmal conditions in Moria Reception and Identification Center (RIC) on the Greek island of Lesvos. Photo Credit: Giorgos Moutafis/Oxfam 

A number of hotspots have emerged – the worst being Moria refugee camp on Lesvos, which is home to more than 6,500 people, of whom 1,000 or more are children. Conditions are unhygienic and dangerous and the mental health of these people  is deteriorating.  

Poor lighting in the camp means that women are scared to go to the bathroom at night, and there aren’t enough police to protect them. A lack of sanitation also poses major health risks to thousands of people, with toilets overflowing with faeces and urine. 

With the arrival of rain and plummeting temperatures, thousands of refugees, including children, are still living in tents. Some could freeze to death this year if they are not immediately moved to proper accommodation.

This is not an unavoidable crisis. These refugees are being kept in inhumane conditions when there are alternatives. The Greek government must transfer these people to the mainland and allow them to live with dignity.

Please also join us in asking Greek President Tsipras to lift the containment policy and move 7,500 people off the islands before the official start of winter on the 21st of December. 


Digging in the dust

The soft soil falls away easily as the sharp metal hits the ground. Again and again Falah Abiya raises the axe above his head and brings it down on the compacted earth. Two of his colleagues stand waiting beside him, stepping in with shovels to remove the soil he has loosened.

The blue skies, dotted with clouds and the mid morning autumn sun do not match the tough work that Falah and his team have to do in Mosul today. They are digging graves in a large cemetery in the west of the city. “We have twenty-two to dig today”, Falah comments in between swinging his pick Axe.

Falah’s team work for the department of Forensic Pathology, which is being supported by Mosul General Hospital. Although they usually spend their days digging graves for people who have just died, today their work is of a different kind. They are working on a special programme to help the state identify bodies that have already been buried.

“The work we are doing here is very sensitive but very necessary”, says Dr Aziz, who works at Mosul General Hospital. “It’s important we know who has died and why. We must make sure the people buried in those graves are the people we have been told they are. Once we have recovered a body we run DNA tests to check.”

Today Hamid Hassan Jassim stands watching Falah’s team at work; the grave belongs to his brother Mahmud. “He died in a suicide bombing at a checkpoint. His head was missing when we buried him,” he says. Suddenly Falah’s axe hits something hard and he uses his hands to expose a wooden plank which he then pulls from the hole. Three of the team carefully lower themselves into the hole and slowly pull out a black plastic body bag.

Everyone is quiet as the team unzip the plastic bag and reveal what is left of Mahmud’s body, wrapped in a red blanket. The forensic examiner pulls on rubber gloves and carefully opens the blanket before inspecting its contents. He immediately confirms the head is missing and through his examination he also suggests that the man did in fact die in an explosion. He takes samples and zips the bag back up.

“Oxfam has supported the hospital in a lot of ways since Mosul was retaken.” Says Dr Aziz. The axes Falah and the team are using were donated to Oxfam and then the hospital by Irish Aid. As were other essential items such as mosquito nets which are being used to keep the flies off of burns patients and those with extensive wounds. “We hope we will continue to receive support from Oxfam so that we can keep doing this essential work and taking care of people who need urgent medical care.”

Mosul General Hospital sees an estimated 800 patients a day. As well as providing the pick axes, Oxfam has supported the hospital with essential items such as water tanks, bottled water, emergency food rations, blankets and mosquito nets.

Hamid stands and watches Falah and his colleague Sadam Hamadi carefully lower his brother Mahmud’s newly wrapped body back into the ground, re-covering it with the soft soil. They then throw their shovels and pick axes over their shoulders and make a move to the next grave. They have twenty one more to dig today.