Families in Flight

Syrian Kurdish people arrive at the border between Syria and Turkey after several mortars hit both sides in the southeastern town of Suruc, in Turkey. Photo by Bulent Kilig/AFP/Getty ImagesSyrian Kurdish people arrive at the border between Syria and Turkey after several mortars hit both sides in the southeastern town of Suruc, in Turkey. Photo by Bulent Kilig/AFP/Getty Images
By Deborah Blagg

In the face of an escalating international refugee crisis, experts from disparate fields agreed that countries must work together for multilateral solutions.


Radcliffe Institute Dean Lizabeth Cohen shared a striking statistic at the opening of “Families in Flight,” an October panel discussion focused on the escalating international refugee crisis: “At the end of 2014, the United Nations estimated that one out of every 122 people on earth was displaced and seeking refuge or asylum.”

Describing the massive scale of a disaster fed by ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, intensified by a civil war in Syria that has displaced an estimated 13 million people, Cohen set the stage for a compelling call to action. Of the more than 65 million people forcibly displaced within their own countries or across international borders, 80 percent are women and children. The academics and activists who gathered at Radcliffe voiced the urgent need for countries to work together to forge multilateral solutions to a growing list of humanitarian, political, and logistical challenges.

First Responders

Panelist Noel Calhoun, a senior policy officer at the United Nations, criticized Western actions aimed increasingly at restricting border crossers and creating new barriers to refugee status. “The responsibility for hosting refugees is not shared fairly,” she said. “When we read newspapers, we get the sense that lots of refugees are coming into the United States or Europe. But that impression is skewed.”

Calhoun, who was deeply involved in the UN summit of September 2016 on refugees and migrants, said, “The vast majority of refugees are in developing countries. In fact, eight ‘first responder’ countries in Africa and Asia host half of the world’s refugees.”

Offering historical context, Susan Akram, a law professor at Boston University and the director of its International Human Rights Clinic, noted that the United States, European countries, and Turkey are all bound by the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, key documents that govern international refugee protection. Turkey has already taken in two million Syrians and, Akram noted, “Nations such as Jordan and Lebanon that have accepted millions of Syrians and hosted most of the world’s Palestinian refugees have opened their doors even without legal obligation to do so.”

But as new policies stemming refugees’ passage to Europe and the Americas take hold, asylum seekers in countries on the front lines of the crisis are further threatened. Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have recently closed their borders, multiplying the dangers refugees face as they try to leave the region. Since 2014, Akram reported, 7,500 people have died attempting the sea crossing to Europe.

Desperate Journeys

The Syrian physician Abdulkarim Ekzayez challenged the Radcliffe gathering to imagine the desperation behind such journeys, observing, “The conditions they are escaping from are worse than drowning in the sea.” Now based in Turkey, Ekzayez travels frequently to Syria to administer a vaccination program in his role as health program manager for Save the Children, Syria Response. He described Aleppo as a city under siege and shared a shocking video of an attack on a hospital emergency room where health workers were treating injured civilians.

During a two-month period last summer, Ekzayez said, 30 Syrian hospitals were partly or completely destroyed by forces backing President Bashar al-Assad. “The regime doesn’t allow injured people to get medical help,” he stated. “There is no food, water, fuel, or medical supplies. Safety is not provided for UN or other relief workers.”

Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a Syrian physician; Noel Calhoun, a United Nations policy officer; and Jaqueline Bhabha, who moderated. Photo by Tony RinaldoAbdulkarim Ekzayez, a Syrian physician; Noel Calhoun, a United Nations policy officer; and Jaqueline Bhabha, who moderated. Photo by Tony RinaldoReclaiming Identities

Traumatized by spiraling violence and the death of loved ones, Syrian women and children are fleeing their country under chaotic circumstances, often alone and without documentation. Some end up in Lebanon, where Rania Matar, an award-winning photographer and instructor at the Massachusetts College of Art, has been documenting their presence on the streets of Beirut in an effort to help them reclaim their identities.

“These kids are very vulnerable,” said Matar, noting that many Syrian children who find their way to long-established Palestinian refugee camps are trucked into the city each morning to spend the day begging for money, selling roses, or shining shoes. “All their stories blend into one big story,” she said. “Mothers missing or begging on another street corner, fathers dead or fighting in Syria—they don’t even know for which side.”

Matar’s photographs also chronicle life inside the overcrowded Lebanese camps, where third and fourth generations of Palestinian refugees are being born. “I focus on the universality of mothers nursing babies, girls growing up to become young women,” Matar explained. “They deserve respect, focus, and attention. These refugees are girls before they are anything else.”

Next Steps

Toward the end of the afternoon, Jacqueline Bhabha, the moderator and a professor of the practice of health and human rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, returned to the question of compliance with existing international agreements and prospects for the development of more effective approaches to refugee migration and resettlement. “What does reality tell us when we have countries such as Hungary and the Czech Republic, which have ratified refugee conventions as a condition of joining the European Union, but who have also said they don’t want refugees or Muslims?” Bhabha asked.

The UN’s Calhoun responded, “The concept of international cooperation to share the burden of hosting refugees is in the 1951 convention, but systems for doing that are not there. We have better international systems governing the movement of goods and services than we do the movement of people.” Referencing the status of Palestinian refugees—an open question for 67 years—Akram said, “Political dialogue needs to include legal dialogue. The question of enforcement particularly plagues refugee law. The refugee convention permits states to take violations to the International Court of Justice, but there has never been such a case.”

Calhoun reported the somewhat encouraging results of a painstakingly negotiated UN document signed last fall by General Assembly member states. Key elements included a reaffirmation of the 1951 convention, recognition of the human rights of refugees and migrants, more focus on long-term support for countries that host refugees, and the launch of a process to establish a fairer system for sharing responsibility for refugees.

“But a political document adopted in New York isn’t legally binding,” Calhoun cautioned. “What it takes to make states accountable is action on many different levels—and the most important action is that of citizens who press for states to live up to the commitments they have made.”

“Families in Flight” was Radcliffe’s 2016 Rama S. Mehta program, an annual event aimed at fostering understanding of the problems of women in developing countries. This year, the event was held during Harvard-Radcliffe fall reunions.


Deborah Blagg is a freelance writer.

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2017