Run or die: the devastating impact of explosive violence on refugees

Almost nine out of ten refugees report having witnessed some manner of explosive violence in or while fleeing their home country, according to research carried out by UK-based NGO and conflict zone monitor Action on Armed Violence (AOAV).

In a recent 5-month-long study, AOAV investigators interviewed over 250 asylum seekers and ten legal advocates, social workers and aid workers across Germany, Greece and the UK, in an effort to determine why so many choose to run and how adequate Europe’s effort to accommodate and assist them has been.

Currently there are approximately 65 million people around the world displaced by violence, persecution and conflict, a majority of which find themselves in the Middle East and Africa.

The situation in Europe:
In 2016, Europe accepted almost 590,000 asylum seekers, with Germany vehemently leading the charge by housing close to 480,000 of these in migrant camps and communities across the country.

Given its close proximity to conflict-embroiled nations such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and South Sudan, Europe finds itself at the centre of what many have called the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

This has resulted in a concurrent rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-EU sentiment across the continent, most obviously in the shape of last year’s contentious Brexit referendum and the swell in popularity of right-leaning groups like France’s Front National, until recently led by presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, and Greece’s neo-fascist Golden Dawn.

Refugees caught in Horgos on the border between Serbia and Hungary encourage authorities to let them through. Source: David Maurice Smith/ Oculi

AOAV notes that while resentment of asylum seekers may arise from the combination of many different factors, including fears about terrorism and the so-called ‘Islamization’ of western societies, high unemployment rates, and general economic instability, it is difficult to determine which holds the most sway.

At times, a distrust of asylum seekers can be attributed to simple uncertainty or ignorance about the legitimacy of their need to relocate.

“They rejected my asylum application because they believed I could move to another area in Iraq,” Ahmad, a former resident of Tikrit told AOAV researchers.

“They don’t understand that there is nowhere I could move to in Iraq where I would be safe.”

Despite having seen two of his brothers killed in Iraq, Ahmad considers the country home and hopes to return once it is safe again. It is not yet clear when that will be, although the Iraqi military has been taking ground from Islamic State militants over the past few months.

Riam, a Syrian refugee and student in Bristol, told interviewers he had been warned not to return home by his sister.

“In May 2016 my home town, Salamiyah, was bombed,” he said.

“There were also many suicide attacks across the city centre and even the coastal areas, which were considered safe. My sister sent me a message. It said ‘don’t come back’”

Some newspapers across Europe, include the UK’s The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, have been accused of exacerbating the situation by fuelling anti-migrant attitudes.

Katie Hopkins, a columnist for The Sun, was called out by UN representatives for referring to refugees as ‘cockroaches’ and advocating threatening refugees with violence.

What compels refugees to flee?
The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who has left the country of their nationality due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

In its April report, entitled The Refugee Explosion, AOAV argues that this definition’s focus on the identity, belief systems and circumstances of an individual is too limited and does not take into account the realities of a modern warfare dominated by excessive displacement and destruction resulting from explosive violence.

Drawing similar conclusions, a 2016 report by the non-profit Handicap International found that although civilians may be displaced for a litany of reasons, most regard the threat posed by explosive weaponry as the primary driving force behind their decision to migrate.

Civilians seek protection in the midst of a firefight between Iraqi forces and IS militants near the city of Mosul. Source: Laurent Van der Stockt/ Getty Images

Between 2011 and 2016, at least 233,949 people died or were injured by explosive violence, which commonly takes the form of airstrikes and shelling, suicide bombings, IED attacks, and even chemical bombardments. When weapons and tactics like these are used on populated areas, as they often are, generally over 90% of fatalities are civilians.

As such, few population centres remain safe in war ravaged countries like Syria and Iraq and risks increase further when people choose to move between cities and villages.

“When I went to visit my family in a village about 20km north of Aleppo in 2013, there were rocket attacks,” a Syrian refugee named Safi told AOAV interviewers.

“Some days would be quiet or would only see a little violence and then suddenly your area would be targeted. The problem was that you never knew when your area would be targeted but it would only be a matter of time.”

With their homes reduced to rubble and their safety not guaranteed, many internally displaced people feel there is little hope outside of leaving their birth countries altogether.

Having seen the horrors of war first hand, most carry with them severe psychological trauma and mental illnesses. A lack of adequate and stable support networks sees these conditions get worse over time.

Despite this, out of all of the asylum seekers interviewed by AOAV, only 20% received counselling and support.

AOAV has recommended major reform in this and other areas and continues to advocate for refrain in the use explosive weaponry in warfare.

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