Thomson Reuters Foundation/London
For Ahmad al-Rashid, fleeing from his home in Aleppo, northern Syria, to Iraq in 2013 was the safest choice he had.
But after two years as an aid worker there, and watching the situation deteriorate, al-Rashid decided to leave for Britain.
“Iraq itself was in a crisis, it got worse and worse. Syria and Iraq were the same – so being a refugee in Iraq was just like being in Aleppo,” he said at a media briefing organised by aid group Oxfam UK.
Around 3.8mn refugees and asylum seekers fled from one conflict zone to another last year, according to an Oxfam report published yesterday.
Using data from the United Nation’s refugee agency (UNHCR), Oxfam found that around 16% of the world’s refugee and asylum seeker population had fled to countries also in conflict, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen.
“The fact that so many people flee conflict only to end up in another country that’s troubled by insecurity shows the lack of options many refugees have,” Mark Goldring, Oxfam CEO, said.
For example, war-torn Yemen, one of poorest countries in the Middle East with some 2mn internally displaced people, hosts refugees from other conflict-ridden nations such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, and even Syria, Goldring said.
The Oxfam report comes a week before US President Barack Obama hosts the first UN summit on refugees in New York where he is expected to urge leaders to do more to help refugees in countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Kenya and Jordan.
Like many Syrian refugees, Yasser al-Jassem had no intention of fleeing when war broke out in 2011, preferring to die in Syria while opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Al-Jassem left the capital Damascus where he worked, and returned to his home village near Aleppo to volunteer as an ambulance driver, pulling people from the rubble after a bombing or air strike.
But in 2014, Islamic State militants marched into his village in northern Syria and executed his brother. Now, al-Jassem said, he was wanted by both government forces and the militants, also known as Isis.
“My parents and my wife asked me many times, ‘Please move to another country that’s safe,’” al-Jassem said.
It took months of convincing before al-Jassem finally decided to leave Syria and seek asylum in Britain.
A record 65.3mn people were uprooted worldwide last year, many of them fleeing wars only to face walls, tougher laws and xenophobia as they reach borders, according to the UNHCR.
“While there has been some effort to welcome refugees, the overall trend has been around deterrence, containment and outsourcing,” said Maya Mailer, Oxfam UK’s head of humanitarian policy.
“The right to claim asylum is being eroded. And in part, it’s because the richer countries aren’t sharing the responsibility.”
Al-Jassem said it took months to travel through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia and Calais in France, before finally arriving in the northern English city of Manchester, where he now lives with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
While grateful for his new life, al-Jassem said he dreams of returning home to be with his friends and elderly parents.
“When I think of Damascus, I feel very sad. Could I ever go back to Damascus? I don’t want to stay in Europe. I just want a safe place for (a short while) and we’ll go back to Syria. I love my country.”
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