September 15, 2015
Leading writers respond to the refugee crisis in The Guardian – read Yazbek’s contribution

Leading writers respond to the refugee crisis in The Guardian – read Yazbek’s contribution

This collection of texts was commissioned and published by The Guardian, on September 12th 2015. Photo credit: Ed Alcock, MYOP Diffusion, The Guardian,

The refugee crisis, though long in the news, has suddenly captured the world’s attention. But what are the underlying causes, and what should individuals and governments do to help? Samar Yazbek responded (below) – along with Orhan Pamuk, Arundhati Roy, Elif Shafak, Ahdaf Soueif, Pankaj Mishra,
Caroline Moorehead, Ali Smith, Mary Beard, Kate Clanchy, Mohsin Hamid, Jan-Werner Mueller, Rana Dasgupta, Ian Kershaw, Colm Tóibín, Gary Younge, Jeanette Winterson.


“We are witnessing the largest wave of migration since world war two, of which the Syrians make up the overwhelming majority. But that’s not the whole story. The real problem is that this exodus will continue without end while there is no glimmer of a resolution.

The image of the Syrian boy Aylan and the story of his death have become a global symbol of this gargantuan tragedy. There has been a dramatic change in public opinion, but it is clear that we now need to face up to the question of why the Syrian cause has been transformed from one of citizens marching the streets to demand their civil rights and dignity into one of desperate fugitives. We can no longer ignore the root cause that has led to the displacement of millions of Syrians fleeing death and the war that has raged for over four years. What of the images of humanitarian crises that have not seen the light of day, which have not gone viral and which have not stirred public outrage? As dreadful as the plight of the refugees is, Europe and indeed the whole world will share the impact of this mass migration. Meanwhile, it is those who remain inside Syria whose fate is overlooked: the millions internally displaced, those who are living under constant bombardment by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and those under siege by Isis.

There are now two photographs that represent the moral dilemma we face: the world famous image of Aylan drowned at sea and the forgotten image of the child victims of a chemical weapons attack. In one, a child lies dead on the beach; in the other, dozens of children lie choked to death by chemical bombs dropped on eastern Ghouta in August 2013.

The picture of Aylan has become a rallying cry, while that of the children suffocated by poison gas was suppressed, pushed from the public eye and erased from our memory. But these two images belong together, and the solution to the tragedy behind each of them lies in the other. The Syrian people have been reduced to fodder for a war stoked by the self-interest of international and regional players, while the country is shredded into zones under the control of either religious militias or regime forces. What responsibility lies with western governments for the fact that refugees, both poor and middle-class, are choosing death by drowning over remaining in the firing line of this war? And why did the international community sit on their hands four years ago when Bashar al-Assad’s regime began slaughtering his own people and turning his entire country into a mass grave, in response to the peaceful protests of 2011? Why has Assad’s regime been left to commit their daily massacre of the Syrian people?

I cannot think of the tragic horror that has resulted from this global failure of conscience, without going back to the root causes of this tragedy: the ghastly beast that is Isis is nothing but the consequence of the rich countries’ policies towards the poor ones. Yes, we need to find a solution to the refugee crisis, but let’s start by talking transparently and impartially about the underlying causes of this catastrophe that sees no end.

This piece was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp. Samar Yazbek’s The Crossing – My Journey into the Shattered Heart of Syria is published by Rider Books