The exodus from Syria has reached 'almost biblical proportions'

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and this is The World. We saw some figures in the news today, and frankly, we were shocked by them. More than 11 million Syrians are now either war refugees or internally displaced. That’s about half of the entire population of Syria. The numbers were announced by the United Nations today. It said the number of refugees alone, those who have fled from Syria to other countries, is now over 4 million.


David Miliband: That is an implosion of absolutely fundamental, almost biblical, proportions.


Hills: That’s David Miliband. He’s the president of the International Rescue Committee and a former British foreign secretary. He says the world community must be shaken out of its inertia on Syria.


Miliband: What the people are saying to us, to all of our staff there, is “Has the world forgotten us?” That’s why I think that this announcement today is also a rallying call, it’s a call to say, “This has now become not just the world’s bloodiest current conflict but also the one that has got the most human suffering,” and the contrast with the inertia of the diplomatic moves is very, very striking indeed.


Hills: What are wealthier nations, like the United States and Britain, taking on? Are they taking on much of the burden?


Miliband: The truth is that the United States, which has historically been one of the most generous countries for taking in refugees, has taken in less than 1,000 Syrians over the last four years despite the fact that there are thriving Syrian American communities around the United States, especially in the West. In the UK, the number are even smaller; European numbers overall are very small, indeed. And I think people immediately say, “Well, hang on, how much difference could it make to have 1,000, or 10,000, or even 50,000 refugees resettled in the midst of a conflict that’s costing millions?” and the answer is two-fold. It makes a difference for those individuals, often orphaned kids or women who’ve lost their husbands, but there’s also a wider point here: at the moment, the neighboring states are turning their back on them. So, the symbolic importance of countries like the US and the UK taking some refugees in is not just a humanitarian gesture, it’s also symbolically important.


Hills: What is behind the inertia you mentioned of the internationally community on the diplomatic front but also on the willingness to take in refugees?


Miliband: I think two things have really plagued the Syria conflict from the beginning. One is its complexity. There’s--for obvious reasons, in the West in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan--a fear in the West about getting its fingers caught in the mangle of another Middle East conflict. The trouble is though the situation has gotten worse year by year and the options have gotten worse year by year. So, complexity is the first reason. The second reason, which partly applies in the US and significantly applies in Europe at the moment, is that politicians and leaders are very stretched dealing with their internal problems. Western countries do have a proud history of humanitarian help and that needs to be maintained, because as they’re learning in Europe at the moment, if you don’t tend to problems upstream, if you don’t offer humanitarian help in or around the countries that are convulsed by war, then those problems end up on your own shores, often in tragic circumstances.


Hills: Quite literally.


Miliband: Literally, yeah.


Hills: David Miliband, you’re a mover and shaker, you were a British foreign secretary, you’ve been in the quarters of power. What will it take to get movement on this particular issue?


Miliband: I can honestly say to you that I thought two years ago in the wake of the chemical weapons embroglio, in the wake of the use of chemical weapons and then the commitment from the Syrian government to dispose of these chemical weapons, I thought that would be the wake-up call, that countries wouldn’t turn away. But, in fact, I’ve been proved completely wrong. If anything, the fact that the chemical weapons were disposed of peacefully has allowed the world to turn its attention away from the scale of the political and humanitarian crisis there. So your question, “What will it take?” defies an obvious answer, because the usual answer in a crisis like this is when things get really bad, the world pays attention. But how much worse can it get not just in humanitarian terms, but obviously one-third of Syria is now governed by the Islamic State so-called, ISIS. You’d think that would be the kind of clear and present danger that would unite Russia, America, Iran, Saudi Arabia. I think the call of people like me is partly a humanitarian one, to say that there are millions of innocent civilians who need help. But it’s also to say that the scale of this humanitarian crisis is fueling radicalism and danger, and that calls for the kind of diplomatic effort for which there is no substitute.


Hills: David Miliband is the president of the International Rescue Committee. He’s also a former British foreign secretary. Thanks for speaking with us.


Miliband: Thank you very much, indeed.


Ala'a Basatneh: The situation in Syria is beyond anyone’s imagination. It breaks my heart knowing that a lot of people are leaving, but you have to do what you have to do to stay alive.


Hills: That’s 23-year-old Syrian American Ala'a Basatneh. She’s a college student and online activist in Chicago, and she told me about a close friend she calls “Moe.” That’s not his real name. Basatneh says Moe was determined to stay in Damascus instead of becoming a refugee. Then a few weeks ago, his life took a dramatic change.


Basatneh: He was an engineer studying at the University of Damascus. Since day one of the Syrian revolution, he stated organizing protests, did not get involved with weapons. He was the kind of person where he would go out on the street and hand flowers to protests so they can protest with flowers in their hands. Completely believed in the Gandhi method of toppling a regime and bringing change into Syria.


Hills: Nonviolence.


Basatneh: He truly believed in nonviolence. He would go to his classes and afterwards come out and organize protests for minority students. I would call him and tell him several times to leave the country when his name was known that he’s one of the activists, and he refused to leave. He wanted to keep going in the revolution and he wanted to graduate. Unfortunately, I got the news from one of his close friends that he was detained by the Syrian regime due to his activism. I knew that this was coming because he refused to leave the country.


Hills: What about his family? What’s going on with them?


Basatneh: The Syrian officials and the Syrian regime have asked for ransom money to let him go. They asked for multi million Syrian pounds.


Hills: How much would that be in US dollars?


Basatneh: Around $50,000.


Hills: Has his family heard any more contact from the people who are holding him?


Basatneh: The family has not been hearing anything yet. I did contact the family and said we can start a social media campaign, reach out to news agencies, reach out to Amnesty International, get his name out, and that would probably put pressure on the Syrian regime. But they refused. They are in fear that the entire family might get detained. The regime has been battling the Syrian revolution for five years now. They are losing resources, they are losing money. They hardly have anything. So now, they are up to the point where they are detaining activists and asking for money.


Hills: Now, I know a number of your friends and relatives have fled Syria to neighboring countries. What are you hearing about their lives once they’ve fled Syria?


Basatneh: I have a lot of people on my contact list that are fleeing, they are leaving everything behind, they are leaving their schools, their families, their homes without even selling their property. They’re just leaving. They’re going into Turkey, into Jordan, into Lebanon, and once they get to those countries they don’t know what to do. They don’t know if they’re going to end up in a tent, they don’t know if they’re going to have a meal that day or the next day. And the biggest question is they don’t know if they’re coming back to Syria.


Hills: I want to get back to Moe for a final question: Are Moe’s relatives going to stay in Syria until he’s released? Or are they under pressure to leave too?


Basatneh: This is my guess, and it’s based on previous cases that I’ve seen with activists: unfortunately, they are going to wait, and once they hear the news of his death, they will be forced out of the country because the Syrian regime will be after them as well.


Hills: How do you know that he’s died?


Basatneh: An activist will not end up leaving those prisons alive. It’s been happening for the past four years.


Hills: Have you been in touch with his family?


Basatneh: Yes, I’ve been talking to his mom and his brother on a daily basis.


Hills: Do they have any hope of raising the money or of dealing with the government in any way in order to get their son back?


Basatneh: The mom does, being a mom. The brother is working on getting the family to agree on a media campaign.


Hills: Ala'a Basatneh is a college student. She’s a 23-year-old Syrian American activist. Ala’a, thank you so much for speaking to us today.


Basatneh: Thank you for having me.