The civil war in Syria, now in its fourth year, has resulted in the world’s largest human rights crisis since World War II. Over four million Syrians have been displaced across the Middle East: approximately 2 million are in Turkey, 1.2 million have fled to Lebanon and 630,000 are reported to be in Jordan. The bloodshed in Syria is so horrific that almost 250,000 Syrians have moved across the border into Iraq. Those who had property and possessions to sell are paying human smugglers to venture on dangerous boat rides through the Greek Isles to the Balkans in order to travel on to Germany or Sweden.
Unwanted, these refugees (not “migrants” as often reported in the media--they are fleeing Syria first and foremost because they are running for their lives, with jobs an afterthought to survival) have almost zero options to start life anew.
While Germany has shown leadership on accommodating these refugees, and formerly war-ravaged Serbia has shown compassion, these people are largely unwanted and scorned. The U.S. will accept 10,000. Australia is opening its doors. The Gulf States have overall said no. Uruguay’s tiny effort has been a failure. The result is a human tragedy unfolding in southeastern and central Europe, only a generation ago home to citizens who wanted to escape from communism and the Iron Curtain.
Those who dismiss this crisis with the oft heard “we don’t want those Muslims” ignore the fact that they are human beings largely from religious and ethnic minorities, or are fleeing the violence that bloodthirsty organizations such as ISIL are enacting on Shiites. And pragmatically, many of these refugees are educated, whether they had completed a trade in secondary school or graduated with a degree from Syria’s respectable university system. Emotions aside, political leaders must realize that aging European countries--and others in the West--have the opportunity to invigorate an aging labor force. Society could benefit from the professionals and skilled workers Syria offers, as Lucy Marcus has suggested in The Guardian. They are multi-lingual, hungry, ready to work and are having families--and that first generation will become even more assimilated and help build a stronger society, as has long been the case with immigration worldwide.
The founder and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, sees their potential.
During a speech he gave during the United Nations General Assembly in New York over the weekend, Zuckerberg highlighted the fact that these refugees are amongst the four billion people worldwide who lack reliable access to the internet. He promised that Facebook will help the UN bring internet connectivity to refugee camps throughout the Middle East. Admitting this goal was not pure altruism, Zuckerberg also told his audience that “we all benefit when we are more connected.”
Zuckerberg is right. Of course Facebook would score more users, though that fact is a given considering it has about 1.5 billion of them already. But better access to the internet benefits all: it gives the opportunity to an aspiring Lebanese chef to show off his culinary skills; lets a student study mathematics remotely; makes it easy for dispersed family members to check in; and allows those stuck in refugee camps to at least work on their crafts, sell their items and grasp some hope.
Zuckerberg did not offer specifics on how he would execute his plan. But it is clear that tech companies already see the potential in granting internet access to remote regions. The company is already testing a drone that it says will expand wireless internet usage in areas lacking reliable access. Google has been doing the same. The challenge is not an easy one--unreliable access to electrical power gets in the way of reliable wifi access, even if many citizens only access the internet with a phone and are fortunate enough to have a solar-powered charger. But access to a world beyond the barbed wire fences of these refugee camps would be progress for people who so far have only been punished.
Much work lies ahead to ensure these refugees are not trapped in a cycle of violence, poverty and the complete lack of dignity.
Many refugees do not even have the financial means to try to cross the Aegean Sea. Destitute, hundreds of thousands are stuck in camps in places such as Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley or Jordan’s Marjeeb Al Fahood plains, and these camps are the target for Zuckerberg's plan. Children are no longer going to school while their parents are generally unable to work. The result could be a lost generation, one that is already embittered and will long be a financial strain on nations, including Lebanon and Jordan, that already struggle with their own internal challenges. And while the focus has been on Syrians, they have been joined by Afghans, Africans and migrants from other countries seeking a life other than one marked by poverty and violence.
NGOs are struggling as much of the world is exhausted from what is seen as another crisis, and therefore are not writings checks to fund the delivery of basics such as food and water. Politicians, with the exception of Angela Merkel, are too scared to stand up to their constituents and do what is humane and right. Business may have to step into this void, so Zuckerberg’s announcement, even at this early stage, is a refreshing step forward.