Pricing the lives of individuals

Posted on 16. July 2015

by Maria Alette Abdli

maria-alette-abdli-modifiedShould we accept them? Welcome them? Can we afford them?

Millions of Syrians have fled war in the past few years – and everyday more people manage to cross the border, escaping violence and fear in their home country. In Norway, as in other European countries, there has been a heated debate about whether or not a helping hand in the form of asylum should be offered to these refugees. Sometimes, the debate got so heated that we forget who we are talking about: individuals. In the dusty streets of Amman, a family gave a face to the debate.

I have seen them many times, the three young sisters and their mother, sitting on a dirty piece of cardboard in the streets of Abdoun, Amman´s richest neighbourhood. Sometimes they are sleeping in the heat (30-40C in the summer), sometimes they are playing with some old toys that random people have left them – and sometimes they are just sitting there. Hour after hour.

They are always sitting there when I pass in a taxi on my way home from the internship I am doing in Amman. Like most people, I just pass them, thinking how sad it is to see these young lives being confined to a cardboard plate.

Back in my home country, Norway, these three girls, their mother and the several million other Syrians in the same situation, have been high on the agenda of the different political parties.

Seven million Syrians are internally displaced, and about four million have fled the country. Many of them have sought refuge in the neighbouring countries; Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan – where I live at the moment.

The UN has asked their member states for help placing some of them. Should we? Can we? Isn´t it too expensive?

These are the questions that Norwegian politicians have been fiercely debating these past few months. Should Norway accept more Syrian refugees than the already planned UN quotas?

Whereas some suggested 10,000 Syrian refugees as a minimum, others preferred the number to be zero. With a majority in the parliament – not including the government – in favour of accepting 10,000 refugees, tensions rose fast. Finally, the politicians reached a consensus and agreed to accept 8000 Syrian refugees over the next three years. However, both the Socialist Left Party and the Progress Party (the latter a government party) left the discussion, the former because they thought the number was too low, the latter because they considered it too high.

The question has sparked a heated debate amongst Norwegians, and while many believe this is the least a wealthy country like Norway can do, others point to the extra bills related to welcoming these refugees, as well as practical issues such as placement and integration. The main argument for those that oppose accepting more refugees, is that the money spent in Norway could have helped more people in Syria´s neighbouring countries, where the majority of the refugees are currently living.

Different calculations are made, suggesting that for the price of taking in 8000-10,000 refugees, several hundreds of thousands (some say maybe as many as one million) could have been helped in the surrounding countries, where the needs are enormous.

Whereas some suggested that this was just an excuse to argue that more immigration to Norway is a bad idea, there is no doubt that millions of Syrians have become refugees and are currently struggling to make ends meet.

Like this family that I met here in Amman. As I sat down to listen to their story, I asked myself what they would have preferred. 8000 Syrians in Norway, or helping several hundreds of thousands in need in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey?

This family fled from Syria in the early months of the war. They have already been refugees for years now. Assisting them here in Amman would certainly help them in meeting their basic needs: food, clean water and shelter. The mother would not have to sit outside in 30C and more, every day hoping for someone to pass by with chips, chocolate, or if they are really ‘lucky’ – a fully prepared meal, so that she can feed her children. With millions of refugees, many are in their situation. They have less than nothing. What would mean the most to them? If they are not among the 8000 going to Norway, they certainly would have benefitted from the aid.

On the other hand: aid is important, but then what?

What are their chances of building a life here? There are no signs the crisis in Syria is going to end any time soon, and in the meantime, life is put on hold for millions of people. A whole generation of children is not only missing out on their childhood, but also on their chances to make a future for themselves through education.

Unless aiding them in the surrounding countries means providing them with long-term opportunities for making a life in the future, they will be caught in a vicious circle. To what extent would the amounts of money that could have gone to the surrounding areas actually have resulted in the creation of long-term opportunities for these refugees? Education at all levels? Would they have been used to cover only the most basic, urgent needs? What opportunities do they have in their current host countries?

Jordan, for example, hosts more than 600.000 registered refugees (unofficial reports suggest the double). Whereas the official stance of the government is that Jordan is a safe haven for the refugees, some of the most burdened host communities are increasingly putting limits on their hospitality.

Especially in the north of Jordan, the host communities are under immense pressure. The large influx of refugees leads to increasing housing prices, more challenges to already challenged services such as waste management and education, and more competition for jobs – just to mention a few. Although the Jordanian hospitality is great, it is not boundless. And amongst the poorer population, some of those with little are getting tired of sharing with those having even less.

Many of the refugees live in dire conditions in refugee camps, whereas others try to make a life for themselves in Jordanian cities. The family sitting next to my house are among them. Having lived in the Zaatari Camp, the father wanted to work in Amman and brought his whole family. Sometimes he finds work, but most of the time, his search is in vain. Thus the mother and the three children sit there on their small cardboard plate, waiting for charity.

Listening to the mother as she described how hard it is to see her children suffer, how hard it is to get enough food – and worst of all, wait while her daughters lose their childhood, my thoughts wander back to Norway and the debate, which has come to an official conclusion. 8000 Syrians will come to Norway. Maybe this family, with the two little blond, green-eyed girls and their dark-haired big sister will come to Norway and start a new life there?

Probably not. They will be part of the statistics of those staying in host communities. In addition to the 8000 Syrian refugees that will come to Norway, my country still provides aid to the neighbouring countries, and a majority of politicians has agreed to increase the financial aid. But when I see this family in front of me, when I see the smiles of these little girls as I take a photo of them and show them the result, I regret that no matter what we do, it will not be enough. Individuals, like these three sisters, will still be left on their own.

This blog post has been published in German on Süddeutsche Zeitung in the framework of FutureLab Europe and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s cooperation.