It’s one thing to read about the vast flow of humanity heading out of the Middle East and into Europe. Quite another to see it firsthand, Bill O’Keefe says. O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Services’ vice president for government relations and advocacy, returned home to the United States recently after touring C.R.S. and Caritas Internationalis efforts to respond to the continuing refugee crisis in Europe in Greece, Serbia and Macedonia. O’Keefe was astonished by the sight of thousands of people stepping out of rail cars at Europe’s southern borders, walking a half mile toward Serbia and the beginning of a long journey north to what many hope will be a refuge in Germany and other northern European states. It’s an “overwhelming” spectacle, he says. “You realize just what a difficult journey this is that people have to face.”
Though some migration experts had hoped the onset of winter might have stemmed the tide of people in flight somewhat, the flow of refugees out of Syria and other zones of suffering in the Middle East shows no signs of letting up, O’Keefe says. Unknowable numbers continue to perish each week in overturned or sunken watercraft in cold Mediterranean waters, and thousands are still transiting out of Turkey each day to begin the perilous journey.
Back in Syria, O’Keefe says, the suffering has only grown worse as a new Russian air offensive joins a Syrian army advance on rebel positions around the war-ruined Aleppo, once prosperous and Syria’s most populous city. Turkish officials worry that a final offensive on Aleppo might drive an additional 300,000 into flight.
“The Caritas network and our church partners [in southern Europe] are doing a really incredible job meeting the basic human needs of the 4,000 to 5,000 people a day who are flowing north to try to get to Germany or Sweden,” O’Keefe says.
He acknowledges that in Greece, a nation struggling with its own profound economic problems, tensions are rising about the continuing waves of refugees. Greeks complain that other European states are not doing their share to help, though everyday Greeks continue to assist refugees literally struggling onto their shores. In other border states “local communities have really responded to the needs of the people who are passing through.”
The situation and the suffering of the refugees remains gravely serious, according to O’Keefe. Signs of hope are few; a recent attempt at negotiations has already fallen apart because of the advances on Aleppo.
A more positive development has been the outcome of a donor meeting this week in London. Participant states agreed to pull together more than $10 billion to respond to the crisis, O’Keefe says. The money can’t come soon enough. Aid so far has been inadequate to the level of the humanitarian crisis, he says. U.N. aid agencies have not been able to sustain their efforts and reports are growing of starvation among Syrian non-combatants trapped by the fighting by both sides.
“It is just absolutely critical that fighting stop and some sort of negotiated solution be found as soon as possible,” O’Keefe says. “Otherwise people are going to keep fleeing and they are going to keep suffering.” He adds that getting the new aid to refugees where they are needed is also a major priority. If they were humanely cared for in the refugee camps where they initially land in surrounding states, he believes most Syrians would decline to make the dangerous journey out of the Middle East for Europe.
As conditions now stand many believe they have no other choice.
“Their children are not being educated; adults are notable to find jobs or be employed,” he says, describing the plight of the millions of refugees from Syria currently in Lebanon and Jordan where most face years of waiting before they can even begin to be processed by U.N. officials. “So you have this period of limbo which just keeps going and going and that is why some of those people made the decision to migrate to Europe…you begin to lose hope in going back home and that is why you have to find somewhere else.”
In addition to suggesting donations to C.R.S. and other groups assisting those who are part of this desperate migration, O’Keefe urges U.S. Catholics to keep the pressure on their representatives in Congress to be both more welcoming to Syrian refugees—the United States has so far accepted little more than 2,000—and keep a full-court press going for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Given the lengthy vetting process for refugee resettlement in the United States, O'Keefe remains confident Americans would be "helping vulnerable people out of a desperate situation."