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With ‘nothing to lose,’ more refugees are risking perilous passage to flee Mideast conflicts

Turbulence in the Middle East, especially Syria, has created the worst refugee crisis in decades. In the past two weeks, hundreds have drowned in separate attempts to sail to safety in Europe. Judy Woodruff speaks with Michel Gabaudan of Refugees International about why refugees risk everything for the journey and how the work of traffickers is getting easier.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The turbulence in the Middle East, especially Syria, has created the worst refugee crisis in decades. Now thousands of those displaced people are trying to get to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa on small boats.

    Last week, nearly 500 refugees drowned after the smugglers they'd paid to get them from Egypt to Europe intentionally rammed their boat. Survivors told the international organization for migration that the collision followed a disagreement on board.

    In the past week alone, at least 700 refugees have drowned making the journey, many of them from Syria, Egypt and Gaza.

    For more on this, I'm joined by Michel Gabaudan. He's president of Refugees International. He and his team have traveled to the region to address the crisis.

    And welcome to the program.

    We have known we have had a serious refugee problem for a long time. What's making it worse now?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN, Refugees International:

    Well, I think people are becoming desperate.

    At the beginning, when refugees were fleeing Syria, they thought perhaps, after a few months, maybe a year, they would be able to go back. There is no indication that return is possible in the foreseeable future. Living conditions are becoming more difficult in the neighboring countries where they found refuge initially, and they're now trying to think about their future further away.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So it's Syria, it's Egypt?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    It's Egypt.

    Some even move out to Libya, because the chaos in Libya has made the work of traffickers easier, if you want.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And they're leaving for fear of their lives or for economic circumstances? How would you describe it?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    Well, I think because a few people interviewed in Egypt a few months ago — I mean, two years ago, refugees moved to Egypt from Turkey or from Jordan, and they came legally with a passport, by airplane.

    And they were given a hearty welcome in Egypt. It was sort of brothers in Arab spring, if you want. That has changed now, because, since the new government has taken place, there has been a very virulent campaign against the refugees, accusing them of being Morsi sympathizers, et cetera.

    And their life has become much more difficult. Their economies have dwindled. They had sold everything to get out of the country. They don't know what to do. They don't know what the future holds for them. Many have relatives in Europe. And they're prepared to risk everything to offer their family a future.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do they know how dangerous these journeys are going to be before they make them?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    They do.

    And we spoke to them very frankly. We told them, you know, if you try that, you are likely to drown. Your women are likely to be abused. You know, you will lose family members. You will probably not get a very hearty welcome in Europe. And they say, well, we have nothing to lose.

    When people have nothing to lose, they try anything.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, are there people actively trying to persuade them not to make these journeys?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    Well, I think, when they speak to officials at the U.N. or to some NGOs, et cetera, they're discouraged.

    But there is so much the international community is doing for them which is not reaching the needs they have, and in particular the fact that the future looks very bleak.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And are the traffickers — we told the story of the traffickers ramming the boat, in essence killing these refugees — are the traffickers of today making it harder, making it more dangerous for them?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    Well, I think the traffickers are about money. If they see they're not getting the returns they want, they don't care.

    This is just a very crude business. There are more and more people are trying to leave. So, in principle, you would think it's better business for the traffickers. But they still want to make the same margins. And they have no consideration for these people. They treat them as chattel. We have seen that in the way they overload the boats, the total lack of care they have for the quality of the boats.

    They send people in completely unseaworthy boats. They don't care. If some people drown, they have more.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what is the solution?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    Well, there are different solutions.

    I think the High Commissioner for Refugees have called for a variety of solutions that would include resettlement for those who are — have been recognized as refugees, for humanitarian visas for others, scenes of family reunification, perhaps student or work visas.

    I mean, there is a whole range of solutions can be offered to at least a percentage of the refugees and give them some hope. So far, he has not been heard very much. And Europe remains very closed to their plight.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And you're working to try to change the minds of the countries the refugees are going to, to get them to accept them, or what?

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    Well, we have worked mostly to try to make sure there was enough assistance getting to the countries hosting them in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and to make sure enough humanitarian aid was there, so that the governments would be able to maintain their borders open.

    That was our first priority. Make sure people who escape Syria will not be turned back by neighboring countries. Now I think we're going to the next step, as we see that the situation is not getting better in Syria, these people are not going to go back any time soon, and the pressure in neighboring countries is unacceptable.

    In Lebanon, one in four persons is a Syrian refugee now. Imagine which other country would have tolerated that. None, I can tell you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, you have your work cut out for you.

    Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, thank you very much.

  • MICHEL GABAUDAN:

    Thank you.

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