Tuesday 15th March marks five years since the start of the conflict in Syria, a grim anniversary of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War and the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. In the last five years, half of Syria’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Rasal is one of them. She was born into the crisis. At five years old, the only world she's ever known is war.
Rasal fled war-torn Syria with her family and arrived on Lesvos freezing cold and wet after the rubber boat she was travelling in capsized on some rocks. It was the second time her family had tried to leave Syria. The first time they had been shot at whilst escaping and it was too difficult for them to go on.
She says: “I always remember fighting in my country. It’s always been scary. We had to leave my home in Syria. Mum says it was too dangerous to stay."
Rasal saw her country be all but destroyed. She made a perilous journey travelling across mountains on foot and across the sea in a flimsy boat that was not fit for purpose. She was terrified by confusing and rough treatment at the hands of smugglers. And when her boat capsized during the crossing to Greece she lost the only possessions she had left. Along with thousands of other children, she's witnessed horrors and experienced a level of fear that no child should ever have to, which could have damaging effects on her for the rest of her life.
And yet the world has turned their backs on her people - the people of Syria, watching as their country is destroyed and thousands of Syrians die or brave the European seas to escape the place they once called home.
There are currently 13.5 million people inside Syria who are in need of humanitarian assistance. An entire generation of young people have been exposed to the horrors of war and denied access to basic services such as education and healthcare. And an estimated 400,000 people are living in besieged areas where access to help is limited, and where some are dying of starvation.
Over a million more have risked everything, crossing treacherous waters and travelling hundreds of miles in the attempt to reach Europe in search of safety. Sadly, the Eastern Mediterranean has become one of the most dangerous routes travelled by refugees and many have lost their lives to the stormy seas.
It's easy to forget that these statistics represent real people, many of them women and children, who have fled war, persecution and constant terror. People risking everything, desperate to reach a place of safety, but instead have been treated as a political embarrassment rather than people with dignity and human rights.
Those who manage to reach Europe safely often arrive with nothing but the clothes they stand up in, cold, wet and traumatised after long and dangerous journeys at the hands of human traffickers.
Rasal's experience of the crossing terrified her: “When we got on the boat I was really scared," she said. "We were on the boat for a really long time. I was hungry and thirsty and the waves were so big, they kept coming over our heads. I got really wet and cold. My big sister was scared we were going to die. It was scary at the end because the boat crashed into some rocks and sank. I fell into the water and I lost all my things."
We cannot abandon children like Rasal and their families to a future as dangerous and uncertain as her life has been so far. Her family is hoping to make the journey to Athens, then on to Germany, but they still have a long journey ahead of them and no doubt many more difficulties along the way.
The response to the crisis in Syria should not be words or war: there must be concrete political action to end the war and immediate support offered to those fleeing its consequences.
The UK government has made a significant contribution to funding the needs of Syria’s displaced in the region however its response to refugees now reaching Europe is pitiful. The current plan to open our doors to 20,000 refugees over five years is failing to listen to people’s cry for help and not nearly our fair share. Just six refugees per constituency a year is a tiny amount compared to the scale of the crisis.
We’ve watched over the past five years as Syria has collapsed into destruction and chaos, a situation so bad that for many the only option is to flee. Where risking your child’s life on an open boat at sea seems a better option than staying at home.
We cannot continue to turn our backs on the people who are asking us for help.
Photo credit: Karin Schermbrucker/ActionAid