Share some or all of the following background information with students, or ask students to read the paragraphs silently.
A Refugee Crisis
Hundreds of thousands of refugees flowed into Western Europe this summer, most fleeing war and desperate conditions in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. The media has been filled with images of these people, many families with small children, crowded onto rickety boats trying to cross the Mediterranean, trapped in train stations, marching down highways, some finally reaching their northern European destinations.
The flow of people continues in what has become the largest human migration since World War 2.
Many of the refugees are from Syria, where Islamic State fighters and other Islamist militants (as well as Kurds seeking autonomy) are battling Syrian President Bashir al-Assad and his forces. Estimates vary, but according to the UN, over 220,000 people, including many civilians, have been killed in the Syrian war. Many others live in terror and have limited access to shelter, food and water. Over the past few years, many Syrians escaped to neighboring countries, including Lebanon and Jordan. But those countries have struggled to accommodate the huge influx of refugees. Now people from the region are pushing into Western Europe, looking for safety.
The route to Europe has been fraught with danger. Many, including children, have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to reach Greece or Italy, two countries giving them access to the rest of the European Union. From there they continue their travel over land routes, through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and heading further north where economies have not been as hard hit and immigration policies are more welcoming. (See maps of migration paths here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24583286.)
Some of these countries, including Hungary, have been clear about the fact that refugees are not welcome. Hungary in particular has been quite hostile, setting up a holding camp surrounded by razor wire and guarded by dogs and the police. Hungary has passed new laws penalizing people for helping the refugees. However, other countries, including Germany, have agreed to accept up to 800,000 people seeking asylum this year alone. By comparison, the U.S. has accepted only 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the violence in Syria.
A note on terminology: The UN High Commission on Refugees says that the terms "migrant" and "refugee" should not be used interchangeably. According to UNHCR, refugees left home because of armed conflict or persecution. It is too dangerous to return home, and they need sanctuary. Refugees are accorded certain rights and benefits under international and national laws. Migrants are not facing death or persecution, but are seeking work, education or better lives, and don’t receive the same protections.
For more background, see previous TeachableMoment lessons on Syria here:
Video: Stranded in Hungary
Show students this 4-minute video produced by the Guardian, a newspaper based in the UK. (A 10-second ad precedes the video.)
The video shows scenes of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere who were stuck in Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary, on September 4-5, 2015. Most hoped to go on to Germany or Austria, but the Hungarian government refused to let them board trains.
After students view the video, ask:
- What did you observe about the people who were stuck in the train station? What belongings are they carrying with them?
- Did any particular scene or person stand out for you? Why?
- Who seemed welcoming of the refugees? Who didn’t?
- Why do you think one woman did not want the refugees to wave the Hungarian flag?
- What emotions do you think the people in this train station are feeling?
List students’ responses to the last question on the board.
Tell students that the refugees in the video were eventually given buses to Austria; many are traveling on to Germany and other countries in Western and Northern Europe. However, they await an uncertain future there: Will they be given asylum? Will they find decent homes and jobs? Will they be welcomed by their new neighbors?
Debates are now underway in European countries, the Gulf states, and in the U.S. about taking in more of the refugees. And many organizations are calling on governments and individuals to come through with aid and support for those trying to escape war and desperation in Syria and elsewhere.
To date, the U.S. has taken in only about 1,500 Syrian refugees. Aid groups and some lawmakers have argued that the U.S. should take in at least 65,000 more. For more information see these articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
Ask students in a go-round to say one thing they wish for the refugees we saw at the train station in Hungary.
Note to parents: See this Parent 'Table Talk' activity for suggestions on discussing this topic with children.