Between the devil and the deep blue sea

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Everything you own fits in a backpack. You are in a small boat with your pregnant wife and children surrounded by crashing waves. The boat is filled with other families. You are all cold, wet and scared. You pray that help arrives before it is too late.

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This terrifying scenario has been repeated weekly in the Mediterranean Sea over the past year, as boats carrying asylum-seekers depart from Libya and Egypt bound for Italy. The boats are often overloaded and in poor condition. This past weekend, the Italian navy rescued over 3,600 people. Other asylum-seekers have not been as fortunate. Early last month, 17 were killed when their boats sank. In October, more than 400 migrants drowned.

Many are fleeing the Syrian civil war. Some take the perilous journey to be reunited with family members, others because it is too dangerous in the refugee camps or in Syria. As President Obama acknowledged at West Point, this situation will not be resolved any time soon.

How desperate do you have to be to take such a risk?

Bilal* and his family faced this dilemma recently. Second- and third-generation Palestinian refugees from Syria, they abandoned their homes and businesses in the Yarmouk refugee camp outside Damascus almost two years ago due to heavy fighting. Although they hoped to return, they decided to finally leave Syria as fighting continued and other family members arrived in Sweden.

They are not alone. Over 36,000 migrants have entered the European Union illegally this year, on pace to exceed last year's total of nearly 43,000. Most remain in Italy while their asylum requests are considered. However, the process is slow and immigration centers are at capacity. Italian officials have become increasingly frustrated with their EU counterparts and warned that they will ignore the EU's asylum rules unless there is greater cooperation and support.

There is no shortage of future migrants. The three-year revolution-turned-civil war has left the 2.5 million Syrian refugees with few alternatives. Refugee camps in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq are overcrowded, services are poor, and there is the risk of violence, disease, rape and hunger. Since the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' Syria appeal has received only 25 percent of the requested amount, conditions are unlikely to improve. The 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians face even more dire circumstances as the fighting continues with support from external parties, including Washington.

The situation is even more precarious for Palestinian refugees in Syria like Bilal. Expelled or forced to flee to neighboring states when Israel was established in 1948, Palestinian refugees have been prevented from returning to their homes for over six decades. Before the civil war, there were over 517,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria. Although they generally had more autonomy and better living conditions than their brethren in Lebanon or Jordan, they are not citizens and do not carry Syrian passports.

Like other parts of Syria, Palestinian refugee camps have become battlegrounds. The Yarmouk refugee camp where Bilal lived was home to roughly 150,000 Palestinians. The camp has been under siege by government forces targeting both opposition fighters and civilians since December 2012. The Syrian army has prevented the consistent delivery of food and medical supplies to the remaining 18,000 residents. At least 200 people have died as a result.

Some of those who fled Syria are now refugees for the second, third or fourth time in their lives. In Lebanon, they face discriminatory practices, including legal and institutional restrictions on employment and property ownership. Lebanese officials have forced some Palestinian refugees from Syria to return across the border. Jordan has refused entry to Palestinian refugees for more than two years. The refugees have also become another point of negotiation and disagreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For many, Europe is seen as the last remaining option.

As Bilal discovered, the costs of the trip are onerous and there is no guarantee of success or survival. Syria's pre-civil war per capita gross domestic product was roughly $5,000. Yet a visa and air travel from Lebanon to Libya costs $2,000 to $3,000 per person. Many are forced to sell their belongings or borrow money. Once in Tripoli, the refugees are smuggled past passport control and taken to a coastal safe house. They board a ship at dawn for the 10-hour trip. Passage is an additional $1,500 for adults and teenagers, but free for young children. Life vests cost $30 each. As the ship approaches Sicily, the passengers are loaded into small boats and a distress call is made. If they are lucky, the coast guard will respond quickly.

Bilal, however, never made it to Libya. He and his family were turned back at Beirut's airport. Unable to return to Syria or stay in Lebanon, they plan to try again. "We have no other choice," he explains.

In February, the Obama administration announced it was loosening asylum rules but acknowledged that less than 2,000 Syrians would be accepted. Republican lawmakers criticized the decision due to national security concerns. Only a few countries have agreed to resettle the refugees — and even then it is just a trickle. Instead, the richest nations in the world, including the U.S., are placing downward pressure on the countries least able to deal with the massive refugee crisis. The main beneficiaries of the status quo are the traffickers and corrupt officials who prey on desperate refugees. While these criminal networks are often described as national security threats, they have been empowered and rewarded by ineffectual American and European policies.

The boats will continue to sail. Some will make it and some won't. This reality will not change as long as the Syrian conflict continues and the U.S. and EU are unwilling or unable to adopt more humane immigration and asylum policies or even provide the necessary funds to assist the refugees. Perhaps another tragedy will move indifferent policymakers. Until then, Bilal and others will have to take their chances on the sea.

*Name has been changed to protect his identity.

Khalil is assistant professor of U.S. and Middle East History at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also a co-founder of Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network.