Silent Tragedies: The Humanitarian Crises That We’ve Neglected

Photo: Somalia Drought, Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images


By Zoe Duan


An infant’s cry sounds through a cave of cement and fallen rubble. It’s muffled, but still strong. The ground rumbles. Figures run past, screaming at each other in Arabic, but none stop to listen. The cries, with every sputtering inhale of breath, every second of that passes, falter, and weaken. Eventually, they stop all together.

This tragedy is one of millions of infants and children in Syria. But, unlike what much of mainstream media has been reporting on, this is not a tragedy caused by the recent 2023 earthquake. This is a tragedy that has been affecting children in Syria since 2011. This is the story of Syria’s humanitarian crisis.

On Monday, February 9, mainstream media headlines broke out about a crisis in Syria –– the earthquake crisis. But countless crises have been affecting people in Syria for over a decade. Since 2011, more than 13.4 million families, children, and civilians have been met with violence after violence, crisis after crisis, according to the UN Refugee Agency. But none of them seemed to have made the headlines until the earthquake a week ago. 

Syria is not a stand-alone case. Widespread, devastating disasters are affecting people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Haiti, Myanmar, Venezuela, Lebanon, and all around the world, yet they have received little to no attention in the mainstream media. Why? Why are there more so-called “news” articles written about celebrity love scandals than about the lives and deaths of millions of people everyday? Why does mainstream media only seem to care when there is something “exciting” to report about –– a natural disaster, a new U.S. arms deal, a new presidential visiting trip? 

The answer to these questions, I feel, is simple and disappointing: sensationalism. Simple, because it’s almost too obvious. And disappointing, because despite its obviousness –– and therefore, our awareness and complacency –– sensationalism pervades. Do not believe that it is not us who are at fault, however. It is we who do not demand attention to be brought to these stories. If magazine articles about the newest updates on Pakistan’s flood disasters sold out as fast as those about celebrity break-ups, we would shift sensationalism in a very different direction. We let sensationalism dominate the media that dominates our lives. Of course, reality may be more nuanced than this, but we have let sensationalism far overstay its welcome. And this has consequences. 

Consider the Ukraine War and the subsequent mobilization and response of the global community. Within the first 365 days of conflict, more than $100 billion foreign aid commitments were made from over 850 sources, including national governments, multilateral agencies, and nonprofit and philanthropic foundations, a Devax database found. Beyond monetary mobilization, Russia’s invasion also saw widespread condemnation, demonstrations, and protests across the world. There is nothing wrong with the abundance of support that Ukraine received –– in fact, this level of engagement and enthusiasm for humanitarian aid is both an accomplishment and a necessity. The issue lies in the fact that the other crises do not receive this same treatment. For instance, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), flash appeals for humanitarian funding for Ukraine in 2022 reached 77.8% funding, or $3.34 billion. Compare this to the 55.8% funded appeal ($2.48 billion) for Afghanistan’s natural disasters and military conflicts, 26.4% funded appeal ($1.61 billion) for Syria’s refugee crisis, and the mere 9.8% of requested funding ($14.3 million) Haiti received for its cholera epidemic.

What makes the Ukraine War different from the rest? Yes, it is understandable that the situation may be concerning given that the primary actor, Russia, has had a rocky relationship with the U.S., and that an expansion into Ukraine would potentially pose a geopolitical threat. It is also understandable that the narrative of the Ukraine War is neat and newsworthy –– Russia as the big bad guy and Ukraine as the victim. That is, of course, not to say that isn’t true. It’s also understandable that we may have a particular vested interest in this war as it affects the global supply chain, financial markets, and other indirect effects of the war felt by the U.S. Yet, is one life lost in Ukraine not the same as one life lost in Syria? Do political stances, dramatization, and personal interests somehow change the value of a life? No, they do not. But, they do change the number of views that an article is going to get, the amount of people that will tune in to watch the broadcast, and the prints of newspapers that will be sold. That, in turn, changes how much action is stimulated in response to these events. 

“Their stories are not told,” said Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood, an associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health and director of the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab, referring to those affected by crises neglected by mainstream media, such as Syrian refugees. “There is political violence in their country… These people are being forced to leave their homes… [but] how much do we hear about that? Very, very, very little.” 

One of the main goals of this article is to shed light these people, their struggles, their bravery, and their stories –– to offer a glimpse into the redacted. Here are some of the humanitarian crises that are, according to UNOCHA, some of the largest in scale and the lesser known by the general public.

The first: the Horn of Africa’s long-standing droughts. There have been five consecutive failed rains in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia region. This means widespread crop failure, food insecurity, and famine. 36.4 million people have been affected. The cause? Climate change. The perpetrators? Us –– developed countries who produce 63% of the world’s carbon emission but receive much less of the damage done. 

The second: the Sahel’s military, climate, and refugee crises. Internal conflicts coupled with crop failures have proven to be a recipe for disaster. As a region heavily reliant on agriculture, ramifications have been devastating. Over 34.8 million people from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger are now facing violence, hunger, and displacement.

The third: the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its civil wars. Despite official declarations of the end of the wars, armed conflicts and disputes are still rampant. Additionally, effects of its Belgian colonial rule in the 19th century are still felt today: lack of infrastructure, resources, and long-term development. This is the reality for 27 million people in DRC. 

The fourth: Afghanistan’s struggle for recovery. The country is navigating through the aftermath of war while also precipitating on the start of economic recessions. Earthquakes such as one in June of 2022, which had been the deadliest since the 20th century, further destabilized the situation. Support is needed for more than 24.1 million people. 

The list will end here, because by now you must be thinking, well this is just depressing. I assure you, though, that this is even more depressing for those who are living through it. Nonetheless, my pitch to you readers is to look beyond the facts and figures that I have included above. To conduct your own research and learn about the world outside. To find your own ways to make contributions to humanitarian efforts, whether that be through offering your time, talents, or resources. 

For instance, Dr. Nathaniel Raymond, executive director at the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab and colleague of Dr. Khoshnood, shared insight on how his lab’s work was able to have an effect on such crises, even miles away from the comforts of Yale’s campus. There are two ways that academic work can have an impact, he said. The first is to provide tools, such as methods and databases, to people in the field. The second is to support international policy decisions in real time with those tools. Dr. Raymond and Khoshnood recently demonstrated this when they presented their research to the United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber in February, urging response to their data that highlighted crimes against humanity, or war crimes, committed by Russia on Ukraine civilians.

“And [what’s happening in] Ukraine is awful.” Dr. Raymond said, “But so is what is happening in Ethiopia right now. So is what is happening in Syria. So, for me, that’s really what keeps me up at night.”

Zoey Duan is a first-year in Jonathan Edwards College and can be reached at