World Refugee Day: Syrian, Palestinian refugees need understanding, not platitudes
Fadi, a Syrian teenager with curly hair and an acne-covered face, miraculously survived one of the greatest migrant boat disasters in the modern history of the Mediterranean.
Only 104 people have been rescued from a boat that was carrying an estimated 750 refugees when it capsized on June 13 in the open sea near the Greek coastal town of Pylos.
Scores of bodies have been pulled from the water and many more have washed ashore. Hundreds are still missing, feared dead, including many women and children who were huddled together on the lower deck of the 30-meter boat.
Fadi survived. A heart-rending photo shows the young Syrian sobbing as he met his older brother, Mohammed, who had rushed to the port of Kalamata, Greece, to see him. The two brothers could not embrace, as Fadi was still trapped behind metal gates in a confinement area made for the survivors.
This latest boat disaster tells a much bigger story than the one sympathetic news headlines have attempted to convey. It is a story of war, poverty, inequality and despair.
The identities of those who died at sea give us clues as to the origins of the story. They were Syrians, Palestinians, Afghans and more. These refugees were seeking safety, coveting mere survival.
The contradictions of the discourses pertaining to refugees should be too obvious to miss. But we often do
The sad irony is that the latest episode of this seemingly endless horror took place exactly one week before the UN was set to “celebrate” World Refugee Day, which is marked on June 20 each year.
Most references to this day by the UN, UN-related organizations and international charities around the world seem to emphasize empowerment and positivity. A statement by the UN Refugee Agency referred to “(honoring) refugees around the globe,” and referenced World Refugee Day as celebrating “the strength and courage” of refugees.
The contradictions of the discourses pertaining to refugees should be too obvious to miss. But we often do. Too many lavish dinners will be catered in the name of refugees in Western capitals and embassies around the world. Diplomats will demand action and well-paid intellectuals will enunciate the moral and ethical responsibilities of governments and civil societies. Many will clap and numerous business cards will be exchanged. But little will change.
More than 23,000 refugees drowned or went missing while trying to reach European shores between 2014 and 2022. The real number is expected to be much higher, as there are no official records of how many people embarked on these deadly journeys in the first place. “We have hundreds of records of bodies that are washed up to Mediterranean shores when we don’t know of any known shipwreck,” Julia Black of the International Organization for Migration told the BBC.
The identity of the victims — Syrians, Palestinians, Afghans and Sudanese — should have been a major clue as to why people take such terrible risks to reach European countries, where they often still endure great hardships, including racial discrimination.
However, we hardly ever confront the real culprits behind all of this: Weapons manufacturers and military interventionists, along with political meddlers who provoke and/or exacerbate conflicts. These individuals and governments see the Middle East, Africa and the rest of the Global South as mere space for geopolitical rivalries, cheap raw materials and human and economic exploitation.
But when the outcomes of such dreadful policies result in the slightest irritant to the socioeconomic fabrics of Western societies, desperate refugees become villains, to be shunned, ignored, imprisoned and deported.
In reality, the world’s refugees, who are estimated to number more than 100 million, are not “celebrated,” but mostly vilified. They are seen as a burden, not an opportunity to confront and fix the underlying problems, old and new, that led to their original displacement.
While visiting Tunisia this month, along with far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was adamant about rebranding the tragedy of refugees as something else entirely. In their joint statement, the high-ranking European politicians vowed to break “the cynical business model of (smugglers)” because “it is horrible to see how they deliberately risk human lives for profit.” Considering that the arms industry is one of Europe’s most thriving business models, one cannot help but pause at the irony of such remarks.
The world’s refugees, who are estimated to number more than 100 million, are not ‘celebrated,’ but mostly vilified
No other collective experiences illustrate Western complicity like that of the Palestinian people. Thousands of them have perished while escaping for their lives from Israel’s horrific wars and sieges. They were dying in large numbers as soon as Zionist militants began the systematic ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1947-48. Yet, even after 75 years of such suffering and pain, Western countries continue to do everything in their power to support Israel and disempower — even blame — the Palestinians.
Indeed, those who are truly interested in commemorating World Refugee Day ought to fully fathom the protracted Palestinian refugee experience to truly understand where the problem lies.
On a recent trip to Turkiye, I met with many Palestinian refugees, mostly from Gaza, whose families were made refugees by Israel in 1948 and again in 1967. These mostly young people are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to cross the sea to Greece, then to other European countries in search of work.
Mohammed B. told me that he had attempted to reach Greece nine times. “The last time, I was caught. I was severely beaten and left for dead in a dark forest,” he said. “But I will try again.”
Mohammed’s uncle was killed by Israel during the First Intifada. Several members of his family died due to the lack of medicine in the besieged Strip. Now, more than 30 members of the family, mostly children, live in a three-bedroom house that was bombed by Israel on two separate occasions.
Mohammed and the millions like him are not the villains. They are the victims.
For World Refugee Day to matter, it must address the root causes of such complex and ongoing problems. Only an honest and deep understanding can serve as a starting point for a meaningful conversation and, hopefully, meaningful action.
- Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud