Fadi, a Syrian teenager with curly hair and an acne-covered face, has 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 carried an estimated 750 refugees after it capsized on June 13 in the open sea near the coastal town of Pylos.
Scores of lifeless bodies have been pulled out from the water, and many more have washed ashore. Hundreds are still missing, feared dead, many of whom are women and children, as they huddled 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 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 made for the survivors.
The latest boat disaster tells a much bigger story than the sympathetic news headlines attempted to convey. It is a story of war, poverty, inequality and despair.
The identity of those who died at sea gives us clues to the origins of the story. They were Syrians, Palestinians, Afghans and more. These refugees were seeking safety, coveting mere survival.
The sad irony is that the latest episode of this seemingly endless horror took place exactly one week before the United Nations was set to ‘celebrate’ World Refugee Day, held on June 20 of 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 Refugees Agency (UNHCR) spoke of “honoring the refugees around the globe” and referenced Refugee Day as one that “celebrates the strength and courage” of refugees.
The contradictions of the discourses pertaining to the refugees should be too obvious to miss. But we often do. Too many lavish dinners will be catered in the name of the refugees in many 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.
Over 23,000 refugees have drowned or gone 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 embark 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’s Today Program.
The identity of the victims – Syrians, Palestinians, Afghans, Sudanese … – should have been a major clue as to why people take such terrible risks only to reach European countries, where they endure great hardships, including racial discrimination, just to survive.
Yet, we hardly confront the real culprits behind all of this: weapon manufacturers and military interventionists and 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 outcome of such dreadful policies results in the least irritant to the socioeconomic fabrics of Western societies, desperate refugees become villains, to be shunned, ignored, imprisoned, and deported.
In reality, world refugees, estimated at over 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 on June 11, along with far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the President of the European Commission, 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 smuggler(s)” because “it is horrible to see how they (the smugglers) 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.
No other collective experiences illustrate Western complicity as 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, after 75 years of such suffering and pain, western countries continue to do everything in their power to support Israel and disempower – even blame – 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 actually lies.
On a recent trip to Turkiye, I met with many Palestinian refugees, mostly from Gaza, whose families were also made refugees by Israel in 1948, and again in 1967. These mostly young people are anxiously awaiting the opportunity to cross the sea into Greece, then to other European countries in search of work.
Mohammed B. told me that he had attempted 9 times to reach Greece. “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, and nearly 35 members of the family, mostly children, live in a three-bedroom house that was bombed by Israel on two separate occasions.
Mohammed, and 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 actions.