The refugee crisis: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Ameen Izzadeen
Today is the 14th anniversary of 9/11, but we won’t talk about the scores of unanswered questions regarding that terror attack. Instead, we are focusing on the Middle East refugee crisis which, incidentally, has its origin in 9/11 and which has brought out the good, the bad and the ugly sides of Europe.
The 9/11 attacks led to the war on terror. The United States and its Nato allies sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and brought about regime changes by unleashing brute fire power. Their success encouraged them to meddle in Libya. They removed the Muammar Gaddafi regime. They then targeted Syria, but decided to adopt a different strategy – arming and training various rebel groups. The strategy backfired and a monster called ISIS was created. More than four million of Syria’s 22 million population have now become refugees while another seven million are internally displaced. Sadly a three-year-old Syrian child had to drown in the Mediterranean Sea for the world to stop and take note of the Syrian refugee crisis, which is now more than four years old.
Publishing the picture of the three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach, world newspapers in their headlines screamed “a picture that changed the world.” If pictures could change the world, if lifeless bodies of little children can change the world, the world would be a better place today. Driven by greed for more power and wealth and warped ideologies, we generally do not care much about other people’s misery. In justifying our crimes against humanity, we describe the destruction which we bring upon our fellow human beings as collateral damage or a price worth paying for.
If we are as compassionate as we claim to be, then how did we explain the continuation of the Vietnam War with all its brutality and barbarism even after we saw the picture of a naked child who was hit by a napalm bomb? Decades later, we sat before our TV sets and enjoyed the fireworks over the skies of Iraq as the United States unleashed its hellfire missiles and bunker buster bombs on that country, showing little or no remorse for civilian deaths. According to, 1,455,590 Iraqis have died in the US war and occupation of Iraq. Stonehearted and desensitised, we failed to stop the war even after we saw the visuals of children dying in Iraq. Instead, we rewarded George W. Bush by reelecting him.
If pictures can change world, how come we did nothing to stop Israel’s wars on Gaza? The world saw Palestinian fathers carrying their children’s corpses dug out from heaps of rubble to give them a decent burial. Some 500 children died and more than 1,500 children were wounded in Israel’s attacks on Gaza last year. Yet the big powers and powerful Arab states which had the ability to stop the war turned the other way, not because they could not see the heart-rending visuals, but because they let it happen to teach the Palestinian resistance group Hamas a lesson. In July this year, the world saw the picture of the burnt body of an 18-month-old Palestinian toddler, but we did little or nothing to protect the Palestinians who were being persecuted. So much for our compassion! Is our human compassion reserved for only natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and last year’s Nepal earthquake?
If we are moved by the human misery brought about by wars, we should have responded when the first stream of refugees left Syria or at least when the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in December 2013 described the Syrian refugee crisis as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.
So why are we trying to become Good Samaritans now? Turkish journalist Nilufer Demir’s moving photograph of the dead boy on the beach couldn’t have come at a better time. It turned the focus on hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees, some of whom were embroiled in a standoff with Hungarian officials while others languished in detention centres in the Czech Republic, Greece, and other frontline European states. The world began to see other pictures of thousands of exhausted refugees, including hungry children, behind barbed-wired detention centres.
Europe may be opening its doors to the refugees now, and talking about European values, but days before the deaths of Aylan Kurdi, his five-year-old brother and their mother, it was a different Europe. Hungary ordered police to attack defenceless refugees with batons and tear-gas – and the Czech Republic stamped registration numbers on refugees’ forearms, like during the Nazi days. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron refused to take any further refugees from the Middle East. European Islamophobes warned their governments that the refugees were terrorists and were on a mission to Islamise the Christian continent. They even challenged Pope Francis who on Sunday said he would give temporary housing in the Vatican to at least two refugee families and asked every one of the more than 1,300 European parish communities, monasteries, and other Catholic institutions to do the same.
A Hungarian bishop said the Pope was wrong. “They are not refugees. This is an invasion. They come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’. They want to take over,” Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, the spiritual leader of Southern Hungary said.
The concerns the bishop and others are raising have some validity because scores of European Muslims, most of whom were once migrants, have been involved in terrorist activities in Europe and joined ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the terror group playing havoc in Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East. But if one looks at the crisis from another point of view, Europe has a moral duty to accept millions of refugees from the Middle East. This is because most European countries should take part of the blame for creating the present Middle Eastern crisis. Countries such as Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Denmark and Norway were part of the coalition that bombed Libya and provided weapons and training to anti-Gaddafi rebels, including groups affiliated to al-Qaeda.
In Syria, too, most European nations, Britain included, together with regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, in their bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad, are helping one rebel group or another. Syria was a stable country until these countries decided to implement the regime change formula there, after it worked in Libya, the refugee crisis notwithstanding.
Thus, Europe’s Middle East meddlers cannot wash their hands of the refugee crisis. While most European countries now adopt a cautious compassionate stance, Germany’s brave welcome to the refugees should be commended, though some economists say the refugees could fill the vacancies in the job markets and give the German economy a fresh gallop.
Then what about the Arab and Islamic countries in the region? Just as Egypt closed its Rafah border to the Palestinians during the Gaza war, most Arab and Islamic countries in the region, with the exception of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, have closed their doors on Syrian refugees. They have apparently forgotten that Prophet Muhammad himself was a refugee, and providing refuge to a person irrespective of his or her religion is a fundamental tenet of Islam.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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