By Ramzy Baroud
Europe is facing its most significant refugee crisis since World War Two. All attempts at resolving the issue have failed, mostly because those charged with doing so have ignored the root causes of the problem.
Furthermore, on 11 June, Italy’s new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, blocked the Aquarius rescue ship from docking in Italian ports. It was carrying 629 refugees and economic migrants. A statement by Doctors without Borders (MSF) stated that the passengers included 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women.
“From now on,” said Salvini, who also heads the far-right League Party, “Italy begins to say NO to the traffic of human beings, NO to the business of illegal immigration.”
The number of refugees was repeated in news broadcasts time and again, as a mere statistic. In reality, there were 629 precious lives at stake, each human being with a compelling reason why s/he has undertaken the potentially deadly journey to Europe.
While the cruelty of refusing entry to a boat laden with desperate refugees is obvious, it has to be viewed within a larger narrative pertaining to the rapidly changing political landscape in Europe and the crises under way in the Middle East and North Africa. Italy’s new government, a coalition of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the right-wing League Party, seems intent on stopping the flow of refugees into the country, as promised on the campaign trail. However, if politicians continue to ignore the root causes of the problem, the refugee crisis will not go away on its own.
The disturbing truth is this: Europe is accountable for much of the mayhem underway in the Middle East. Right-wing pundits may wish to omit that part of the debate altogether, but facts will not simply disappear when ignored.
European politicians should confront the question honestly: what are the reasons for millions of people leaving their homes? They must then fashion equally honest and humane solutions. Put simply, they need to stop the wars to end the refugee crisis. Look at the facts.
In 2017, an uprising-turned-civil-war in Syria led to the exodus of millions of refugees. Ahmed is a 55-year old Syrian refugee, who fled the country with his wife and two children. His reason for leaving was nothing less than the grinding, deadly war.
“I was born in Homs,” he told the UN refugee agency, “and I wanted to live there until the end, but this vicious war left us no other choice but to leave all behind. For the sake of my children’s future, we had to take the risk.”
Ahmed explained that he had to pay the smuggler $8,000 for each member of his family. “I’ve never done anything illegal in my whole life, but there was no other solution.”
Saving his family meant breaking the rules; I have no doubt that millions of people the world over would do the same thing if confronted with the same grim dilemma. In fact, millions have.
African immigrants are often blamed for “taking advantage” of the porous Libyan coastline to “sneak” into Europe. The reality, though, is that many of those refugees lived peacefully in Libya and were only forced to flee following the NATO-led war on Libya in March 2011.
“I’m originally from Nigeria and I had been living in Libya for five years when the war broke out,” wrote Hakim Bello in the Guardian. “I had a good life: I was working as a tailor and I earned enough to send money home to loved ones. But after the fighting started, people like us – black people – became very vulnerable. If you went out for something to eat, a gang would stop you and ask if you supported them. They might be rebels, they might be government, you didn’t know.”
The security mayhem in Libya led not only to the persecution of many Libyans, but also millions of African workers like Bello. Many of those workers could neither go home nor stay in Libya. They, too, joined the dangerous mass exodus to Europe.
War-ravaged Afghanistan has served as a tragic model of the same story. Ajmal Sadiqi escaped from the country, which has been in a constant state of war for many years. The situation there has taken a much deadlier turn since the US invasion in 2001.
Sadiqi told CNN that the vast majority of those who joined him on his journey from Afghanistan to Turkey, Greece and other EU countries died along the way. However, like many in the same situation, he had few alternatives.
“Afghanistan has been at war for 50 years and things are never going to change,” he said. “Here, I have nothing, but I feel safe. I can walk on the street without being afraid.”
Alas, that sense of safety is, perhaps, temporary. Many in Europe are refusing to examine their own responsibility for creating or feeding conflicts around the world; they only perceive the refugees as a threat.
Despite the obvious correlation between western-sustained wars and the EU’s refugee crisis, no moral awakening has yet been realized. Worse still, France and Italy are now involved in exploiting the current warring factions in Libya for their own interests.
Even in Syria, the EU is hardly innocent. The war there has resulted in a massive surge in refugees, most of whom are hosted by neighboring Middle Eastern countries, although many have set sail in leaky vessels to seek safety in Europe.
“All of Europe has a responsibility to stop people from drowning,” insisted Bello. “It’s partly due to their actions in Africa that people have had to leave their homes.” Countries such as Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, he added, think that they are far away and not responsible. “But they all took part in colonizing Africa. NATO took part in the war in Libya. They’re all part of the problem.”
As you would expect, Italy’s Salvini and other politicians like him refuse to frame the crisis in such a way. They use whichever discourse is necessary to guarantee votes, while ignoring the obvious fact that, without Europe’s military interventions, economic exploitation and political meddling, a refugee crisis — at least one of this magnitude – would probably not exist in the first place.
Until this fact is recognized by EU governments, the flow of refugees will continue, raising political tension and contributing to the tragic loss of lives of innocent people, whose only desire is simple survival. Is that too much to ask?
– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His forthcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.
(Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer, contributed to this article)