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A Troubled Journey

A Troubled Journey

‘Aquarius’ is today a powerful symbol of the troubled journey of a refugee. The ‘Aquarius’ is a refugee rescue ship jointly operated by ‘Doctors beyond Borders’ (known by the French acronym MSF) and ‘SOS Mediterranean’.  Their teams have constantly been picking up people from the high seas making the perilous journey towards the European coast from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. A few days ago the ‘Aquarius’ had rescued 630 refugees (including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 children and seven pregnant women). The ship was denied the right to dock in the two closest countries – Italy and Malta. Fortunately, the newly elected Prime Minister of Spain volunteered to accept them, ordering authorities to allow the rescue ship carrying the refugees to dock in the eastern port of Valencia “It is our obligation to help to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe and to offer a safe port to these people,” the Prime Minister’s office said in a statement.

It meant four extra days at sea for the refugees. Medical workers aboard the Aquarius said the food and water supply on the boat  would not last the journey; that some of the passengers had water in their lungs after falling into the Mediterranean from smugglers’ boats; and there were still others suffering  burns  caused by boat fuel mixed with seawater or  from hypothermia.  If all goes well the ‘Aquarius’ would reach Valencia sometime on Saturday 16 June.

“People are in distress, are running out of provisions and need help quickly,” the UN refugee agency UNHCR said, urging governments to set aside political considerations; adding that, “broader issues such as who has responsibility and how these responsibilities can best be shared between states should be looked at later.”  The Catholic Church in Italy was also very critical of the  rather new right-wing populist, anti-migrant Government; Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, president of Italian Caritas and head of the Italian Bishops’ Conference’s immigration committee bluntly stated , “beating your fists on the table is absurd before endangered lives and the international law that imposes the rescue of people at sea. Politics must be the ability to dialogue and search for the common good, safeguarding human rights above all else.”

The terrible plight of the refugees now on their way to Valencia is just an example of what those fleeing war and persecution have to be going through. Thousands of refugees meet with horrendous deaths as they journey by sea or land for a safer and more secure country. In January, more than a dozen Syrian refugees were found frozen to death in the mountains of Lebanon in an attempt to cross illegally into the country. On 3 June, more than 50 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean on Sunday, the majority off the coasts of Tunisia and Turkey. According to rough estimates, more than seven hundred refugees have already lost their lives just in the first five months of the year trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Human smugglers and traffickers continue to have a field day profiteering from the plight of the helpless refugees.

George Kurian, originally from Kerala (India) is a documentary filmmaker and photojournalist currently based in Beirut. He has lived and worked in several conflict zones of the world including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey Libya, Rwanda, Central African Republic, Yemen Somalia, and Sri Lanka.  He has worked on a range of documentaries from current affairs and history to human interest and wild life. In 2012, George Kurian was ducking bullets in Syria while buildings around him were being reduced to rubble; being in Syria showed him how “every conflict is hydra-headed.” Regardless of its initial impetus, “the ensuing violence creates new enmities, tensions and reasons for continued conflict. I wanted to see, understand and document it.”

His experiences in the battlefield drew him into the same trajectory as the billowing waves of Syrians escaping persecution and their country’s destruction. Thus, he spent the last year tracking the experiences of a small group of refugees as they travelled to Europe. In 2015, he made a powerful documentary film ‘The Crossing’. Early this month it won an award at an International Film Festival in Slovakia. The film takes us along on one of the most dangerous journeys of our time with a group of Syrians fleeing war and persecution, crossing a sea, two continents and five countries, searching for a home to rekindle the greatest thing they have lost: Hope! “ The Crossing,’” Kurian says, “is about Syrian people speaking for themselves. Through it, we hope to join the debate about our electoral policies…Islam and its branches of fundamentalism will always serve as flashpoints in any discussion… [but] it is these ideas that have kept us from acting. These concepts make us see refugees as a problem rather than a people who have a problem and who need our help.”

In 2016, just before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, the UNHCR launched a massive global campaign and petition #WithRefugees, The primary aim of this initiative was to show world leaders that the global public stands #WithRefugees and that concrete solutions need to be found to address the global refugee crisis.  At the heart of this campaign is a commitment  to ensure that  every refugee child gets an education; that every refugee family has somewhere safe to live; that every refugee can work or learn new skills to support their families.

This campaign continues  until a global compact for refugees is adopted at the next UNGA in September 2018. On 19 September 2016, at the conclusion of a ‘United Nations Summit on Refugees and Migrants’, in New York, world leaders finally produced a significant declaration  to deal with the refugee crisis. To implement the lofty ideals encompassed in the Declaration, they committed themselves to drafting and approving, by the end of 2018, two Global Compacts: one regarding refugees and the second, for safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration. Both these compacts are meant to comprehensively protect, promote the rights and integrate migrants and refugees into the mainstream. 

With less than six months to go, some work has been put in, with ‘zero’ draft documents on both the compacts already in place. However, the recent past has not been easy for refugees and other displaced all over the world. Last December, the United States announced that it was withdrawing from the two Global Compacts. There is an ‘official’ atmosphere of hostility towards refugees and other migrants in the US today, despite visible and vocal protests from the Church and civil society there.

India on the other hand has literally shut its doors on the Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar.  On 11 September 2017 in his opening statement to the 36th Session of the Human Rights Council Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country. Some 40,000 Rohingyas have settled in India, and 16,000 of them have received refugee documentation. The Minister of State for Home Affairs has reportedly said that because India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention the country can dispense with international law on the matter, together with basic human compassion. However, by virtue of customary law, its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulement, India cannot carry out collective expulsions, or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations”. Strong words indeed but the plain truth. Several other prominent human rights organizations have also criticized India’s stand. On 5 June , a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Myanmar Government, the UNHCR and the UNDP to ensure the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and for reintegration in the country. One needs to wait and see what happens on this front.

In several countries today, xenophobia, racism, discrimination and exclusiveness is on the rise as never before.  Right-wing, anti- immigrant ‘populist’ leaders are winning elections in some key western countries.  New and tougher anti-immigration policies; the shrill voices for refugees to return home does not help in easing the crisis. The military-industrial complex is definitely not keen that the wars end; they rake in huge profits from the sale of arms and ammunition to all the warring factions. Key members of the UN Security council thrive on the production and sale of deadly weapons. Multi-nationals and other big business houses and even Governments with lop-sided anti-people projects, do not bat an eye-lid in displacing the poor and the marginalised.

The way migrants and refuges are today treated by the US Government today is also a major global concern. The celebrated American Jesuit Fr James Martin, in a response to the policies and utterances of the US administration on 14 June tweeted, “ It is not biblical to treat migrants and refugees like animals. It is not biblical to take children away from their parents. It is not biblical to ignore the needs of the stranger. It is not biblical to enforce unjust laws. Do not use the Bible to justify sin”.

UNHCR states, “ We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented  65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly  22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are  under the age of 18.There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement; nearly  20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution”

Pope Francis has been consistent in his stand for the refugees, migrants and other forcibly displaced. He has championed their cause and shown through substantial acts how one needs to respond to the cries of the refugees. He has been emphasising that we all must do our part to welcome, protect, promote and integrate them.  On 14 June in a message to the 2nd Conference on International Migration hosted by the Holy See and Mexico, he said, “we must move from considering others as threats to our comfort to valuing them as persons whose life experience and values can contribute greatly to the enrichment of our society.” The Holy Father further added there is need to ground responsibility for the shared global management of international migration in the values of justice, solidarity, and compassion; we are called to encounter the other, to welcome, to know, and to acknowledge him or her. These persons, our brothers and sisters, who need ongoing protection independently of whatever migrant status they may have”. He said their fundamental rights and dignity must be protected, especially those of migrant children . “All of them hope that we will have the courage to tear down the wall of ‘comfortable and silent complicity’ that worsens their helplessness; they are waiting for us to show them concern, compassion, and devotion,”

Pope Francis has also reminded world leaders as they prepare for the September UNGA, “ Dear brothers and sisters, in light of these processes currently underway, the coming months offer a unique opportunity to advocate and support the concrete actions, which I have described  with  four verbs.  I invite you, therefore, to use every occasion to share this message with all political and social actors involved (or who seek to be involved)  in the process which will lead to the approval of the two Global Compacts”.

On 20 June, World Refugee Day , the global family will once again commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of families forced to flee their homes. Fortunately, most of the world is still concerned about the plight of refugees. World Refugee Day this year could hopefully be yet another beginning for the world leaders and every single citizen, to make a renewed effort to ensure that meaningful Global Compacts see the light of day. That we demonstrate the courage and compassion to treat all refugees (the migrants and forcibly displaced) as our sisters and brothers and that we journey with them by welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating them.                                                                                                                  

( The writer is based in Beirut, Lebanon with the Jesuit Refugee Service (MENA) as the Regional Advocacy and Communications Advisor. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com)

(Published on 18th June 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 25)