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TUESDAY EDITORIAL

World Refugee Day – millions more welcomed to hell on Earth

World Refugee Day – millions more welcomed to hell on Earth
A South Sudanese woman carries a bucket of water from the Nile in the vicinity of the fluvial port of Renk on 14 May 2023 (issued 15 May 2023). According to the United Nations, about 200,000 people fled the conflict in Sudan between 15 April and 12 May 2023. Most of them left towards neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Tchad, South Sudan or Ethiopia, and about two million people were internally displaced. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Amel Pain)

‘The European Union seems to be in complete moral meltdown here. Those in power cut search-and-rescue at sea. They criminalise saving lives on the open waters. And they persecute those who dare to point out that desperate, powerless people drowning en masse are, in fact, human beings with rights.’ (Human Rights Watch, Daily Brief, 19 June 2023)

Today is World Refugee Day.

It comes at a time when the plight of migrants and refugees around the world has reached an all-time low, and is tragically going to get worse and worse in years to come.

Last week a new report issued by the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), “Global Trends in Forced Displacement 2022”, “found that by the end of 2022, the number of people displaced by war, persecution, violence and human rights abuses stood at a record 108.4 million, up 19.1 million on a year earlier, which was the biggest ever increase”. 

Sudanese refugees and South Sudanese returnees travel atop a truck transporting them from the border towards the Upper Nile State town of Renk, South Sudan, 12 May 2023. Fleeing the armed conflict between the Sudanese military and the RSF (Rapid Support Forces) militia which started last 15 April, some 40 000 people have arrived into South Sudan according to the UNHCR. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Amel Pain)

The report estimated that “the upward trajectory in global forced displacement showed no sign of slowing in 2023 as the eruption of conflict in Sudan triggered new outflows, pushing the global total to an estimated 110 million by May”.

What is being deliberately overlooked (and allowed to continue) are the systemic crises that are driving a biblical flood of refugees across and into borders, over and into seas.

These numbers are staggering, but as usual the huge numbers mask the terrible human tragedy that is being inflicted on so many individual people. 

It was brought home by news of the sinking of a fishing vessel off the coast of Greece on 14 June, carrying up to 750 migrants, and costing possibly as many as 500 lives. Stories are emerging of how women and children may have been locked in a refrigeration hold below deck (only men survived), and of how a Greek coastguard vessel appears to have deliberately delayed providing help. 

When the ship sank it sank fast and took its human cargo to the bottom of the sea. It is said it may never be recovered.

The Mediterranean is a mass grave. In 2022, 3,789 deaths of refugees crossing the sea or the Sahara were recorded by the International Organization for Migration.

The atrocities associated with migration are becoming so common that we barely heed them. In 2022, for example, the number of desperate people crossing the English channel in flimsy boats and dinghies was 45,756 – 17,000 more than during 2021.

However, although the immediate focus has been on the people smugglers and those who are profiting from desperation, what is being deliberately overlooked (and allowed to continue) are the systemic crises that are driving a biblical flood of refugees across and into borders, over and into seas. 

And the powers that are responsible for this flood.

Read more: 2023: A Moment of Truth for Global Displacement | UNHCR Spotlight

Most obviously responsible is the burgeoning of wars, and the cynical arms industry that hides behind them.

Increasingly obvious is the climate crisis. Rapid global heating is already making larger and larger parts of Earth uninhabitable because of heat, floods and the unpredictability of the climate, destroying centuries-old civilisations, patterns of crop production and cultivation.

According to the UNHCR, “an annual average of 21.5 million people were forcibly displaced each year by weather-related events – such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures – between 2008 and 2016”. 

By one estimate, that number could rise above a billion people by 2050.

It has become a common refrain of populist governments – again including ours – to fuel xenophobia and then promise ‘to stand firm on migration’.

Least obvious perhaps is our own demonstrable loss of humanity, empathy and compassion. 

The strategy of most governments in the world – including ours – is to hide their own complicity in this crisis (whether through the production of carbon or weapons, or propping up authoritarian governments) by “othering” and blaming its victims. 

In South Africa our government props up “comrade” Emmerson Mnangagwa and then blames the ordinary Zimbabeweans who flee a country that he has raped; the ANC cosies up to King Mswati III in Eswatini and the blame the amaSwati who can no longer survive the poverty into which he has plunged his country.  

It has become a common refrain of populist governments – again including ours – to fuel xenophobia and then promise “to stand firm on migration”. 

Where’s our humanity?

The response to the crisis is what is going to define our humanity in the years ahead.    

How we respond, think and talk about migration challenges our humanity at the most fundamental level. Ask yourself: How do you feel about this tragedy? Do you feel it all? How do we prevent it becoming yet another abnormal ‘normal’? Are our feelings still capable of distinguishing between fictional horror and real-life events like that of the Greek ship? 

Then, how do we respond? How do we resist this latest assault on our common humanity (a dividing us up not dissimilar to racism) and the attempt to divide us into have-nations and have nots, have rights and have nots?

Read more in Daily Maverick: 

‘I would rather die than go to Lindela’ – refugees speak out after high court sends them to repatriation centre

Mothers go one way, children another, during eviction of refugees outside UN offices in Pretoria

Perhaps the first step we have to take is to recover our own humanity and compassion: recognise that these people are children, mothers, fathers, people with dreams, fears, the capacity to feel pain and suffer – like us. 

To feel what it must have been like to be on board that fateful trawler, watch the film The Swimmers on Netflix, following the journey of  teenage Syrian refugees Yusra Mardini and her sister Sarah Mardini from Syria to Germany and their treacherous crossing of the Aegean Sea.

Or, closer to home, read Jonny Steinberg’s 2015 book, A Man of Good Hope, about the journey of Asad Abdullahi from Mogadishu in Somalia to Blikkiesdorp.

Or watch Mike van Graan’s play about migration, When Swallows Cry.

Check yourself before you too easily pass on misinformation that “foreigners” are responsible for South Africa’s crime or unemployment crisis. 

Residents of the village of Thermi prevent asylum seekers from disembarking from a dinghy that arrived at the small port at Lesvos island in Greece, with the help of a lifeguard vessel, on 1 March 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Orestis Panagiotou)

Consider what we should do, and what we should demand of our government and political parties to humanely address a migration crisis that will get worse and worse in southern Africa as well.

There’s no doubt that migration on the scale that is now occurring is a challenge to the resources of every nation, but a response based on human rights and inclusion is possible, particularly if we reclaim our democracies, stamp out corruption and prioritise social investment in realising the rights of the poor – as is required by the Constitution in South Africa. 

Failing that, the refugee crisis that we are seeing explode in 2023 is a portent of a near future. It points to a world where billions of people are going to be locked out: assaulted by nature and other human beings, denied peace, dignity, love, protection, recognition, food, the most fundamental of human rights. 

A world of walls, guns and prisons.

On World Refugee Day 2023 it’s time we discovered our common humanity and resolved to become activists for a just and sustainable future. DM

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  • Caroline de Braganza says:

    The lack of comments on your editorial speaks volumes. I too “recognise that these people are children, mothers, fathers, people with dreams, fears, the capacity to feel pain and suffer – like us.”

    I look beyond the numbers and feel their pain and anguish. I’m so tired of the focus on people smugglers. People desperate for a better life will embark on any path toward that goal, irrespective of how they get there, whether it costs them money – or their lives.

    Governments play on their citizens’ fear of the “other” – those who don’t look like us who are from different cultures and backgrounds. They go out of their way to make it as difficult as possible for fellow human beings to seek asylum. I cite the example of how Ukrainian refugees were welcome with open arms by Europe and the UK. Yet the UK wants to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a country known for it’s human rights abuses.

    Perhaps I suffer from too much empathy because every reported tragedy makes me cry. But I prefer crying to closing my eyes to the suffering of others.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Well Caroline, I don’t know what the answer is. But I can tell you this – visit the foreshore of Genoa, Italy. 10 years ago it was a popular place to go. Today it is occupied by drug dealers, petty thieves and smugglers – and they are not from Sicily or other Mafia strongholds. They are from Tunisia, Libya, Somalia, Syria, … And if you’re an Italian citizen, you are not universally shielded from unemployment – it is limited. Yet “refugees” who qualify fro settlement, despite what the bleeding hearts would have you believe, are mostly single young men very capable of assisting with and implementing change in their own countries, and who receive an indefinite daily allowance of EUR 35-00, plus council housing, plus cell phone allowance, plus travel and assistance with job seeking. Resentment builds easily with this type of treatment. What you folk seem to forget, in the comfort of your warm lounges and excellent South African diet in front of you every meal, is that not every European lives like you. In fact, the vast majority don’t. And they certainly don’t want to be responsible for the detritus of non-performing countries. And don’t shove the arms sales crap down our throats – because nobody held a gun to the heads of the people who buy them – and remember, no gun ever fired by itself.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    What is the UN doing to prevent mass migration from countries where civil war is to blame ? All they do is set up refugee camps instead of sending peace keeping forces to stop the war.

  • Edward French says:

    You offer three solutions today to the challenge of sustaining our humanity before the enormity (i.e. monstrosity) of the refugee crisis. The first is to cover it and yet also write life- and meaning-giving articles like your mountain-biking story in the Daily Maverick… doing that even while you are so aware of the enormity.
    The second is to tell the stories of actual individuals and families caught up in the crisis. You are only able to hint at this in your editorial. Growing up in the aftermath of the holocaust, one couldn’t help being blunted by the overwhelming statistics and the pictures of piles of corpses. It was only when the individual stories started to emerge that empathy could come to life again.
    Thirdly, informed analysis of causality and responsibility is also essential, and you also touch on this. It should include an unsentimental understanding of why populations become resentful of immigrants and refugees.
    Knowing what to do after all that remains a problem.
    Thank you for your sustaining humanity.

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