World Refugee Day was on 20 June and it seems to have gone mostly unacknowledged in South Africa, something I find strange considering the immigration and refugee crisis we are currently facing.
On the day, a colleague wrote an article highlighting that, on 14 June, the dead bodies of 78 people were recovered off the coast of a town called Pylos in Greece; 104 people were rescued from the sea. All these people are likely to have come from a capsized fishing boat that apparently had 750 people crammed on board — all of them believed to be refugees.
As I reflect on this incident, I am reminded of the words of writer and poet Warsan Shire, who was born in Kenya to Somali parents who later migrated to the UK: “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
Perhaps it would be prudent to look at what the word refugee actually means and what it evokes within us, if anything. Immigrants are generally people who voluntarily move to another country with relative ease, but refugees are people displaced and forced to leave their countries as a result of war, persecution or natural disaster.
It is a term that resonates because, once upon a time, my family and I were classified as refugees as a result of finding ourselves in neighbouring SADC countries owing to apartheid persecution. The experience was characterised by turmoil, homesickness, instability and unbelonging. None of it was a choice.
I have met many a refugee from all over the continent and each expressed a desire for peace, stability and a chance at self-actualisation. I am not, however, of the mind that one must show empathy towards the plight of refugees simply because they may have been one or know someone who is.
That a day has had to be dedicated to the plight of the refugee should not pass unexamined or simply accepted as a general fact. It means it is a serious enough humanitarian crisis that the UN has decided to spotlight it and work towards the mobilisation of action to stem its rising tide.
As of 2022, human atrocities perpetrated on other humans had led to a record 108.4 million displaced people. The number of people being displaced by the climate crisis is said to be 21.5 million a year. None of these people have any control over the events leading them to such a crisis, yet they suffer through and absorb the impact.
It cannot be accepted as some people’s fate to live a life of such degradation and strife, or that when they try to escape they either perish or face further persecution in a new country. Those who seek refuge need our compassion and humanity as they are already fighting for their right to live and have their human rights vindicated.
Solidarity is necessary. The deaths of 600 people should not go unmourned and unquestioned. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.