History is full of stories of refugees fleeing conflict and devastation only to face untimely deaths, but as the world reflects on various wars and genocides, it seems that millions continue to turn a blind eye to the refugees’ situation. The recent news of the fishing vessel that sank off the shores of Greece with as many as 700 people on board is extremely concerning. The death toll currently stands at 78, but around 500 are still missing days after the disaster, which is an ominous sign. The dead were from diverse backgrounds: Iraqis, Egyptians, Afghans and, of course, Syrians were on the boat which left Tobruk in Libya and headed for Europe.
The silence at the disaster is deafening. News has been muted; the international response so far has been underwhelming. The most worrying development is that the account of the Greece Coastguard is under serious doubt. The BBC apparently has evidence which contradicts the coastguard’s claim that the vessel was on course in Italian territorial waters and therefore in no need of rescue, and when contact attempts were made, those on the boat said that they did not want help. This is untrue, as tracking data by maritime analytics platform Marine Traffic demonstrates. The UN is calling for an investigation, but this is days after the accident and the response of world leaders has been disappointing compared with that of countless other tragedies. Moreover, the fact that the Greek migration ministry immediately blamed smugglers (not an innocent party) rather than reflecting on its own role in this entirely avoidable matter speaks volumes. Greece has been denounced for expelling would-be asylum seekers, a violation of international law.
Numerous Syrians (especially from Dara’a in the south) were on the boat, and are currently missing. Dara’a was supposed to be akin to a safe zone for refugees, especially compared with the north west which is under the constant threat of a government offensive, but the deals arranged between the Bashar Al-Assad regime and the local opposition through the Russians made it easier for Damascus to enjoy the benefits of the Captagon drug trade. This has resulted in increased smuggling across the Syrian-Jordanian border and numerous areas in the south are now occupied by Iranian militias and their Hezbollah allies. Consequently, many in Dara’a do not feel safe; assassinations of some of its well-known figures have been commonplace; and whilst many tried to flee towards Jordan, the authorities in Amman are not allowing any more Syrian refugees into the country. This “safe zone” is clearly unsafe. The fact that countless Syrians still feel the need to flee their country is a damning indictment of the situation in Syria.Moreover, the suggestion that plenty of refugees are wanting to return and are making arrangements to do so is false. Syrians living in regime-held areas face a miserable existence, and those with the ability are raising thousands of dollars to pay smugglers to take them to north-west Syria and thousands more to go to Europe, the perceived “promised land”. Those on the boats are desperate; they have heard about the countless refugees who have watery graves in the Mediterranean Sea but they make the trip anyway. Some refugees will have witnessed crimes against humanity and war crimes, and are fearful for their families and their futures. The Syrian opposition has long been splintered and divided, but surely this is something they can unite on: how can those who have fled be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve; how can they be viewed beyond the lens of mere conflict statistics?
The story of young Aylan Kurdi, whose body was found on a beach in Turkiye in September 2015, at least elicited a response and some introspection from Europe and the West. Eight years later, it seems that many can’t even bring themselves to reflect on the cascade of failures that has led to history repeating itself constantly. Moreover, authoritarian leaders – Assad prominent amongst them – remain as powerful as ever. They, and he especially, are the root cause of the problem. The failure of Syrian refugees to resettle starts with him.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.