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EU refugee crisis: The tragedy of nationalism

August 22, 2015

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Syrian refugee children. —AP
Syrian refugee children. —AP

Somewhere, in between all the politics of the state, we have forgotten the one thing that binds us all together – humanity.

Raed, a 30-year-old refugee from Syria, points to a bullet wound on his upper left arm. “Daesh [Islamic State] is not good,” he says. “Shot family. Shot my uncle. See a man – boom. See a woman – boom. See children – boom.”

Raed’s story, sadly, is not a unique one. More than 200,000 refugees have landed on European shores in 2015 alone, fleeing devastation and death in their war-torn countries. At least 38 per cent of them are from Syria, a country torn apart by civil war. The Syrian civilian population faces no easy choices, with government brutality on one side, and jihadist groups like Islamic State on the other.

Also read: Books not bullets: Malala opens school for Syrian refugee girls

In the face of such dire conditions, Raed and thousands others made the arduous journey to Europe in the hope of a better future.

Hayat Asrat, a 21-year-old female refugee from Eritrea, lost her mother in the crossing to Europe – she drowned in the sea off Libya. Another asylum seeker, a 34-year-old Syrian who preferred to remain unnamed, floated in the open sea for 45 minutes after his small rubber dinghy punctured, before he was finally rescued. “If I live 200 years, I will never forget it,” he said. “This is the first time in my life I felt I will die.”

And yet, these survivors are the lucky ones.

Just last Saturday, 40 migrants were found dead in a boat crossing the Mediterranean, having inhaled poisonous fumes. Another 50 died the week before after their rubber dinghy sank.

Also read: Europe responsible for refugees ‘drowning in the sea’: Erdogan

In 2015 alone, 2,300 people, fleeing desperate circumstances, have already died trying to cross over to Europe.

But amidst such tremendous human suffering, sympathy for non-European lives seems to be in short supply these days. In Calais, France, near the border crossing to the UK, over 3,000 asylum seekers take refuge in a camp where tear gas and beatings from the police are common, but showers and sanitary facilities are in short supply.

Further south, on the Greek island of Kos, around 2,500 mostly Syrian and Afghan refugees were locked into a stadium, without food or water, for over 18 hours in the piercing heat. Refugees inside the stadium fainted at the rate of four people an hour.

Even the language from some European politicians indicates an utter lack of compassion. British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to the asylum seekers as a “swarm”, a term more regularly used for parasitic bugs, while their Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, termed them “marauding migrants” from Africa who the UK needed to protect itself against.

While some other EU countries have been far more accepting of refugees, the general indifference over non-European lives and the support for nationalistic movements has rapidly manifested itself in most European countries over the past few years.

In the UK, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) won the third most number of votes in the past general election by focusing on immigrants’ supposedly coming in and stealing benefits. In France, the Front National (FN) has risen in popularity due to its anti-immigration stances.

Also read: The world’s unwanted

Even the traditionally tolerant and liberal Nordic democracies have shifted to the right. Both Denmark and Sweden recently voted parties into power that campaigned on the platform of limiting immigration and the return to the “good old days” (when only Nordic people lived in their countries, of course).

Nationalism, it seems, has the ability to unite countries, but also create divisions between a common humanity.

And unfortunately, Europe is not the only place suffering from this problem. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump has drawn plenty of condemnation for calling those fleeing poverty and war, “criminals” and “rapists”. But at the same time, he has soared in popularity on the back of those comments, with many Americans considering him the true protector of American values and the American people.

Moving further east to the refugee situation in our very own country, Pakistan, also illustrates parallels with the rhetoric and prejudice used to taint foreign nationals in other parts of the world.

Just a little over a month ago, the CDA Islamabad razed the homes of over 30,000 people based in a slum in sector I-11, dubbed Afghan Basti, because it claimed that they were illegal. And that there could be “terrorists” hiding amongst the Afghans and Pakthuns living in the settlement.

A few months before that, in the wake of the APS attack in Peshawar, authorities went door-to-door in various settlements, apparently telling Afghan nationals to go back to where they came from.

Such stories of anti-Afghan sentiment are not uncommon in Pakistan, where Afghan refugees often complain about facing intimidation and harassment because they are viewed with suspicion. In reality, they are a largely peaceful people being demonised because of the actions of a few; the irony is apparently lost on Pakistanis who unfairly face similar labels abroad.

Also read: Most Afghan refugees return home due to fear of arrest, harassment

Sadly, all of us are complicit in this to a certain degree. When our politicians roar about certain policies being best for “our country and our people”, we all cheer our approval without ever really pausing to ask ourselves — what is it that makes us prioritise the lives of those around us more than others?

Why do we care more about those people who live in a socially constructed boundary around us? After all, we are but mere accidents of birth.

A European born a few hundred miles further south could have been a desperate Libyan trying to cross the Mediterranean for a better life. A Pakistani born a few hundred miles to the west could have been a poor Afghan refugee trying to make a living in a slum in Islamabad.

In such a case, would we then appreciate the same nationalistic rhetoric of our politicians?

Over the last century or so, fundamental human rights have been advanced significantly in most parts of the world. Many have begun to recognise that accidents of birth should not determine one’s entire life trajectory; that caste, colour, creed, sex, and sexual orientation, should not be grounds to discriminate against people.

Yet, when it comes to nationality, our minds hit a stumbling block.

The nation-state, it seems, is still something we refuse to see as discriminatory; something that perpetuates the self versus other binary, defeating the common bond of our humanity.