September 2015: the image of a Turkish police officer stood next to the dead body of a three year old boy takes the internet by storm. He was a Syrian, who drowned as the result of a boat of smuggled refugees capsizing off the coast of Turkey on route to a new life. Outrage and upset ensues, and for many it is as though the horror and brutality of the Syrian civil war didn’t exist until this very moment. Until the moment that people everywhere were forced to acknowledge the scale of the problem that is the Syrian refugee crisis.
I recently read Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, and while I do not feel I can give this book a review as I normally review books on this blog, I am instead writing this discussion in its place, for I have not stopped thinking about it since I finished it. I have done some research since and during my time with this book and so this post will be a combination of conclusions I have drawn from all sources.
I am embarrassed to admit that up until recently I knew relatively little about the Syrian Civil War and the nature of the conflict. However, the information is available if you care to look for it. For those of you who are not as familiar, I have briefly summarised below.
The arrest and torture of teenage protesters in the Syrian city of Deraa in 2011 acted as a catalyst, causing a surge in anti-dictatorship, pro-democratic, peaceful protests, voicing discontent with Syria’s leader, President Assad. As peaceful protests were met with open fire and violence from the authorities the motive was only strengthened, with protests across the country calling for the resignation of President Assad. The shock at the extremity of action by the government to these protests caused protestors to retaliate in defence by taking up arms. What began as an appeal to the government for increased freedom of speech and freedom in general quickly transformed into a bloodbath of epic proportions.
By 2012, protest had shifted to civil war, with rebel brigades across the country trying to gain control of cities across Syria. The death toll continued to grow and grow, furthering the resentment on both sides of the battle. As the civil war progressed so did divisions in the country, with sub branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shia Alawite falling on opposing sides of the fight. In addition to this, the rise of the Islamic State (IS) means a constant battle for control of Syria. In acts of war, chemical weapons, deprivation of access to food and water and medicine, torture, rape and murder highlight the reality of Syrian civilians and their fate if they remain in the country that was once their home.
Thus, the world is watching a mass exodus, one of the largest in history, with nearly 7 million people being displaced within their own country and nearly 5 million having fled Syria altogether.
The exodus has extended outwards from neighbouring Syrian countries such as Lebanon and Turkey into Europe, the most common method being illegally, across the sea. The International Organization for Migration claimed that almost 35,000 refugees travelled by land to Europe, and over 1 million by sea. The journey to Europe overseas is a thankless one; hundreds of defenceless individuals packed into precarious vessels, living in fear of kidnap, starvation, disease and worse. These individuals put their lives in the hands of smuggling gangs at both a significant financial and emotional expense. While the experiences Wolfgang Bauer shares in his book sound the equivalent of hell; it truly says something about the life that Syrians are fleeing from, if risking everything to illegally enter a Western world which does not want or welcome them seems a more desirable alternative to what they are leaving behind.
Bauer and photographer Stanislav Krupař pose undercover as men seeking solace alongside real life refugees, and Bauer recounts their experience and provides an in depth insight into the hell that hundreds of thousands experience in their efforts to secure a better life, or at the very least one free of war. Krupař’s contribution is that of photographs where and if he could take them undetected, and these add yet another dimension to the book and serve as a way for readers to visualise the people behind the headlines, the people behind the crisis.
I can safely say that I have never read anything as devastating and eye opening as this book. Reading of the level of suffering that so many people are facing, reading about the desperation, depression, hopelessness, hope, debilitating fear, frustration and pain that greets those brave enough to strive for safety makes me feel a number of things; namely shame at the Western world that I belong to and at how little we are doing in the grand scheme of things to help those in need.
Bauer’s account of the lives of a group of men he lived amongst and their relentless attempts to escape to Europe is haunting and stripped back, as the stories of these refugees need nothing but honesty to display the sheer horror of what they are going through. Bauer gives a blow by blow account of the painstaking journey to safety and the dangers, corruption and the extreme measures that refugees have to go through. In particular, Bauer focuses on three men; Amar, Hussan and Alaa and their journey across to Europe. While these men were successful in their attempts, Bauer also highlights the fates of those who weren’t, and the reading experience is chilling.
As someone who comes from a life of privilege, I am always eager, yet inevitably dismayed to learn about experiences that I can never truly understand. As much as I empathise, I can never fully comprehend the sheer magnitude of the experiences of the victims of the Syrian civil war. However, Bauer’s work is a true eye opener and sobering insight into a crisis that so many of us have failed to understand or see for what it is.
When I consider the way that the refugee crisis has been portrayed in the media -specifically in the United Kingdom- I see the failings and evident fear and hostility that exists. While we should be seeing the crisis for what it is, a life threatening misery and the suffering of our fellow humans, instead we are being scared into believing that ‘migrants’ are going to overflow our country, dry up our funds and resources and terrorise us. We are convinced that we need protected from the influx of Syrians, when we should be focusing on protecting them from the war that they have been swept up in. Instead of extending a hand to those in need, our country has been overcome with a moral panic which breeds a reluctance to reach out.
One of the most common things that I hear when the Syrian refugee crisis comes up in conversation is the sweeping statement that those seeking safety and security are in fact manipulating and taking advantage of the countries of the West, and that these people are in fact most likely disguised members of the terrorist group, IS posing as refugees. I hear either this or the idea that Syrians are going to take jobs and drain public services. When I consider how many people I know who think this way I cannot help but feel shame and guilt. Especially after reading Bauer’s book, as he shows who the majority of the people behind the crisis are and what their motive is, and it is nothing more than safety for themselves and for their families.
Another issue I have considered after reading this book and as a result of my research is the labelling of this epidemic as a ‘migrant’ crisis. To me, this seems a flaw. A migrant is defined as somebody who moves from one place to another to find better living conditions or work. When I consider the word migrant, I do not see children’s lifeless bodies washed up on a beach, I don’t envision 500 people covered in vomit and faeces, starving and crammed like sardines on a boat somewhere in the Mediterranean, I don’t picture civilians being bombed or tortured for political belief. The use of the word migrant almost downplays the extremity of suffering. In contrast, the word refugee is defined as an individual who has been forced to leave their country to escape war, persecution, natural disaster or fates similar. Indeed, David Miliband highlights this tactic and its implication, stating that the use of the word migrant opposed to what these people really are (refugees) seems to be a bid to deny them of their international right to seek help from elsewhere.
“It is a misnamed crisis, and it seems not misnamed by accident. It’s been too convenient to misname it as a migrant crisis, because it suggests these people are voluntarily fleeing, whereas in fact – if you’ve been barrel-bombed out of your home three times, life and limb demand that you flee,” he said. “It’s not about being politically incorrect in using the term migrant. It’s simply incorrect.”
It is easy to come to the conclusion that Syrian civilians have been wronged; not just through the brutality that they face in their own country, but in the quality of the aid they have received from the West. Those who are successful in making the journey to Europe are faced with stigma, violence, abuse and rejection. Bauer discusses this in Crossing the Sea, and the measures that Europe and the European Union have taken during this crisis, and how in many cases they have just increased suffering and death and have done little in the way of solving problems.
When I hear people arguing that there is only so much that we as a country can do, I cringe. We are doing far from enough to help these poor, helpless people. While Germany granted over 140,000 asylum claims in 2015, the United Kingdom accepted a feeble 13, 095. According to the BBC, the ratio of asylum applications per 100,000 citizens of European countries for the United Kingdom is 60: 100,000. This is a rate even lower than the Republic of Ireland, with a ratio of 71: 100,000. Anyone who looks at these figures and is content that this is enough is naïve. Not only does this send a bad message to countries in the East, depicting us as hostile and displaying a lack of correlation in what we are claiming to do and what we are actually doing, this is further weakening our relationship with the rest of Europe.
In the closing chapter of Crossing the Sea, Bauer makes a plea to humanity (more specifically to Europe) which brought tears to my eyes and furthered my resolution to talk about this issue. He asks us to re-evaluate our concept of humanity, have mercy on those who perish at sea. He asks us to consider how our betrayal of these refugees is also a betrayal of ourselves. He begs us to see all that there is to be done, and to stop ignoring the suffering of the world. I would urge any of you who are at all interested in this tragedy that is shaking the world to make a point of informing yourselves of what is really happening. In a world full of suffering, pain and bloodshed it is our duty to be informed and it is our duty to ourselves and to our fellow mankind to help in any way, shape or form that we can. We should NOT be stereotyping, scaremongering, labelling, slandering, ignoring, restricting or downplaying the severity of this situation; we should be offering a helping hand while we still can, and try and regain a sense of charity and humanity. This book is valuable for that reason, as it shows what people and the media overlook: these are suffering people, families, children, and they need our help.