Syria Awareness Week – Jan 30 – Feb 3

So I don’t know if I’ve mentioned yet, but I’m part of the Syria Society at SOAS, and this coming week we are having our Syria Awareness Week! We have lots of events about many different aspects, and I’m presenting an event too!

Here’s our line-up:

Hopefully we’ll have a successful week!

Film Screening – After Spring

It’s January, and back to uni time!

I went to another film screening last night to watch After Spring – this is the film that Jon Stewart produced, and it follows a couple of Syrian refugee families in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. A major figure in the documentary is also Kilian Kleinschmidt, who is the director of Zaatari – a very inspiring man, trying to keep the camp running as effectively as possible.

I’ve been really fascinated by how Zaatari was set up and how it grew so quickly, so this documentary was very interesting in showing how people are trying to make as much of a life as they can in the circumstances they’re in.

I’m thinking of writing my MA dissertation on refugee camps, like Zaatari, and how they struggle with trying to be a temporary shelter, so that they can be packed up and closed when the crisis is over, and how they actually have to become more entrenched and provide more services, since the crisis is becoming more and more protracted. What do you think?

STAR Conference

So…. in case you haven’t noticed yet, I’m interested in the situations and experiences of refugees. Who knew?!

This weekend I went to the STAR (Student Action for Refugees) Conference entitled: Refugee Crisis? What Crisis?. I’d heard of STAR before, and wanted to learn more about the organization and the type of workshops they would be running during the conference. The impetus behind the conference was to bring people together to learn about how the UK had handled previous refugee flows, and to discuss how the UK can manage the current “refugee crisis”.

It was a really interesting day – I think one of the most interesting points made during the conference was just the historical amnesia people have in relation to past refugee flows. The current situation isn’t completely unprecedented and it’s not impossible to manage, but we just have so many fear-mongers who are trying to frighten the public about the “invasion” (BREXIT, anyone??), without actually contextualizing it.

It was really inspiring to hear from Gulwali Passarlay, and I definitely have his book (The Lightless Sky) on my reading list.

Here’s the conference program, if you want to take a look at the other speakers that were there: STAR Conference Program.


Book Launch: “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour” by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano

Book launches! They’re a thing!

So I seem to be going to a lot of book launches lately – they are such a great way to hear directly from the authors about their experiences writing, the research they’ve done, and the conclusions they’ve drawn.

Last night I went to the book launch of “Migrant, Refugee, Smuggler, Saviour” by Peter Tinti and Tuesday Reitano. They talked about the research they conducted into the smuggling trade, the connection to highly sophisticated criminal networks, and how the smuggling trade is connected to migration and organized crime. They made some really excellent points, points that I’ve been thinking about myself, but obviously, made much more clearly.

They made clear that there is a distinction between a human smuggler and a trafficker; this is important to remember because many politicians are equating the two in discussing the “refugee crisis”. Smugglers are providing a service; this service is necessary because of policies criminalizing migration. By criminalizing migration, you end up criminalizing migrants themselves; by making people more desperate, you are directly pushing them into the path of the smugglers, but they are deciding to choose these services, they pay for a service and receive something in return. The difference with trafficking, is that people are in situations which they don’t choose – they are trafficked to a location they didn’t choose, they are forced to engage in activities they didn’t decide to do (i.e. sex work or forced labour), and their liberty is constrained. They presented an interesting analysis of the smuggling networks that have arisen out of the current situation – many smuggling networks are increasingly sophisticated and professional – using smartphones, QR codes, online money transfers and holding funds in a third-party account until the refugee reaches their destination safely and provides final access to the funds. But there are so many variations, based on what people can pay and what routes people take, that there are, of course, the cheap options which sees hundreds of people crammed on a broken down dinghy, almost certainly to capsize, where the smuggler doesn’t care about reputation, just cash up front. These cheaper options leave people much more vulnerable to being forced into a trafficked situation, where they pay large sums of money up front, but end up being forced into labour to actually work their way onto a boat, or trafficked to other locations, now that they have lost their financial bargaining power.

And a distinction also needs to be made between migrant and refugee. As I’ve mentioned in posts before, refugees are a legally protected group of people fleeing danger from their homelands. Migrants, economic migrants in particular, are those who have chosen to leave in search of better economic prosperity elsewhere. But the distinction becomes increasingly blurry as people are on the move. When a Syrian refugee, who initially moved into Lebanon or Jordan with savings, expecting the conflict not to last long, has run out of money, and decides to try to make it to Europe with the hope of stability, is their second journey one of an economic migrant or a refugee? And when a Somali migrant, in search of better economic prosperity, is captured, trafficked, and assaulted making their way to Egypt or Libya in order to make the Mediterranean crossing to Europe, is their second journey a continuation of the first, or are they now a persecuted refugee seeking sanctuary? Many on the move switch in and out of these categories of migrant/refugee, and it is a challenging endeavor to try and categorize these people….because at the core, these are people who are coming up against the immovable force of increasingly restrictive migration policies that are forcing people to take desperate steps. In the end, this is not a refugee crisis; it is the failure of providing accessible migration options, and it is the failure to ameliorate the conditions, economically, politically, and socially, that are driving people to go on the move in search of safety, stability, and prosperity.

All in all, this was a fascinating event, and I am looking forward to reading the book to get a better insight into the connections between organized crime, immigration policies, and the refugee crisis. As Peter and Tuesday concluded, smugglers may be “criminals”, but they are equally saviours to the people who have helped them reach safety.

Stories of the Day – June 17

Wow, time really does fly when you’re having fun. I’ve spent the last couple weeks traveling to see some friends and family (and watching a lot of women’s soccer – go Canada!), but I’m back in a blogging groove, and there’s definitely lots that has been going on in the world. So here’s what I’m reading today:

  • 2015 is ‘year of fear’ for children worldwide, warns Gordon Brown
    • I don’t even know what to say about this, except for the fact that these numbers are tragic and incomprehensibly large. The world has record numbers of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) and refugees – 38 million and 16.7 million respectively – and half of those are children. That’s 27.35 million children who have been uprooted from their homes, and the implications of this are staggering. These children are at risk of being trafficked, sold into slavery, into forced labour, child marriages, not to mention being unable to go to school. We are going to have a huge population bulge of young adults in the coming years who will be struggling with the fallout of witnessing war, and all the stresses that come with fleeing homes and trying to find safety again. This is really an unprecedented time in global crises, and it’s somewhat understandable the donor fatigue that first-world/western countries are feeling, but man – this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. We seriously need to inject huge sums of money into humanitarian support for these crises, and we need to focus on providing education and psychological support for these children.
  • Hate crimes against Muslims in Britain spike after ‘jihadi’ attacks, study finds
    • This kind of report is really disheartening. It’s sad to read that people cannot distinguish the actions of an individual from the actions of a group. Whenever some white man goes off and kills a person/people, you don’t see other groups of people committing crimes against white men. Now, obviously, that’s because of the entrenched position of privilege that they hold, but I think the thought experiment is valuable – by turning the reaction on its head, we can see how really absurd the thought process is.
    • It’s also really important to note this quote: “Findings also suggest that where the media stress the Muslim background of attackers, and devote significant coverage to it, the violent response is likely to be greater than in cases where the motivation of the attackers are downplayed or rejected in favour of alternative explanations.”
  • The Story of a Hate Crime
    • Speaking of what happens when a white man shoots and kills people….. This really is a long-form story that you must read. It details the story of the Chapel Hill shooting in which three young Muslim Americans were shot and killed – allegedly over a parking spot. But really, we all know (or we should know) that this was a racially/religiously motivated hate crime. And it makes a very poignant point – “Bloggers complained that the Chapel Hill killings weren’t getting enough media coverage, and that if the roles had been reversed—Muslim shooter, non-Muslim victims—the incident would have been labelled terrorism.” It is undeniably unjust that the definition of terrorism is inextricably bound to the race/religion of the person committing the crime. This act should be labeled terrorism – if terrorism is the act of committing a crime that instills terror in a group of people, then racially/religiously motivated crimes should be labelled terrorism – because the family and friends of these young people felt threatened and unsafe in their own communities and homes after this shooting took place. I haven’t read a follow-up to this story as to what is happening to the perpetrator of these killings, but I really hope that has been charged and convicted of a hate crime. And I hope he serves his sentence in prison. But more than that, I hope he has the opportunity to meet and get to know young Muslims like the people he killed, and really and truly understand that what he did was incredibly stupid and wrong. And I hope he lives with that for the rest of his life.

EU Response to Refugee Crisis

Whenever I watch the news, I always seem to start yelling at the tv (I do this with hockey too) (this is why I read the news instead of watch it). The story that got me yelling? The recently announced decision by the European Union to start targeting (and then destroying) the boats of smugglers who are ferrying refugees from northern Africa to Europe.

Think about that for a second – the EU is deciding to spend time and effort in creating a military naval mission that will destroy the vessels that desperate people are using to flee to a better life INSTEAD OF spending that time and effort in a) increasing the safe and legal means for people to claim refugee status; b) increasing spending and donations to the refugee camps like Zaatari that need so many more resources; c) working on a tangible solution to the crisis.

Now, understand that I don’t condone smugglers – I think they are taking terrible advantage of desperate people who are fleeing traumatic experiences. But history is rife with people/groups/countries taking advantage of demands in war-time (war profiteering, anyone?), and blaming the smugglers for all the refugees is such a small-minded understanding of the situation.

Human rights groups are also raising issues about this tactic. For one, targeting the boats does not diminish the number of people who are trying to flee – all it does is make it easier for smugglers to extort more money and cram more people on the remaining boats, which could in all probability lead to many more deaths than the record number 1,800 people who have drowned so far in 2015 (approximately 3,500 people drowned making the Mediterranean crossing in 2014). Additionally, militarily targeting smuggler boats may run out the comparatively “good” traffickers, and make room for more militant groups who have the fire-power to withstand such aggression from this EU naval mission. Not to mention that it is incredibly difficult to determine who is a smuggler, and who is a local civilian fisherman, thus potentially leading to more civilian deaths.

You can read more about this story here: EU agrees to Mediterranean naval mission to stop migration flow amid controversy

A really important note that I want to share, from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles:

“[R]efugees have a distinct legal status. Refugees are forced to leave their country because their lives are in danger. Migrants and other groups on the move often make a conscious decision for economic and other reasons. Refugees don’t have this choice.”

I know a lot of people use the argument “We have so much to fix in our own country/we should help our poor people here first/our economy can’t handle this many people”……and so on….. I personally think those are crappy excuses. Is there a lot more our own governments can do for people who need help in our own countries? Whether you live in Canada, the US, any where in Europe, or really, anywhere in the world, of course the answer is always YES. But I tend to find that people who use those excuses are the same people who despise the thought of raising taxes, providing social safety nets, homeless shelters, or affordable housing options. The simple fact of the matter is that refugees are people – people who have hope and dreams, who love their families, who experience pain and fear, and who deserve dignity and respect, and the chance to better their lives. Remember, refugees are forced to leave their country because their lives are in danger – if you read any of the Tracks stories that the UNHCR publishes, you will find a common theme – people don’t want to leave their homes. So many people tried to stay in their homes for as long as they could. They tried to live among the bombings and constant threat of death. And when they couldn’t stay any longer, they tried to find a place where they could be safe.

All of this is to say that this decision to target the smugglers and traffickers will really only punish the people who have already been forced to flee from their homes. The EU (and Canada and the US) really needs to step up and undertake more tangible strategies to address this refugee crisis.

Stories of the Day – May 7, 2015

I don’t really have any kind of introduction to my stories of the day today, except that sometimes, on days like today, I wonder how I can see things with such a common-sense view, and other people seem to hiding their heads in the sand and not looking at the big pictures. *sigh* (can’t we all just get along?!). Anyways, with no further ado, here’s what I was reading today:

  • Violence doesn’t erase the legitimacy of grievances – in Baltimore, Tel Aviv or the West Bank
    • This is a REALLY great article. It’s such an obvious and simple parallel – we may all agree that violence is wrong: physical violence, property destruction, looting, etc, but we NEED to look at the injustices that motivate people to resort to violence. We can condemn the violence, but address the injustices that cause that violence. The author makes a splendid comparison with reactions to the riots in Baltimore and the protests by Ethiopian Israelis, and how the world reacts when a Palestinian kid throws a rock at an IDF tank in Gaza.
  • The Syrian Refugees Who Pay With Their Life To Leave
    • “The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone, and this is only the start of the summer,” says Kate Allen, Amnesty’s UK director. “If they had been vacationers instead of migrants imagine the response.”
      • This sentence breaks my heart. Think of all the resources that have gone into finding MH370 or the outrage when the Costa Concordia ran aground. Even more than “if they had been vacationers” – imagine if all the refugees were white. Imagine if all of the drowned mothers, fathers, and children, were blonde-haired, blue-eyed, English speakers named John, Sally, and Joe. So much of the response to the refugee crisis has been subtle racism and Islamophobia, and it is absolutely deplorable.
    • (By the way – not only Europe. Here’s a scathing article of how Canada is doing too: Opinion: Canada is failing in its responsibilities to refugees )
  • ‘Blame the Muslims’: Islamophobia is fuelled by government and media
    • To add to my point above – If I don’t have to apologize for crimes committed by white people, or by women, or by Canadians, then Muslim people do not have to apologize for crimes committed by other Muslim people. Period. Full stop. But in this crazy, topsy-turvy world, where, apparently, they do – THEY ARE. After any atrocious act committed by IS/ISIS/ISIL, you will hear community leaders, Imams, or simply just your regular Muslim fellow, condemn those acts of violence. Anyone who tells you that Muslims don’t denounce those acts are not paying enough attention.

Stories of the Day – May 5, 2015

I’m not really intending my “Stories of the Day” posts to be a daily thing, but it looks like I have more interesting reads to share with you today, so away we go!

  • In a follow up to some of the stories I posted yesterday, check out this write up by Glenn GreenwaldSamples of Israeli Horrific Brutality and War Criminality in Gaza
    • If the excerpts I posted last night made you sick, the excerpts grabbed by Glenn Greenwald will make you sicker. My favourite line by him? “This is the savage occupying force known as the Israeli Defense Forces”.
  • Enduring Syria war: Photographer documents shattered childhoods (IMAGES)
    • Since I’m obviously in the business of happy-go-lucky stories (/sarcasm), this photograph series will tug at your heartstrings. I can’t even imagine the pain and the fear and the trauma that these children have endured.
  • Preparing for a ‘death trip’: the story of one Syrian refugee
    • The sheer number of stories of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean is staggering and heartbreaking. Families torn apart, people being taken advantage of by smugglers, boats being deliberating capsized or sinking because of their poor condition… all goes on and on and on. So much more needs to be done to protect these people. Number one, obviously, would be to stop the conflict in Syria. But even more than that is to make entering European countries much more safe and accessible to refugees. Neighbouring countries have taken in much more than they can possibly deal with, while European and American countries haven’t stepped up at all. All refugees fleeing conflict have been through traumas that the majority of us can’t even imagine; they deserve respect, dignity, and safety, not more trauma from an arduous journey from country to country, that requires illegally crossing borders and paying huge sums of money to human smugglers, to be put on a dinky little boat crammed over-capacity, knowing the very real possibility of dying at sea, and only to be met at the other end with more over-crowding, and lack of resources.