Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
Summer is a time of holidays for most of us. It is a time when we forget work for a while and all the things we have to do to keep house and job together. But there is nothing easy about the situation in many Mediterranean countries at the moment. Syrians are having the worst time but things generally are quite difficult. We can see crisis in one form or another stretching right down from Greece to Libya.
Like many others in GRAMNet I have been out and about in several places. It is always good to talk to people on the ground wherever possible. Syrians, Afghanis and Libyans are just people. Speaking with the new arrived refugees in the center of Athens this summer, with nothing but inadequate tents and the clothes on the back, it becomes clear that many are fleeing from horrendous situations. What I think is difficult for most of Europe to grasp is the fact that the map of the Middle East has changed forever. There is no Syria and there is no Iraq anymore. So we are not talking about people leaving states where the conditions are difficult. We are now talking about people leaving places like Syria because these states have imploded. People have nothing left in Syria anymore. Syria has quite simply gone. So there is absolutely no possibility of things returning to normal at some point in the future.
The people I met in July in the National Gardens of Athens, who had just arrived from Syria and Afghanistan looked worn out. They had no money and so they had done a lot of walking, children on their back and clothes in plastic bags and carefully wrapped parcels containing anything that could hold a few memories. These people looked lost and were clearly in shock. They had made it to Greece, but many of their friends had not. In short, many of those I met simply looked as though they were simply trying to survive. They had not left Syria because of a natural disaster but the impact on human society had been much the same. They were thus just trying to keep themselves and their families going. Compare this situation to that of Israel where the talk is constantly of surviving. There is no comparison. People are not risking their lives by crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands because they want to find better jobs prosects, which is to say the Syrians are not economically driven. They want to move their children away from the madness that is all over the Middle East at present. And many of those coming to Europe would in better days have been lawyers, teachers, doctors and skilled workers of all descriptions. These people will have something to contribute to society wherever they settle. All this should be kept in mind when we see coverage in the media …
No more Sykes-Picot agreements
What we are witnessing in the Middle East to some degree can be attributed to the way the entire region was carved up in the past, with arbitrary state boundaries. We are witnessing the collapse of a certain way of doing politics. Many of the maniacs who have been running the Middle East over the past thirty years or so were “our” men. If we (Europe, or the West) did not put in power we most certainly kept them going. We have been quite happy to work with the Mubaraks and the al-Assads. We have been one of the main suppliers of arms to that region for years. And right now when I see photographs of some youth dressed in black, standing on the back of a pick-up truck looking like Rambo I am very sure I am seeing the results of this past trade.
What the Syrian people are going through now then is not down to causes that have nothing to do with us. And what we are seeing is a tragedy on unprecedented scale, nothing like this has been seen since the years after 1945. What has made me nauseous over the past couple of days however is the kind of stuff I have seen doing the rounds on Facebook and various other forms of social media. We are not involved in a feelings competition. Do not misunderstand me here, I will take support for my Syrian friends wherever I find it but some of the posts doing the rounds right now make me dash to the bathroom. We need strategies for organizing immediate and long term support. Jobs like this cannot be left to the politicians. The photograph earlier in the week of the little boy laid lifeless on the beach upset everyone. Such things should of course upset everyone. We were all implicated in that child’s death. That should never have happened. People are going to come to Europe, they are determined and they should not have to take risks that result in the deaths of children. Children are all our business. Kids do not mess up the world. We do.
I was also in Egypt during June and July. It was my second trip to Egypt this year. I was not on the Mediterranean coast but in the south Sinai, on the edge of the Red Sea. But I could have been in a posh open prison. The whole place was like one of those Gated Communities that Margaret Thatcher used to go on about. One of those communities shaped by security and not the need to live amongst others in what used to be termed ‘society’. Strangely, there were Putin type blokes everywhere. Maybe Putin was in the area catching a few rays of sun? Whatever the situation, these fellows were not in Egypt selling the latest range of Tupperware. They really did look menacing, striding around with all their security gear. It felt like the Cold War all over again, except now we do not talk of reds but Islamists. Anything associated with the United States in Egypt at the moment arouses attention. Youth groups, community groups or women’s groups, all of which might be associated with civil society attracts the military. The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be accused of creating all of Egypt’s problems. There is absolutely no mention of past dictators like Mubarak or Sadat and his neoliberal reforms. In this last trip to Cairo I found myself for the very first time having to explain to angry people in the streets that I was not American. Things were extremely difficult in Cairo. Young shop owners would run after me demanding to know why “no more tourists come to Egypt” which was completely ironic because the answer was all around the city with posters of el-Sisi slapped on every wall. Things looked very dark. I had never experienced Cairo in such a state, and I speak as someone who is not unfamiliar with the back of the Security Services Paddy wagons. It was dangerous to just stand with a few people in the street. This was the situation whilst the regime holds thousands of political prisoners in jail. None have been charged, put before courts, or given sentences.
NGOs estimate that there are around 40 to 50,000 prisoners held in different places that are being used as prisons. Hundreds are dying in these jails each month because they are being tortured and subject to all sorts of horrendous treatment. With this sort of treatment, people are going to own up to anything when they are held for questioning. Of course this is all part of the new Middle East.
Also part of the new Middle East are cultures of fear where the “Islamists” are said to be the cause of everything. At one time you would not have heard people talk about the “Islamists” as they do now. Organizations around the Mosques do lots of important work around poverty in cities like Cairo. No one mentions this sort of work anymore but they do mention the new Israel and Egypt relationship. Israel now feels secure on its southern border. Israel now directs all of its concern towards issue in Lebanon and Gaza. The worry is that what we have witnessed in Syria could spread to Lebanon. Underlying much of the Israeli anxiety is the discovery of massive gas reserves in the Mediterranean around Cyprus. Israel wants to control these reserves. Nothing worries the state of Israel more than oil prices and the Arabs. Cyprus and Israel are therefore becoming bosom buddies. Also Turkey is no longer seen as the benign neighbor up the coast. The gaze of the Israeli generals has then shifted away from the south and focused far more on the neighbor in the north. What seems clear is that the whole region is falling apart whilst Israel reinforces its fence around Gaza and develops its drone technology. This work is supposed to make Israelis feel safe. There are maybe quite a few young Israelis that would disagree with that idea. Israel’s Prime Minister is seen constantly on the TV and he always seems to be looking up towards either the ceiling or the sky. What on earth is this about? Maybe he is expecting Iranian hang gliders to pass overhead and give him a wave? It is always very difficult to gauge what is happening in Israel because the norm is anything but normal.
New relationships and the Euro-crisis
What is confusing Netanyahu a wee bit is Putin. In fact Putin is confusing a lot of people at the moment. He seems to be everywhere in the region. He probably has ambitions to replace the Sykes-Pico Agreement which is kaput, with a more user friendly Putin-Lieberman Treaty. Somehow the madness felt right across the region is everywhere right now. It is unbelievably spooky to be in the Middle East whilst this atmosphere prevails.
What really hit me this summer however was what I witnessed in Greece. My respect for the Greek people has gone through the roof. I stayed in Athens whilst the vote was being taken on this last bail-out deal. No one knew what was happening. People were still forming lines at the cash machines. It was in people not knowing what the hell was going on that the harm was done. I have to say I was really moved by the dignity of Athenians. All that history of Greece is still there. But there is no way that they can take further cuts. And cuts are still cuts even when they are wrapped in Euro-babble. The reaction of the people in facing austerity cuts year after year has been as it would be in most countries. Greeks are not unusual in that they want what most people want. They certainly do not want handouts from Europe. But they do want their debts rescheduled which seemed immanently reasonable to me. Whether Greeks are in or out of the Euro does not matter as long as people are allowed to get on with life. No one thinks European Banks are Europe. Ordinary people in Scotland as elsewhere should work out ways for to support Greece. This might just mean taking a holiday there and spending in shops and cafes with a little bit more flair. We should not wait for political leaders to move. And it is exactly the same with Syrian refugees. Their crisis is really our crises. It would be way too much to expect leaders like David Cameron to grasp that thought but solidarity has always been important for the people of Europe.
One of the few places I have not been recently is Lebanon. Lebanon is a small state that is very important for the whole Levant. Over the past couple of years this tiny population has had to absorb the shock of the Syrian crisis. Indeed they have had to weather the storm of Middle East wars many times in the past. How on earth is Lebanon to cope with the constant flow of refugees coming across the Syrian border? There is a limit to what can be expected of this tiny state that in some very difficult refugee camp conditions has become the home of so many Palestinian refugees since 1948. Lebanon must be under considerable pressure. International support must be given to the Lebanese.
This is the last blog I will be writing for GRAMNet for some time and it would not be me writing it if I did not say something that has to be said and repeatedly said about Gaza. The Palestinian issue cannot be allowed to fall from the frame because of so many other pressing issues. The Palestinian people have lived with crisis and trauma constantly for almost seventy years. Since 1948 Palestinians have been marginalized and ignored by most of the leaders of the international community. But support amongst ordinary people has grown. The momentum of that support has to be maintained. Palestinians in Gaza are locked in and separated from the rest of the Middle East and the rest of the world. Israel is maintaining the closure of Gaza because it does not want the issue of justice for Gaza and the West Bank to be an international issue that produces the boycott movement. But just as South African apartheid was dealt with by the by an international boycott so it must be for Israeli apartheid. This means the campaign should be pushed. Palestine is still at the center of so much misery in the Arab world. It has to go.
Fences and detention centres
The fences we are seeing go up in Hungary are the same as the fences that Israel built to contain the people of Gaza. Neither of these structures can be left to stand. They have to come down.
Refugees in Hungary are now being allowed to move on to Germany and that is a huge relief for everyone. Germany have set the standard but the mobilization of the Hungarian army at the end of last month is not on. The Syrians are in need and meeting those needs has to be the priority. Armies and detention centers have no role in dealing with this crisis. We should be very nervous when we see the military being deployed to deal with refugees. The problems now being encountered by the Syrian refugees are our problems at this moment in time. That has to be the message everywhere. We either respond as human beings or we go back to barbarity.
Finally, I have to underline a point made earlier. We are still not facing up to the plight of so many people who have seen their entire world destroyed. What do we now expect these people to do? Do we think they should just sit inside their own borders and die? These incredibly brave and determined people have gone on the move looking for places where they can simply live ordinary lives. What is so wrong with that? We should be with them every step of the way. If any authority starts to “detain” these refugees then we should all jump on cheap flights to wherever they are being held and insist that we are also locked up. We are all involved in the world that produced this mess. So we might as well all be locked up. As I write this of course I realize there are some of our leaders that really should be locked up. But we cannot have our Syrian friends treated this way. Build real support on the ground and do not wait for others to take the lead.
Cheerio everybody. Keep human.
Keith Hammond is now working for a PhD in International Law. He is supervised in Glasgow by Professor Christian Tams and is focusing on representations of the Israel-Palestine conflict in International Law. The aim is to bring out representations that do not just lean towards the two-state solution. He thinks there can be other solutions. He can be contacted using the form below.
This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.