Are All Refugees Treated Equally?

With the summer months looming ahead, many of us imagine being on a beach with the scorching sun on our backs, calmly erasing any stress from the previous year. For others, a much darker reality lies ahead. The same water, the same scorching sun, but under completely different circumstances will face migrants who will take to the sea desperate for a better life. Last year the migrant crisis became headlining news as nearly 370,000 crossed the Mediterranean in search to escape the plight that they left behind. It is far from an easy route with more than 4,690 dead at sea in 2016; the highest death toll yet in the Mediterranean. To put a face on these people, the media covered Syrians fleeing the brutal and cruel civil war taking place for over 6 years now. Images of Aylan Kurdi, an infant Kurdish boy washed up to shore come to mind giving a glimpse of the brutality these migrants faced when escaping for their lives. However, while the world was swept with horrifying images and footage of Syrians escaping, there was major silence towards the African refugees and the neighbouring Afghan and Iraqi refugees that make up the large remainder of worldwide refugees. 

As the coverage of refugees has largely focused mainly on those fleeing to Europe it is important to understand the dynamics in which that occurs. Towards Europe, there are two major routes taken to cross the Mediterranean, one of which is the route to Greece in which the vast majority of refugee nationalities typically comprise of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi.  However, the central route is through Libya to Italy and is the much more dangerous and deadly route, contributing to over 2,000 deaths from this alone in 2016.

The majority of these refugees come from African nations such as Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.  Refugees taking this route often need to cross several African countries and the Saharan desert only to be found in Libya whose unstable government structure has allowed for “labour camps” that take advantage of these refugees and in which physical and sexual abuse is rampant. Only if they are lucky enough to be allowed to leave do they take the trek through the Mediterranean, often not having a targeted country but compelled to escape the atrocities faced when they stay in Libya.

Due to Europe’s egotistical push of the refugee crisis narrative, the awareness surrounding non-Syrian populations as refugees has largely been erased as well as nations who host the most refugee populations. World leaders and the media especially have pushed the world to perceive the identity of refugees as interchangeable with a Syrian refugee. And while the plight of Syrian refugees is undeniably deserving of media coverage and care, it eliminates the struggles of the 2.7 million Afghan refugees and the 1.1 million Somalian refugees. A “class” system of refugees has been created that breeds a disproportionate sense of care and preferential treatment to those it deems to be most worthy of attention. It has shown that the world, especially the  West, has no capacity to truly solve the refugee crisis. Numerous regions around the world host soaring numbers of displaced people, often due to the fact that they neighbour countries in which conflict occurs, such as Turkey, which currently hosts the most refugees worldwide at 2.5 million. While Europe takes a pretentious stance boasting about how difficult the refugee crisis has affected them and how their security has been compromised, most refugees are not housed in Europe, in fact 86% of the world refugee population is found in developing countries. Five of the top 10 refugee hosting nations are found in Africa and the 2nd largest refugee hosting nation is Pakistan. Furthermore, the largest refugee camp is the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya hosting more than 180,000 refugees, predominantly of South Sudanese and Somalian origin. To appreciate the matter further, Kenya actually hosts the four largest refugee camps worldwide. 

Kenya is host to the four largest refugee camps in the world.
Kenya is host to the four largest refugee camps in the world.

Despite the numbers pointing out that the refugee crisis affects nations worldwide, why is it that we only hear about Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe? It mainly stems from a lack of understanding about where refugees come from. Refugees are not a homogeneous group. They come from many different experiences, which may contribute to the ignorance that occurs when speaking about them. Firstly, many non-Syrians flee their homeland because of remnants of older and possibly ongoing conflict. This can be seen with refugees from Afghanistan, whose refugee population has been on the rise since the Soviet War in Afghanistan in 1979. Secondly, a source of ignorance is that some issues are not specific to an instigator as seen in the Syrian War. This is the case for a good amount of African refugees who flee their country due to events that deny them basic human rights such as famine, drought, corruption. Thirdly is that the influx of refugees into Europe specifically hasn’t been this high since World War IIWhile refugees are found worldwide, the sheer amount that Europe has increasingly hosted since 2015 in particular is seen as unprecedented and thus a “crisis” because Europe was affected.

Inherently, there is a bias when media outlets and Western developed nations speak about the refugee crisis. This is seen even in pro-refugee arguments that wish to encourage greater refugee intake by claiming that they are also educated people with talent and skills that will benefit the workforce. While this argument is valid, it creates a fundamental problem for those that don’t fit within this framework. There are refugees who come from nothing, have nothing, and may not be educated. But are they less valuable and worthy of a better life than one who comes from a more secure family background? Furthermore, the “othering” of these other nationalities is a potential contributor. As pointed out, some of these refugee crises in other areas have been going on for a while; thus the international community has undoubtedly habituated to the idea that certain nations seem to “breed” refugees. This fails to humanize refugees and their struggles. Additionally, it became impossible for the international community to ignore the prospect of refugees as those most powerful were now affected. 

The international community has pitted these refugee groups against each other and has made one the main representative of that cause. Refugees are not homogeneous; they flee their dire situations for many different reasons. However, the commonality in them is that they are fleeing a situation so destructive that the only way out is to escape for a better life. That should be treated on the same playing ground, regardless of where it occurs in the world.