Recently there was an international conference at Oxford University called Refugee Voices One of the themes that came out, which got me thinking, in particular with regard to my experience in Syrian refugee camps, was how there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of many countries to dehumanize refugees, to make them seem sub-human. Why is this?
There is no doubt that the global refugee situation is growing at an alarming rate. People are having their lives shattered by war, by brutal political regimes that care more about holding on to power rather than actually wanting to be a government for the people. As a result, many people are looking to escape but as is the case, very few are permitted to settle in another country. I admit that there simply isn’t the space to take all the refugees. It is a very big problem. However, rather than governments working together to address the situations that cause so many to become refugees they simply close the door, refuse to deal with the root causes and instead use the media as well as government policy to reduce the refugees to a sub-human level.
If we look at the media in general, and I focus on this with regard to Syria as this is where my experience lays, we see how Syrians are portrayed as either blood thirsty animals or pathetic creatures covered in dirt, living in the mud. Over time, given enough exposure we begin to think of them as being not quite human, somehow of lesser value than us. In so doing we become less inclined to want to have any of these people living in our country. And because we are being conditioned to view them as being of lesser value than us, it gives rise to the justification of how they are treated, the conditions they are forced to live in. This serves our governments well. If the population can be trained to think of refugees as sub-human then the population wont put any pressure on the governments to resolve the situations that cause the refugee crisis in the first place. It is a very powerful piece of social engineering. The fact is, we also see this happening in our own societies, those who are unfortunate enough to live on the edges, for whatever reason, are seen as having no value to society and therefore can be treated like animals. We see how cuts are made to any available help they could get in the past. Then there was the shocking video of the police murder of a homeless man in Albuquerque, shot in the back and then shot again when he was laying prone on the ground. Would that have happened if he were a ‘respectable’ member of society?
Coming back to Syria, specifically when I was in Zaatari camp in Jordan, I happened to be there the day a Syrian family tried to escape the camp, normally they would have to pay the camp guards if they want to move out. The camp security guards went after them in armoured trucks, caught them and brought them back. They then started to mistreat one of the women of the family. Obviously the men tried to defend her, which simply brought in more camp security and the situation very quickly got very big and very ugly. As a result all food, water and medicine for the camp was cut off for 2 days as a way to send a message, this is what happens if you try to escape. This is what happens when we allow refugees to be dehumanized, they can then be treated however badly we wish and nobody will raise an eyebrow.
After I finished my presentation at the conference, of which my experience above was a part, I was approached by someone who said I had portrayed the Jordanians as monsters. This person then went on to say to me that it is the Syrian refugees who are the problem and they would do anything possible to get rid of them. Even as far as giving them a piece of Jordan if that were possible, but something to remove them from Jordanian daily life. I want to clarify here that I have good friends in Jordan who genuinely care about the refugees and one even wanted to volunteer to help in Zaatari but he was refused. I have nothing against Jordanians in general. I simply repeated what I saw, which was how they are being treated as less than human.
The simple fact is that if we think of refugees and others who are on the edge of society as less than human then it is much simpler to ignore them and also avoid resolving the situations which cause these problems in the first place. At the end of my presentation I was very clear about this. The root cause is due to the fact that the global political system is not only broken, it is rotten. As long as it continues, then situations like Syria will continue to happen, many more people will find themselves living on the edge of society and it wont only be in countries far away. As time goes by this situation is going to get much closer to home.