By William Bame
In 2011, during the Arab Spring, protests calling for the removal of Syrian President Assad escalated into an armed conflict. This armed conflict, the Syrian Civil War, eventually engulfed the entire country, causing more than 6.8 million Syrians to flee, and another 6.7 million to become internally displaced. They are fleeing a violence which has claimed 500,000 lives, at least 55,000 of whom were children. They are fleeing a country in which 95% of all people lack access to proper healthcare, 70% don’t have clean water, and 80% live in poverty. Their government is not taking care of them. In fact, the Syrian government and their allies are responsible for some of the atrocities which have driven people out of their homes.
I would have hoped that the world would have had the humanity to open their doors and accept these people in desperate need of a safe haven. Instead we got countries turning them away, and politicians who dehumanized them into political chits and pawns to be used in the advancing of their own agendas.
About one million refugees set their sights on European countries. Their presence sparked something throughout Europe: nationalism. While nationalism is not a new phenomenon, a million people seeking a safe haven caused the ideology to surge. In some countries, such as Hungary, the nationalist parties have been able to use these refugees to gain and maintain political influence. On March 15th 2018, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban gave a speech in which he called for the defense of Hungary against – not refugees – but a mass migration which brings with it “crime and terrorism… [and] pose a threat to our way of life, our culture, our customs, and our Christian traditions.” Through this, Orban used these people to validate a conspiracy in which the EU, by accepting refugees, is trying to “redraw the religious and cultural map of Europe and to reconfigure its ethnic foundations, thereby eliminating nation states […]”
Prime Minister Orban reduced the experiences of these people to nothing, instead viewing them as pawns of an international movement which has its sights on Hungary. This dehumanization has had effects on the public perception of the Syrian refugees. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in which 82% of Hungarians believed that refugees were straining their country by taking jobs and social benefits from Hungarians. The same poll shows that 76% of the Hungarian people believe that the presence of refugees increases the chance of a terrorist attack. This is hardly surprising when messages such as “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?” have been plastered upon billboards by Orban’s Government. But this dehumanization hasn’t only shaped perceptions, it has also shaped action. According to a Human Rights Watch researcher, police and military along the border of Hungary and Serbia have used batons and pepper spray on refugees leaving many people hospitalized within Serbia.
While a million refugees set their sights on Europe, where nationalist movements like that in Hungary used them to advance their ideology, nearly 6.8 million ended up in countries which neighbor Syria, with Turkey hosting the largest single block. While Turkish President Erdogan hasn’t dehumanized the refugees to advance an ideology, he has reduced them to pawns in order to strike at a long standing Turkish enemy: the Kurds. On september 5th of this year, President Erdogan demanded logistical support from European countries in creating a “safe zone” for refugees in north eastern Syria. To induce compliance, he threatened to “open the gates” allowing the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey to flood into Europe. Now while the goal of creating a safe zone sounds admirable, the reality is that that land is occupied by the Kurdish forces within Syria. These forces are viewed by Turkey as terrorists and enemies of their state. As such the Turkish military pushing into north east Syria to establish a safe zone acts as a cover for launching a military campaign against the Kurds, and the refugees once again get used for the advancement of a political agenda.
These people, forgotten by their own government and who have lost friends and loved ones, needed the compassion of the rest of the world but instead were used. It was once said that the world shows its face in how it asks for help, and in how it responds. These people asked for help when they had no other choice. They did, and still do, need houses instead of tents, clean water, medical services, and other humanitarian assistance, while those in power dehumanizes them for political gain. Some governments stepped up to help, like Germany who accepted 1.4 million refugees and provided them with transitional services. Some choose to politicize them into political chits like the Hungarian Prime Minister did. Some showed the face of compassion, others the face of political opportunism.
This dehumanization by those in power isn’t limited to the Syrian refugees, and it isn’t limited to Turkey and Hungary. Politicians all over the world reduce groups of people to a less than human state in order to use them for the advancement of their own agenda. In the United States illegal immigrants have been dehumanized so that a border security policy change could be justified. In Israel, Palestinians are dehumanized to justify the use of lethal force by the Israeli military. In Afghanistan the Taliban dehumanizes the Afgahn Government to justify their refusal to negotiate with them.
I was asked to conclude this by saying why this behavior is bizarre and what should happen next. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that this isn’t bizarre. Humans evolved to care for those they view as their own, not to care for strangers from a different group. Some governments choose to fight this primal human tendency, like Germany, only to face intense backlash from their populations. Others, like Hungary, embraced this to advance their political agenda. As to what should happen next, we can only keep fighting our baser tendencies. We open our doors to help those in need, without trying to get credit or use them as a pass to do whatever we want. We confront those who would turn the needy away or use them. We embrace our better nature. That’s all we can do.
Illustration: Julia Holmström
Author: William Bame