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Greece Boat Disaster: When Humanity Sinks in High Seas

Greece Boat Disaster: The tragic maritime disaster of Adriana is not just an isolated incident but a chilling reflection of the consequences of the West's misguided policies that have shaped the global refugee crisis.

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

Refugee death at sea
Death of a refugee at sea | Representative image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

On June 11, a rickety fishing vessel called Adriana left the port of Tobruk, Libya, carrying 750 illegal immigrants comprising Arabs and South Asians. Three days later, after flirting with disaster many times, it finally capsized off the coast of Greece in the Ionian Sea. Most of the passengers involved in this tragic Greece boat disaster died.

There were 200-odd Pakistanis strapped to the lower deck by circumstances and growing penury in their society. It's not clear how many knew swimming, but most sank. There were others from Africa who had been forced to flee to Europe due to war, government-backed hatred for others, and economic collapse. They, too, met a watery grave when the Greek coast guards, influenced by the country's domestic anti-immigrant politics, refused to help promptly.

Some survivors even blame the coast guard for sinking their boats. Media investigations have blamed the Greeks for the Greece boat disaster, but the problem lies not with how the coast guards behaved but the manner in which the West has pursued policies that have not just pauperised Africa and other regions of the world but also unleashed wars, encouraged hate-based politics in these societies, and fostered Islamophobia in their own countries.

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There's great merit in a reply an old man from a South Asian country gave to an angry anti-immigrant in London who wanted to know why brown people are in a white country: "We are here as you were there," replied the South Asian succinctly.

Post the global war on terror, the population of refugees, both external and IDPs, has grown many folds. UNHCR estimates that the total number of displaced persons has grown to 100 million, with approximately 32 million refugees. Many of them live in ghoulish conditions and are subjected to worse kinds of violence, including the extraction of body parts, which has been alleged by the Chinese government against Uighur populations. Among the numerous tragedies related to displaced persons, the Greece boat disaster is a heartbreaking example of the dangerous conditions faced by refugees.

The same story is repeated in North Africa - societies that got ravaged during the Arab Spring and a misconceived war on terror by the US. Knowing the life that awaits them in their own country and even in refugee camps if they manage to escape, there are so many who dare to challenge the natural obstacles to reach Europe or other countries that promise comfort. Every year, thousands die in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea trying to cross over from Africa to Europe. Since 2014, more than 21,000 people have died trying to cross over.

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More recently, a US-based daily, The Washington Post, followed up on the Greek boat disaster and tried to delve into the circumstances of why the immigrants undertake such arduous, expensive, and deathly expeditions to leave their homes and cross their border, and face the threat of death for an uncertain life. Its reporter interviewed a Tunisian woman who decided to travel to Europe when the leadership of her country began to target Blacks. She and her newborn were thrown out by the landlord who believed in the racist policies of the political leadership, and her partner realised that they could not survive in a society where there was so much hate. It seemed the promise of living in Europe made her ignore the threat of death that loomed at them in the high seas.

With her newborn child in her arms and her partner in tow, they handed over their life savings to the smuggler who promised to take them to Europe. They took the boat to cross the sea that divides Europe from Africa. At places, Tunisia is only 60 kms from the nearest Sicilian Island. This journey proved too far as the boat sank. The Tunisian woman saw her partner and newborn sink in a fathomless sea. Sometime later, the reporter found the Tunisian woman back in her country, saving money to somehow land in Europe. She is not the only one.

When the Taliban took over Kabul on August 15, 2021, nearly all Afghans who got left behind by the United States government and its allies became refugees in their minds. After enjoying the perks of western liberalism under US occupation, hundreds of thousands wanted to leave the country lest they come under the arc of attack of the triumphant Taliban. Thousands escaped to neighbouring Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan that shared borders with their country. The unfortunate many walked to Iran and continued to trudge their way for hundreds of kilometres through Iran until they reached Turkey and the borders of Europe.

Turkey is not unfamiliar with displaced people. It has provided refuge to people from war-torn neighbouring Syria and many other wrecked societies like Afghanistan and Pakistan. When the issue of Syrians used to be in the minds of everyone, experts in migration used to wonder what’s going wrong with Pakistan - why are they running away? The same question is being asked of Indians when they are found hiding in little boats heading towards Europe or the United Kingdom. Incidents like the Greece boat disaster continue to spotlight the dire circumstances that drive people to take such perilous journeys.

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Turkey has astutely created what its detractors call the "warehouse of refugees." Implicit in this description is the threat that if Europe does not look after Ankara’s interest, then these refugees could be released in the xenophobic continent. Europe got a taste of their presence when the refugees from Syria began to walk to Germany, Hungary, France, etc. Most of them were absorbed in Germany, which is short on people and could do with the quality of human resources consisting of doctors and engineers that were coming from Syria.

Jordan is another country that is built on refugees - first Palestinians and more recently Syrians. This writer visited one of the biggest refugee camps, Zaatari, near the capital city Amman. At its height, there were a million refugees in this township of refugees, but the numbers have come down. Zaatari tells its own tale. Many residents claim that they were shunted to this camp even before the war started. Also, they are not allowed to return when the hostilities have ended. What does it mean? This writer learned that driving people out of a place is also a device to shift global attention to their plight. This may or may not be true, but the misery of those who are compelled by difficult circumstances to leave their homes and live in camps in near or distant lands cannot be described. The refugees are bound by many protocols as laid down by the UN agencies if they want to benefit from the generosity of the country that is giving refuge to displaced people. These protocols include not learning the language of the host country, not taking up local jobs, or marrying locals.

Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar's refugee camp located in Kutupalong is perhaps the world’s biggest, with probably 860,000 Rohingya refugees staying there. Rohingyas, who are Muslims with Arab descent, escaped the genocidal attempts of the Myanmar army which practises its own version of ethnonationalism. When this writer visited Kutupalong camp, he found desperation amongst the Rohingya refugees to beat the restraints imposed on them by Bangladesh’s army. Though they feared revisiting even the memories of the violence that drove them out of Sittwe province in Myanmar where most of the Rohingyas stayed, they constantly explored ways to escape the camp. They not just feared the violence of the cyclones that begin to loom as soon as the monsoon clouds collect over the eastern sky, but also the fear of a wasted life. A refugee asked this writer’s mobile number. "What will you do with the mobile number? You are not allowed to keep one." His reply was very confident and matter of fact: "Don't worry on that count. You will get a call to Delhi from Kutupalong." The call never came.

The life in a refugee camp that many immigrants try to escape is driven by the values of the UN, which goes contrary to the society from where they come from. In Kutupalong, for instance, the daily allowance is given to the women of the family as the men are believed to blow it up on liquor. As it puts the balance of power on its head, this is considered destabilising for families. Many men want to run away from the tyranny of this new arrangement.

While many refugees do ordinary labour for the host country, they are herded back to the camp after completing their daily work. This arrangement, though, gets them extra money, but it hurts pride.

It is only in the case of the displaced persons from the Ukraine war that the Western powers have made an attempt to preserve their dignity. When war began in 2022, special aircraft were flown for them, and they were housed in apartments in other European countries. Some have questioned the apartheid that is practised in the way the refugees are treated. “Are the refugees only those who are brown or black and come in boats or on foot? What about those who come by air?”

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Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine. He is a Member of the Editors Guild of India (EGI) and, until recently, served as the General Secretary of EGI.