Europe's lack of empathy for refugees is shocking

With latest far-right shift, Europe's lack of empathy for refugees is shocking
4 min read

Yara Hawari

28 September, 2022
A recent boat tragedy off the Syrian coast left more than 100 refugees and migrants dead. But instead of providing rescue and safe passage, Europe's hostility towards those seeking a better life continues to grow, writes Yara Hawari.
A Lebanese man looks towards the sea near the Arida Border Crossing with Syria, on September 23, 2022, as relatives wait for the arrival of the bodies of those drowned when a boat they boarded sank off Syria's coast. [Getty]

Last week, a boat carrying refugees and migrants capsized off the coast of Syria in one of the deadliest crossing attempts in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was carrying over 150 Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese with a capacity for less than half that number. At least 100 of the passengers drowned – of which a fifth were children.

The boat set sail from Lebanon on Wednesday morning, but only four hours later the engine stopped working. Those on the boat called the smugglers and the Lebanese authorities for help but no one came. Soon the boat had become engulfed with waves and eventually capsized.

Survivors recall being in the water surrounded by bodies for hours; some were rescued by Syrian boats and others managed to swim to shore.

Some of the bodies have been brought back to Lebanon for funerals, while the rest remain in Syria awaiting DNA identification. Families are still awaiting to hear if their loved ones are among the deceased.

The scenes of mourners have been heart wrenching to watch, even more so as it's likely that some of them will also embark on an attempt to cross the Mediterranean despite this latest tragedy. The current situation in Lebanon is dire to say the least.

The World Bank has ranked Lebanon’s economic crisis among the top three worst financial crises in modern times. Several people have held up banks just to access their own savings, which have been frozen in the paralysed financial system. Power is also in short supply with households only getting a few hours a day and places like hospitals having to rely on unreliable generators.

The situation is even worse for refugees in Lebanon. Since the war in Syria, the tiny country has absorbed a million Syrian refugees, who have been received with hostility from the Lebanese government. Many of them are still without jobs and living in precarious refugee camps.

Before the influx of refugees from Syria, there were already half a million Palestinian refugees who have been in Lebanon for decades. These refugees were long discriminated against by the government, which included being deprived the right to own property and the right to work in a large number of professions. In this situation, coupled with the new financial and political crisis, it is no wonder that many refugees in Lebanon want to flee the country.

The boat that capsized last week was supposedly headed for Italy, a country that has seen thousands of refugees and migrants arrive on its shores this year. However, Italy’s new government, elected just days ago, might change that.

The new prime minister Giorgia Meloni heads a far-right coalition and has previously called Italy the “refugee camp” of Europe. Meloni’s campaign promised stricter border controls, blocking boat landings and establishing EU-managed centres outside of the country to evaluate asylum applications.

What many European countries fail to understand is that stricter controls like the one above won’t stop refugees and migrants seeking a safer and more dignified life. They will simply create more barriers in order for them to do so, resulting in a higher death toll amongst those crossing the Mediterranean.

Although it is clear that deep-seated racism prevails in Europe and that it affects attitudes towards migrants and refugees, the lack of empathy continues to be shocking. Those, like the ones on the recently capsized boat, were seeking safety and a better life from an unimaginably harsh reality.

The situation in Lebanon and other countries in the region is getting worse not only because of contemporary geo-politics but also because of historical and ongoing Western imperialism. Yet no one is admitting to the reality that many European actors are responsible for the conditions that refugees are hoping to escape. 

It should be a global enshrined code of practice that safe passage is guaranteed for peoples fleeing danger, but also unimaginable hardship. Countries like Italy should be ramping up rescue at sea initiatives and working with other EU member states to ensure better absorption of refugees.

But instead, we are seeing fascism rear its ugly head, with attacks on migrants and refugees as its rallying call.

Yara Hawari is the Senior Analyst of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @yarahawari

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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