Above Photo: Migrants in an overcrowded raft are helped by rescuers after a sea crossing, near dawn on the shore of the island of Lesbos, in Greece, March 20, 2016. (Photo: Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)
A small, crowded boat arrives at an isolated beach on a small Greek island. Inside, 49 people prepare to unload their few possessions. On the beach, lit only by a half-moon and a few headlamps, volunteers from around the world wait to assess if there are any medical emergencies.
Soon after landing, vans and cars line up to begin transporting the group of mostly young people from Afghanistan to a support facility established by local villagers and international volunteers, where tea has been prepared and dry clothes have been made ready for distribution.
The boat has sailed across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, where 3 million other refugees have gathered hoping to find temporary work to pay for the multi-thousand-dollar trip through various illegal human smuggling networks into the few northern European countries that have offered them safe haven.
The conditions they have fled from have been created, in large part, by US political, economic and military actions across the Middle East.
Scenes like this repeat every night in places like Langada and Skala Skamnias, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Last year, over 1 million people made the journey from Turkey to the Greek islands, the vast majority fleeing violence in Syria and Afghanistan. And while the solidarity networks that have emerged from this crisis are most present in Lesbos, the “Red Island” of Greece and the busiest landing point for such refugees, similar initiatives have been established in Chios, Kos, Samos and many smaller islands.
Across the continent, refugees and European activists have mobilized protests together.
The effort in Greece is not limited to the islands. At the crowded Piraeus port in Athens, volunteer doctors work tirelessly to support the thousands who are stranded there, sleeping in tents, on sidewalks and in ship terminals. Further inside the city, anarchists have squatted a number of buildings, one at the Polytechnic University, to house refugees. Across Athens, volunteers cook food all day for public food distributions in the many parks that have become temporary homes for the 45,000 people who are currently stuck in the country, unable to proceed north.
Across the rest of the continent, refugees and European activists have mobilized protests together, blockading trains in London, occupying public squares in the Netherlands, occupying buildings in Hamburg, going on hunger strikes outside of refugee camps and storming the English Channel tunnel.
One of the central issues facing refugees here is the increasingly militarized borders of Europe, in both European Union (EU) and non-European Union states. In recent months, Austria, Serbia, Hungary and Macedonia have made moves to block many refugees from crossing their borders. At Calais, on the northern tip of France, thousands have been stranded for years in a self-built tent city, where they try daily to make the crossing to England. In Nijmegen, on the Dutch border with Germany, 3,000 refugees live in a massive campsite of containers and tents, supported by a small community of local activists.
The crisis in Europe has come to a head at Idomeni, on the Greek-Macedonian border, where thousands have been stranded with little-to-no support structures. In mid-March, a large crowd smashed through the border as tear gas filled the air. This week, as conditions in the makeshift camps have deteriorated, thousands crossed a dangerous river to break through the border en masse. Three refugees died in the process.
Though camps across Greece are now filled to capacity, a far larger crisis looms in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where the vast majority of the refugees have ended up.
The recent series of European border closings spurred a political crisis in early March, when the EU announced that the “Balkan route” would be closed off entirely. That policy shift, stalled for a few weeks due to political tensions between Cyprus, Turkey, Spain and Greece, went into effect on March 19.
According to this bizarre agreement, every refugee — the EU’s preferred term is “irregular migrant” — picked up at sea will be deported back to Turkey. For each Syrian deported, another Syrian will be allowed to enter Europe from Turkey. So, in order for a Syrian refugee to enter Europe, another Syrian first has to give $1,500 to a smuggler, risk their life at sea, get arrested and, finally, get deported back to Turkey.
The EU itself admits that this agreement is not ideal; in fact, it may create dangerous new smuggling routes. The most obvious one is an Albania-Italy route across the Adriatic Sea, as the Albanian mafia is already involved in the smuggling networks that operate between Turkey and Germany. Another risk is that the far more dangerous crossing from Libya to Italy, which claimed the lives of five times as many people last year as the Turkey to Greece crossing (nearly 3,000), may see an increase in activity.
US Involvement in Creating the Crisis
Until last summer, the refugee crisis in Europe was quietly and intentionally hidden from most Americans’ view. It took 3,771 deaths in the Mediterranean last year – and a photograph of a lifeless, drowned Kurdish child named Aylan Kurdi – for coverage to hit the American press. By that time, 3,000 people were arriving every day to Lesbos, and many thousands more to the other Greek islands.
The irony of our ignorance should be obvious: the United States stands at the center of the situations pushing these refugees out of their homes, over mountains, around border crossings, through Turkish prison cells and onto crowded, dangerous boats. From Libya to southern Afghanistan, US interventions and occupations have led to further destabilization, violence and, in almost all cases, civil wars.
A longer trail of complicity stretches back to the four decades of economic and military support that the United States has given to the Arab dictatorships challenged in the 2011 Arab Spring, and to similar support given in that same time period to a number of insurgencies that dovetailed with US foreign policy objectives. One such group, the insurgency of the Afghan Mujahideen, fought a decade-long guerrilla war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
From Libya to southern Afghanistan, US interventions and occupations have led to further destabilization and violence.
Those who came to fight in Afghanistan from abroad, many of whom received US military and economic support either from Congress or the CIA, hatched a postwar strategy of insurgency across the Arab and Muslim world, which resulted in a civil war in Algeria that took 120,000 lives. Meanwhile, other smaller rebellions caused significant fighting across the Maghreb, in northern Pakistan, Yemen, Chechnya, Albania and beyond.
The group now known to the world as ISIS was created in this period by a Jordanian Mujahideen veteran named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Originally launched in Jordan, the all-but-failed organization was given a second lease on life in post-invasion Iraq, where a destabilized and fractured society made fertile soil for the hyper-sectarian ideology of Zarqawi, who helped turn anger at the US occupation into a civil war against Shiites.
The sectarian state originally put in power in Iraq by the United States escalated divisions in the country, helping fuel the other side of the 2005-2006 civil war while pushing a large, disenfranchised Sunni population further toward the open arms of groups like ISIS. A focus of the US “surge” in 2007 was working with Sunni militias to turn against this tide, but that strategy only lasted until the Iraqi state took control of the Sahwa program (Awakening Councils, or Sons of Iraq) as US troops withdrew and quickly dismantled them.
Against a backdrop of electricity shortages, water contamination and continued political destabilization, ISIS, which had by then entered into the north of Syria to take advantage of the civil war there, re-entered the picture with its dramatic capturing of Fallujah, Ramadi and other key points in Iraq’s Anbar Province.
ISIS may be the most menacing face of Syria’s civil war, but the multifaceted war includes a range of other groups, most notable the Assad regime itself, but also groups like the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, a “moderate” group originally formed by deserters from the regime’s military. And while a civil society-based revolutionary movement continues to defend the small spaces it has been able to hold, a pipeline of US, Gulf and European money providing various factions with weapons that have helped prolong the bloodshed has helped shatter the hopes and dreams of those who first took to the streets in 2011. Though the US Congress recently canceled the public program backing such rebels, the much larger CIA program remains in operation.
Alongside the US funding, US allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pumped weapons, logistical equipment and soldiers into Syria to support various factions fighting in the civil war, mainly those linked with the Supreme Military Council of Syria, which includes the Free Syrian Army and other anti-ISIS, anti-Assad groups. These groups, as well as the Kurdish peshmerga (from Iraq but often fighting in Syrian Kurdistan) and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), are often supported by bombings by the US, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Canada and Turkey.
On the other side of that war, Russia and Iran have sustained financial and political support to the four-decade-old Assad regime, helping defend its authoritarian police state from an array of forces fighting against it. In October 2015, Russian air support joined in the fight to secure Russia a seat at the negotiation table and to bolster Assad’s position in power. Though Russia announced in mid-March that it would begin withdrawing forces as a long-needed cease-fire takes effect, fighting targeting Islamist groups unaffected by the cease-fire continues in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its financial center.
The Refugee Crisis
Beyond the common narrative of Arab war and repression is the other Middle East: the one that occupied Tahrir Square and Pearl Roundabout and took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Daraa and Sanaa demanding social justice, freedom and the end of dictatorships largely supported economically, politically and militarily by the United States. That Middle East turned upside down the US demand for “regime change” that was made infamous in Iraq, initiating a wave of protest and revolution that swept Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (in Tunisia), Hosni Mubarak (in Egypt) and Ali Abdullah Saleh (in Yemen) from power as it inspired the world to take action against injustice and poverty.
Since then, popular protests have exploded in almost every corner of the world, drawing comparisons to the revolutionary period of 1968. It’s hard to analyze this wave of uprisings and protest without crediting the revolutions in the Arab world as the first spark that caught.
Those who inspired the world now face a severe wave of repression, with Syria as one of the most shocking examples. Over 11 percent of the population has been killed or injured since the start of the revolt, and over 20 percent have fled the country. Syria has become the single largest source of refugees in the world. The second largest? Afghanistan.
Beyond the common narrative of Arab war and repression is the other Middle East: the one that occupied Tahrir Square.
The Arab allies of the United States, fully involved in the war, have taken in an astoundingly small number of refugees from Syria, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in last place, with zero. The United States, with its massive economy and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” rhetoric, pledged last year to take in a mere 10,000 refugees for fiscal year 2016 – that’s .015 percent. So far, that number has only reached 955.
Considering the extent to which US money has been spent killing people and destroying infrastructure in these countries — for each of the 1,700 Syrian refugees accepted into the country last year, the United States spent an estimated $375,000 financing and arming various factions in the civil war — it’s far beyond an oversight that the United States’ borders are almost impossible for refugees from the region to enter. Even those who worked as interpreters for US soldiers in Iraq regularly make the dangerous crossing to Greece, unsupported by the governments they risked their lives to assist.
The reality is that the United States is politically unwilling to help. Its wars of political and economic self-interest have always centered on a US perception of success and have always utilized a rhetoric of liberation to achieve long-sought foreign policy objectives. It has left those whose lives have been turned upside down across the Middle East — the people it claimed to be liberating when it invaded their homes — to fend for themselves in Europe or drown in the picturesque waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
The message is clear: “Your liberation only matters when we need to justify our wars.”
Building a Solidarity Movement
Given this reality, we have an obligation to build a movement of solidarity with those fleeing these countries, as well as with those who have stayed home to continue pushing for radical social change across the Middle East. It is not enough to simply build awareness.
When similar revolutions, interventions and civil wars ripped Central America apart in the 1970s and 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement and groups like the Committee in Solidary with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) sprang to life, identifying ways that people in the United States could participate in the effort to defend the tens of thousands of social movement activists that were slaughtered there. Groups like Witness for Peace sent thousands of people to Nicaragua to learn about the realities there and to challenge US support for the Contras.
Over a million refugees from those wars came to the United States, often supported by a criminalized, coordinated network of congregations and activists who helped them find safe places to live.
A few years earlier, at the end of the war in Vietnam, US veterans and others from that antiwar movement began a project to address the massive suffering caused by the US invasion and by the ongoing tally of cancers and toxin-caused disabilities that resulted from the use of the poison defoliant Agent Orange.
Some of those groups, like CISPES, Witness for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War, still operate these networks, recognizing that the long work of solidarity must continue far beyond the end of a war. Today, we are in a similar position as these groups were when they launched such important initiatives, and thankfully, we have some models from which to build in response to the massive human crisis in the Middle East.
So what do we do? We know from the European model that direct assistance for refugees is essential. Americans can participate in and help support these efforts economically. There are numerous organizations in Greece, Macedonia, Turkey and Lebanon that accept volunteers and donations, such as the CK Team (which I worked with in Lesbos in February), Doctors Without Borders (which operates in Syria and across the Greek islands) and both Proactiva and Sea-Watch (which operate rescue boats and provide emergency lifesaving support on the sea).
We can also directly support the small number of refugees from these countries who have been allowed into the United States, as groups in St. Louis and Baltimore have been doing. Nationally, a new initiative called Bring Them Here is organizing people to demand that more Syrian refugees be allowed entry into the United States.
In terms of solidarity with social movements in the Arab world, we have a long way to go, but some groundwork has been done. MENA, a London-based group focusing on building solidarity with workers in the Middle East, is a great resource for news, views and ideas for action. MENA also maintains the Egypt Solidarity Initiative, which focuses on solidarity with political prisoners and those facing state repression in post-revolution, post-coup Egypt.
Activists like Leila Al-Shami have been tirelessly promoting the ideals of, and news about, the popular revolutionary movement in Syria that has been pushing to oust Assad since 2011. This spring she will be touring the United States and sharing stories and perspectives from her new book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. Her blog Tahrir-ICN has been an important resource over the last few years with news, opinions and translated statements from revolutionary and anarchist groups across the Arab world.
A few years ago, Iraq Veterans Against the War, in partnership with the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, War Resisters League and the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, launched The Right to Heal Campaign, demanding that “the human rights impacts of the war in Iraq be assessed and that concrete action be taken towards rehabilitation and reparations for those impacted by the lasting effects of the war.”
Iraqi-American activist Ali Issa has recently published a book, Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq, and is doing numerous speaking events around the United States to talk about social movements in Iraq and how to support them.
In New York, Baltimore, Kansas City and elsewhere in the United States, groups have come together in solidarity with the revolutionary movement in Rojava, the Kurdish north of Syria. These groups have also embraced many of the principles of Rojava’s revolutionary movement, including participatory democracy, feminism, ecological sustainability and secular pluralism.
These links should provide a starting point, but the conversation must spread far beyond small circles of activists. For those of us who consider ourselves human rights advocates or revolutionaries, the level of struggle we are willing to engage in to fight for justice for our counterparts in and from the Middle East must increase. We must begin thinking broadly and strategically about how to build a stronger, larger solidarity movement.
We owe it to the Arab world — and to the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries where covert and overt US militarism has caused so much suffering — to do more. In the face of a massive backlash, we must stand with the brave revolutionaries of the Middle East.