I have always thought that stories are a far more effective way of communicating than statistics. In the case of refugees, I have often said, “Refugees are humans not statistics.” Stories help make connections at a personal and emotional level. But now, stories can have another effect – ignoring the brutal reality for an overwhelming number of refugees.
Stories of refugees are usually about those who are able to make it to Europe or the United States. Such narratives are often accompanied by the photographs of smiling children and the grateful expressions of their parents posing for the organisation that wants to publish their story.
But those stories have a dark side.
A few years ago I went to Norway where I stayed at the home of a Burmese refugee who had been able to resettle there and lived in a beautiful wooden home with his wife and children.
I went with him and his wife to a refugee centre close to their home to express my solidarity with the Syrian refugees who had just arrived.
But when a Syrian refugee walked up to us, I realised I had no words to offer, at least nothing that could be of solace or comfort. On the spur of the moment, I pointed to my Burmese friend and said, “See, here is a positive story…I hope you too find happiness.” The Burmese man was silent. The Syrian refugee looked at me and said: “There are no happy stories for refugees.”
My Burmese friend later told me that he had decided to leave Norway and return, along with his family, to his country .
He did, and I met him in Yangon where he was living in a room behind a shop with just a mattress and a mosquito net. He said preferred living in his own country instead of being an unwanted guest in Europe. Even as the military seized power in February 2021, he stayed on, taking part in the demonstrations knowing he could be shot any day. He said he wanted to be with his people.
Every refugee carries with them the pain and trauma of the events that led them to leave their country. Added to this pain is the suffering they have to endure to find a safe home. Many have risked their lives to cross seas and others have walked through hot deserts. They have seen death at close quarters, faced hunger and humiliation.
Then, there are those who reach their dream destination in Europe or America. They are about 1% of the refugee population. That does not mean that their struggles are over. It is just the beginning of their struggle for acceptance, a struggle to live with dignity.
They are made to feel that they must be eternally grateful for being accepted. This humiliation is well described by Dina Nayari, an Iranian with American citizenship, in her 2019 book titled The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You.
Then there are those who face extreme stress because a country may change its policy before they get citizenship, such as Abdi Nor Iftin from Somalia who reached the United States as Donald Trump was elected President in November 2016. Iftin writes of his experience of being a refugee in the United States in his 2018 book Call Me American:
“A week after his inauguration, the president signed an executive order barring citizens of seven countries, including Somalia, from coming to the United States. That included permanent residents with green cards, like me.”
Each of these stories makes sense only if the context and relevant statistics are known. The refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world. But the response to this calamity shows how ruthless and ugly the world is becoming.
Britain’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda is an example of how injustice is institutionalised into government policies and laws.
Some lawyers and organisations have managed to stall the move to put a hundred refugees from Albania, Syria, Iraq and other countries on a flight to Rwanda, but the threat remains and the refugee lives with it every moment. It is a nightmare from which they cannot wake up.
Many of the refugees on the list of those who will be sent to Rwanda have threatened to take their own lives if they are not granted asylum in the United Kingdom. But the British are unmoved.
Only when seen from the eyes of a refugee, can one understand how cynical, cruel and indifferent the world has become and how dehumanised and brutal a place it is.
Refugees are pawns in global political power games. They are the victims of global inequalities, climate change, deadly conflicts over natural resources, and they are targets of racism, patriarchy and blind prejudice. They serve as scapegoats for government failure and as an excuse for not providing a country’s citizens with basic needs.
Most refugees do not make it to their dream destination. A majority of the millions of refugees live in African and Asian countries neighbouring their own. The twelve countries hosting the largest number of refugees are the poorest countries in the world including Chad, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sometimes, a refugee in a camp may get lucky and find a way to get asylum in Western countries. Some even get an opportunity to tell their stories.
Daoud Hari is one such person. He was a translator for journalists going to refugee camps in Chad and wrote a memoir titled The Translator which was published in 2008. Hari said he hoped that the stories of refugees would help others understand their predicament and “steer the world back towards kindness.”
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of Forgotten Refugees.
June 20 is World Refugee Day.