The Birth of the European Refugee Crisis

By Jamal Kanj

Many years ago I read Men in the Sun, a novel by late Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. He, along with his young niece Lamis, were blown up by Israel in 1972.

In the book, Kanafani told the tale of three desperate Palestinian refugees from Lebanon who hid in an empty water tanker trying to reach Kuwait where they hoped to find work.

The truck was delayed at the borders and the three travellers suffocated quietly inside the empty tank.

The tormented driver tried desperately to understand why they didn’t try to escape their fate.

The parable: daring death rather than looking in the eyes of starving children waiting in the camps.

Kanafani was a brilliant writer and a great illustrator, but I never realised just how prophetic his words were.

Today, you can see the same desperation all over the faces of Arab refugees jumping from unsafe boats trying to reach European shores, or waiting in camps in rain or sun seeking sanctuary in a strange land.

Those in the camps are the lucky ones.

Thousands of their compatriots were either swallowed by deep seawater, decomposed in truck containers or left behind to choose between a dictatorship or an even crueller alternative.

It is a shame when non-Arab countries are more hospitable to those refugees than their own supposed brethren.

For example, Syrian refugees fared much better in Turkey than those who went to Arab countries.

Unlike Turkey, which tried to integrate the refugees in its marketplace as a cheap labour resource, Arab countries like Lebanon and Jordan pushed Syrian refugees into isolated camps – where they survive on crumbs from economic assistance that host countries receive on their behalf from foreign donors.

Further west on the other side of the Mediterranean, the refugee problem is seen today as Europe’s biggest threat.

You could argue Europe is being punished for its economic success, but while that has some merit the reality is different.

Europe has enjoyed economic prosperity for decades, yet it never experienced the problem it is now facing.

The Syrian and, before them, Iraqi refugees left their war torn countries only after international military interference seeking regime change.

In other words, when the US and Europe decided to continue the Bush doctrine of democratisation through military intervention.

In the recent past, the sea and the stability of Arab countries in North Africa represented a natural barrier between Europe and immigrants seeking economic opportunities or political refuge from sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the Arab world.

The UN Security Council, however, created a hole in that wall when it authorized foreign military intervention to topple Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi instead of allowing the civil process to take its course, as it did in Tunisia and to a degree in Egypt.

The UN Security Council sanctioned regime change, but disowned its responsibility for providing arms to the likes of Islamic State and the chaos that ensued.

In the East, the dreams of the Syrian people to rid themselves of the Al Assad dynasty became a nightmare.

As in Iraq before, outside interference was the main impetus for anarchy that led to the creation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

European leaders must remember when they discuss the current refugee crisis that the embryo of today’s problem was yesterday’s support for the Security Council-sanctioned war on Libya, as well as the training and financing of “freelance” fighters who turned Syria’s civil protests into a military conflict.

The fire started by members of the international community has finally spread to their shores.

In the process, it has demonstrated there is no safe haven. Just ask Nero.

– Jamal Kanj ( writes weekly newspaper column and publishes on several websites on Arab world issues. He is the author of “Children of Catastrophe,” Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America. He contributed this article to (A version of this article was first published by the Gulf Daily News newspaper.)


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