Published in The Independent on 31st August 2015 here.
A Palestinian-Syrian refugee from Yarmouk has become the latest viral sensation to hit the Internet. Abdul, a single father of two, was photographed with his daughter slung over his shoulder, selling biros in the streets of Beirut. An activist utilized the magic of the Internet to find him and within just three hours thousands of dollars were raised. On the face of it, such outpourings of compassion demonstrate the collective power of the Internet – of humans helping each other out.
But stories like Abdul’s are not uncommon. His plight is echoed in millions of people across the region and across the world. In Lebanon alone, Syrian refugees make up 1.2 million of a roughly 4.5 million population. Indeed Lebanon has more refugees per capita than any other nation in the world (hear that, Europe?). Lebanon has no ‘formal’ refugee camps, and beggars and street children are a common phenomenon. In Jordan, the Zaatari refugee camp houses over 80,000 Syrian refugees with the camp rapidly becoming a permanent settlement. In fact, one in five Syrians are now refugees according to the UN. All these numbers represent individual lives – lives we will never hear of nor see. What about those displaced people who are systematically ignored, marginalized and unheard?
Last Friday, 71 decomposing bodies were found in a lorry on an Austrian motorway – including that of a baby girl. ‘Scores’ keep dying in the Mediterranean with those ‘fortunate’ enough to arrive in Italy or Greece treated with contempt and, increasingly, with violence. My Palestinian-Syrian cousin died on a migrant boat from Turkey to Greece last year. They are not humanized and their deaths are not remembered. Why do we need a viral photograph for us to care about refugees?
My point is not to detract from Abdul’s predicament, but rather to emphasize that in many cases, refugees face dire conditions and are almost universally ignored. The sensationalism of social media is such that charity now manifests itself in neatly packaged bitesize narratives with the true context often being sidelined. These sorts of campaigns feed into the ‘warm glow’ theory of charity – whereby people’s ostensible compassion becomes a way for them to feel better about themselves. Indeed I would go so far as to say they actually redirect valuable resources away from charities that could have a more effective impact. Why is it up to them to be the financial arbiters?
Moreover, just as these viral campaigns ameliorate the condition of one man out of a mass of millions, they marginalise the circumstance that put him there in the first place. The de facto refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus housed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and, since the outbreak of the civil war, has become the site for intense violence – most recently becoming overrun by ISIS. Without an awareness of the historical and ongoing situation in Palestine and the nuances of the Syrian civil war, we do Abdul and the other refugees a profound disservice. We recognize their pain without acknowledging the circumstances within which it was created and without calling the international system to account.
Ultimately, the inevitable and uncomfortable question we must ask ourselves is this: does every refugee need their own crowdfunding campaign and/or a X-factor style sob story in order to warrant our sympathy and, by extension, our help? Abdul, on an individual level, is a fellow human in a tragic situation. When his fate is multiplied by a million, refugees become mere numbers lacking both context and compassion. So dehumanized that heads of state can refer to them as a ‘swarm’. In other words, as far as the public psyche is concerned, ‘migrants’ will continue to be undesirable and unwanted unless they have proved themselves worthy of help through clickbait images and reductive (usually heartbreaking) narratives.
It is entirely random that Abdul and his family have, literally overnight, been given a shot at a normal life. I was left wondering what would have happened if this man had been selling pens on a different street. Odds are he would still be invisible to the world, punished by its politics. What about those without activists to share their story on Twitter? Those who will continue to die in the Mediterranean, in detention centers, in the Channel Tunnel… in trucks and boats and camps? It should not take a viral image to make us care. It should not take a viral image to make us understand the travesty of the civil war in Syria nor the injustice of the occupation of Palestine (social media may have catalyzed the war in Syria but it won’t end it). And fundamentally, it should not take a viral image to make us understand the hypocrisy of our generosity: there are a million other Abduls walking the streets from Calais to Beirut and they will be forcefully and perpetually overlooked and neglected so long as we require verification of their hardship. I am glad Abdul and his two children have been helped, but viral images can only go so far. Put simply, until the international system affords the other millions of refugees half the humanity, they will continue to sell biros in the streets.