Valeria Gomez Palacios

refugeeParis, the city in which one loves to live. It is the city of love and the city of lights. Beirut, known as the Paris of the Middle East; where every crack on the street, every worn out wall with faded paint contains a unique grace that contributes to its wonder. In each of these cities the streets are filled with people whose eyes reflect the brightness and happiness of life. Thus, the most recent attacks in these cities where painful to watch.  I was upset and angry that once again a city was hurt by a senseless act. However, my anger turned into frustration when I read articles directing their rage to refugees because of these attacks.

It was difficult for me to reconcile with the fact that Syrian refugees, who escaped a war that terrorized them in their own home, were being blamed and used as scapegoats for the attacks. In this conflict, refugees as well as the victims, of these terror-struck-cities are mourning the deaths of their loved ones. Just as Parisians and people in Beirut lost their loved ones in these terrorist attacks, Syrian refugees have been mourning the loss of their loved ones for years. It was heart wrenching to read the accounts of Parisian survivors just as it was troubling to see the pictures of a Syrian child washed ashore. So how could I override the humanity and misery of one side? The pain cuts deep on all sides.

The perpetrators of the terrorist attacks that inflicted a wound in the heart of France and Lebanon, are the same perpetrators that have imprisoned girls as sex slaves.  These are the same people who disrupted the peace in the Middle East and have caused many to flee their home countries and begin a long journey to recovery. They are the ones that have caused pain in mothers as they cannot help but watch their sons be killed and their daughters raped while wondering if their husband will drown in the Mediterranean Sea.

The pain inflicted in Brussels is the same pain experienced in Syria under the caliphate. It is the same nightmare refugees are desperately fleeing from, even if it means risking their life in the unknown journey. How can we as humans, as political leaders, turn our back on these refugees fleeing the violence we seek to prevent? If anything, this glimpse into the terror perpetrated by ISIS, in Paris, Brussels, Beirut, and Ankara, should make us want to guarantee that no human being is ever subjected to such a tragedy again. It should make us embrace Syrian refugees with open arms and work together to make sure that no Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Belgian or French citizen will ever have to suffer at the hand of ISIS again. If we as humans weep for Paris and Beirut, Brussels and Ankara and we do not feel pain in our hearts for the refugees, then we are not truly concerned with the whole of humanity; just a part of it.

The refugee crisis occurring in the world today means that millions of lives are uprooted daily. Behind these lives lie millions of individual tragedies; families torn apart by violence, fathers detained, loved ones killed or missing and millions of desperate souls trying to start anew with nothing, far away from home.

No one becomes a refugee willingly. No one wants to abandon their home, they do it for a well-founded fear of being persecuted, killed or eventually forced to die.

The stories behind the refugee crisis range from the frightened women and children to young men afraid by the horrors of war hoping that by fleeing they can make a living to sustain themselves and their loved ones. In some cases refugees are small children, some of them now orphans, and teenage girls raped up to 35 times a day.  They flee because they are unable to return home and they need to avail themselves under the protection and security of another state. The adequate response, to combat ISIS, will not be achieved with anti-refugee sentiment. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres summarized this by saying “it is not the refugee outflow that causes terrorism; it is terrorism, tyranny and war that creates refugees.”

Denying refugees their right to seek asylum under international law does nothing to stop ISIS, it empowers them. By alienating refugees we are falling into ISIS’ trap of morality against a western world; in other words the key and first step to combat ISIS ideological warfare is by not playing into its propaganda. Refugees should not be demonized and used as a political tool by right-wing politicians who aim to take advantage of the situation to promote their own agenda. According to former Secretary of State  Madeleine Albright “ by making Syrian refugees the enemy, we are playing into their hands…[but] by showing that we value every human life, we can make clear to the world where we stand.” I do not want to lose my compassion and empathy to fear and bias.  I want to stand with humanity.

The words of Antoine Leiris, whose wife was killed in the massacre at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, stuck with me when he said: “To respond to hatred with anger would be giving in to the same ignorance that made you what you are. You want me to be afraid, to look at my fellow citizens suspiciously, and to sacrifice my freedom for security. You lose. The player still plays.” ISIS wants the world to fear Muslims, to fear refugees.  Terrorism has engrossed the world with fear and trepidation, but as Leiris stated “To give in to ISIS is losing”.

The right to asylum is identified under international law as a human right; thus the world needs to be reminded that asylum seekers have rights, and democracies have established commitments to aid refugees. In other words, according to international law, states do not only have a moral responsibility to help refugees but an international and legal obligation to do so. Above all nationality, humanity comes first and furthermost.  Refugees are the victims not the terrorizers.  There is a human face to the refugee crisis; these are approximately 700,000 lives that had it not been for the sheer lottery of birth, it could have easily been us.

A country plays into the hands of the terrorist when they condemn and turn away Syrian refugees. It is important for the global community to recognize the difference between the threat of terrorism and the plight of refuges. According to Amnesty International in a press release, “They are not the same challenge and only one of them is a threat. The global community must distinguish between the two and be clear that our common security is not best served by turning our back on a global refugee crisis, but by ensuring the orderly, organized and humane resettlement of those fleeing the very horrors last week’s attacks brought to the world’s attention.”  The way to prevent future terrorist attacks is not by attacking refugees. To echo President Obamas words “…our nations can welcome refugees who are desperately seeking safety and ensure our own security. We can and must do both.” Creating a coherent and welcoming refugee policy with effective security controls, screenings and registration is the most effective way to manage and deter terrorism.

The word “refugee” is not a synonym for terrorism, and this sentiment was echoed by a statement made by France’s President Hollande , after the  Paris attacks, when he stated that France will be welcoming 30,000 refugees in the next two years. According to President Hollande, France has a simultaneous duty to ensure ”humanity for refugees and protection of the French people.”  President Holland has demonstrated that a country can still comply with its humanitarian duty of accepting refugees and still protect the country from further terrorist attacks.

As a society, we need to remember that above all we are all humans.  Humanity is not a completely abstract concept; it can be found in our daily life by the way we act and behave towards each other and it will be tested by how we react in the face of tragedies and how we as a society respond to the issue of refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman Melissa Fleming reminds us that “refugees should not be turned into scapegoats and must not become the secondary victims of these most tragic events.” Adding that “a world that welcomes Syrians can help defeat extremism. But a world that rejects Syrians, and especially Muslim refugees, will just feed into their propaganda.” Humanity is not a completely abstract concept … It can be found by the way we behave in our daily lives. As a society, we need to have a bigger understanding of what it means to be a refugee, what it means to give humanity a meaning, and we need to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human and that encompasses siding with refugees.

The marginalization of refugees can lead to their dehumanization. Historically this can be seen by the Nazi and Hutu propaganda comparing Jews to rats and the Tutsi population to cockroaches. Refugees are not just numbers and statistics they are humans, with dreams and hopes just like you and I. We cannot let our choices as a society destroy the life of many; we cannot be fueled by ignorance and hatred towards refugees because in doing so we are destroying the humanity and dignity of others. When people start dehumanizing each other, people can easily forget that others are human, reducing them to vermin; and the danger is that one can annihilate vermin without compassion. We cannot forget that Refugees are human.

Valeria Gomez Palacios is Director of Operations for Global Emergency Response and Assistance, an NGO that provides aid, relief and alleviation assistance to vulnerable refugees, new arrivals in host countries, and internally displaced persons in order to protect human rights and to restore the dignity, well-being and safety of those affected by conflicts and disasters.