I met a young fugitive in Syria in 2008. Mehiyar, four of his mates and I met surreptitiously down an alley way, nervously checking behind our shoulders every couple of minutes. Mehiyar had escaped from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and was on the run.
But being on the run was nothing new for Mehiyar. Born in the West Bank in 1982 his family fled due to the unbearable conditions they were subjected to by the Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies.
In Mehiyar’s case, his family found refuge in Saddam’s Iraq. In 2003 their relative peace ended when the US invaded. Following the overthrow of Hussein many Palestinians were stereotyped as supporters of Saddam Hussein and prime candidates for the insurgency. They faced harassment, threats of deportation, arbitrary detention, torture and murder from elements of the US-installed Ministry of Interior. Mehiyar found himself arrested for contributing to anti-occupation newspapers and ended up in Abu Ghraib prison. The world, through those infamous photos, knows what happened to him next.
Mehiyar took advantage of a prison riot to escape. He got stuck for four months in the no man’s land of the Tempf border camp between Syria and Iraq. The camp was completely uninhabitable: there was no access to food or water and it was unsheltered from the cold and extremely windy desert.
In this alleyway in Damascus Mehiyar said to me, “There is blood wherever I go but no home to come back to.”
In my travels across Syria I met many more with similar stories. Refugees two or three times over as a result of the West’s wars and occupations. Many refugees are denied entry to surrounding countries, which are already overpopulated with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees but don’t have sufficient resources to sustain them.
Today I wonder where are all those I interviewed in Syria. They have become refugees once again, this time at the hands of civil war. Where can they go?
International authorities such as the UNHCR are well aware of the urgent need for other countries
to allow more refugees in but few countries have responded to the cry for help.
Take New Zealand for example. Our refugee quota hasn’t increased since 1987.
New Zealands resettlement quota for 2013 is 750. To put this in perspective Australia’s quota is 20,000. While it is laudable to lambast Abbott’s attitude to refugees bear in mind our own countries misgivings in this area. Even if we increased our quota twenty fold we wouldn’t touch the numbers Sweden accommodates.
The quota is set by the Minister of Immigration for three year cycles and the last one was set in July, all behind the scenes with nothing going through parliament.
A campaign called “Doing Our Bit” is lobbying for a doubling of our UNHCR resettlement quota in New Zealand and also doubling the refugee funding to ensure the resources are in place to cope with the increase.
Letting more refugees resettle in New Zealand does not solve the root causes of these wars. The onus is still on us all to put a stop to the needless imperialist wars and subsequent death and displacement.
However, in the meantime people need somewhere to live. Increasing the resettlement quota is something practical and meaningful we can campaign on and call our government to account for.
It’s the least we can do for refugees like Mehiyar and his family.