Dead Refugees Cannot Speak: Listen to the Distressed Ones


Rightfully, there has been an extremely huge fuss about Afghan and Syrian refugees in the recent years, particularly owing to the contentious mass exodus from war-torn regions to Europe. This astute normative narrative delves through the various dimensions of the refugee crises, especially focusing on the past, present and prospective roles of global community in addressing the crises. By narrative, it should be understood that various spoken or written account of the refugee crises have been incorporated in this piece. Especially, this normative narrative has covered the events in such a way that temporal distinctions become vivid.

Discussion of such temporal shifts in the narratives shall help in developing a verbal timeline of the refugee crises, which has substantial importance in growing literature regarding the crises. Temporal variation in the narratives is of utmost importance as it has been noticed that volatility in international relations cascades the refuge crises in various forms with distinct implications. Such variation can be subtly unmasked by thorough the study of open-source audio-visual-textual accounts of the refugee crises.

Almost all brutal wars, overwhelmingly horrific genocides and humanitarian crises could be solved by global solidarity and timely effective intervention. Similarly, refugee crisis demand global solidarity, and hence it is a challenge to all nations – both rich and poor – to properly address, intervene and resolve the crisis. However, the innate tendency of elite nations to be goaded by collective self-interests and geopolitical tensions has rendered the global power feeble in tackling the refugee crises. In the pretext of recent Syrian ceasefire, the elite nations and the global bodies like the UN must stand in solidarity to end all forms of dictatorship, terrorism and brutality; delivering humanitarian aids to the refugees and ensuring voluntary sustainable repatriation.

Narratives of Afghan Refugees

The humanitarian crisis of Afghan refugees has been protracted over decades, which leads to three distinct temporal patterns – firstly the period between the Saur Revolution and the end of Taliban Regime; secondly the period between the Taliban ouster and the death of its spiritual leader; and thirdly the following period. The following Afghan refugee narrative will delve through gruesome stories of humanitarian crisis cause by the Taliban insurgency while focusing on the hope and grievances of the Afghan refugees.

To resolve Islamist insurgency after the Saur Revolution, the Marxist PDPA government of Afghanistan collaborated with the Soviet Union in 1978; however the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to even more gruesome brutality. About 3.7 million Afghan refugees fled to Iran and Pakistan by the beginning of 1981 (Margesson, 2007). Mujahdeen, the religious guerrillas were not successful in driving away the Soviet regime until 1989. However, the financial support provided to mujahedeen during the war against the Soviets during the presidency of Ronald Regan gave rise to a proxy warmongers called Taliban (Brown & Rashid, 2000). After fall of the succeeding communist government in 1992, Taliban was strengthened under the leadership of the Islamic fundamentalist movement’s spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. Taliban became strong enough to govern Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The surge in mass exodus was seen in the second temporal period after the Taliban ouster from the Afghan regime. The Taliban morphed into a group of the extreme fundamentalist insurgents from the dictators. As Pashtun tribesmen, who are renowned for the extreme interpretations of the Islam fundamentals, they aggravated the peace and security of Afghanistan by targeting civilians of rural areas. As the two-third of mountainous Afghanistan is rural, the Taliban operates from sparsely populated remote villages. They coerce their populace to launch attacks into the populated areas by torturing and killing many locals. Owing to meager size of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and remoteness of the rural villages, Village Stability Operations (VSOs) are being run that arms the villagers including the children to fight against the Taliban. Such armed members of remote communities are known as Local Police. Due to assimilation of the insurgents with the remote populace, domestic-international intervention through air strikes mostly injures and kills the civilians. All in all, until these harsh circumstances abate, people will keep fleeing to safe havens.

The third temporal period follows the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the spiritual leader of Taliban, in 2013. Since his death, the Taliban extremist group has been divided in several factions, which has complicated the War on Terror (Afghanistan, 2016). According to some Pakistani analysts, Mullah Mansour, the new Taliban leader, “faces resistance from Omar’s eldest son, Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, and some military commanders, including the influential Abdul Qayum Zakir” (Lister, 2015). However, it will be too early to assert that the Taliban will fall in the near future. What is certain is that, “in absence of the state’s capacity for justice, the Taliban is acting as a shadow government” (Catanzano & Windmueller, 2011).

According to the UNHCR Global Appeal (2015), the total number of Afghan refugees amount to 2,632,534; asylum seekers, 106,972; returned refugees, 46,148; and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 947,872. Pakistan, Iran, UAE, Germany, the US, the UK and Austria are bearing the greatest brunt of the Afghan refugees. Sustainable repatriation of Afghan returnees has been battered by lack of proper shelter owing to sky-rocketing price of land, limited basic infrastructures, poor employment opportunities, scarcity of both drinking and irrigation water, and poor health services. For instance, about 10,000 Afghan IDPs are struggling to survive in the rugged make-shift camps of cold Kabul, merely on food provided as aids from the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MRR) (Radio Free Europe, 2012). Many of them succumb to death because of flu or pneumonia. As the aids distributed by the MRR are not sufficient for survival, even the children are bound to work to join their families’ both ends. This is why affordable shelter programs equipped with basic infrastructures are mandatory to give an impulse to sustainable repatriation.

In contrast, most of the settled Afghan refugees in India are reluctant to repatriate as they have access to better job opportunities, security and physical amenities in Indian cities. Besides, the Indian government has already provided citizenship to more than 40,300 Afghan refugees (New China TV, 2015). However, the Afghan refugee scenario is quite unique at the Calais Camp in the northern France. The Afghan refugees in the Calais camp are risking their lives to cross the French borders to get into the UK. These Afghan refugees perceive France as a hopeless place. At least nine refugees of the Calais camp were killed trying to cross the fenced-border, which makes it evident that the refugees are not merely fleeing persecution, but they are also tempted to live a prosperous life abroad (AJ+, 2015 August 17). This assumption can be duly extrapolated in the case of European migrant crisis. A large number of Afghan refugees are flocking into the Europe from the Middle-Eastern countries along with the Syrian refugees, risking their life and savings. Restricting flow of refugee across borders is of course not the right and sustainable solution.

The ongoing European migrant crisis and the brutal conflict have covertly shadowed women violence and female subjugation in Afghanistan. The Afghan government was globally touted when the ex-President Hamid Karzai enforced a controversial law that ‘legalizes’ rape, to appease the Islamic fundamentalists before the presidential election. The enforced laws require women to obey their husband’s sexual demands, besides giving men preferential inheritance rights, easier access to divorce, and priority in court. Karzai has vowed to support review these laws considering the sentiments of the international allies (AP Archive, 2015). This overall incident sheds light on the vulnerability that Afghan women face. Sexual assaults are rarely reported and the righteous justice is almost never dispensed. Female Afghan women and IDPs do not only face sex and gender based violence, they are completely isolated from educational institutions and administrative bodies. In the worst-case scenario, they are not even granted identification cards. Such harsh gender discrimination also contributes to the Afghan refugees’ reluctance in repatriating.

The multi-faceted problems of Afghan refugees and IDPs can be solved only after peace, security and socio-economic stability is restored. Sustainable repatriation of the Afghan refugees requires smooth circulation of optimum humanitarian aids, cessation of the Taliban insurgency and withdrawal of the foreign security forces. Without steadfast intervention of the international communities and the global bodies like UNSC in Afghanistan through peaceful talks with the insurgents and effective armed combat, sustainable repatriation and resettlement of Syrian refugees and IDPs will be a long-drawn-out process.

Narratives of Syrian Refugees

The narratives of Syrian refugees are not much different than those of Afghan refugees. The Syrian refugee narratives can be distinctly divided into three heterogeneous temporal periods – firstly the period from the onset of civil unrest in March 2011 to January 2013 when the U.S. troops started combat in Syria-Turkey border; secondly the period from the U.S.-Russia stalemate that began in the early January 2013 to the early 2015 when the European migrant crisis started; and thirdly the period from the beginning of the European migrant crisis to the very recent significant cease-fire which was proposed by the UNSC for the second time.

The armed resistance of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial government against the anti-Assad Arab Spring demonstrators through brutal gassing, torturing and killings led to the ongoing Syrian civil war. The Syrian civil war is responsible for 250,000 deaths, 7.6 million Syrian IDPs, and precisely 4 million Syrian refugees (UNHCR Global Appeal 2015 Update – Syrian Arab Republic, 2015). The Syrian civil war especially became a huge issue after the long-drawn civil war gave rise to non-state armed extremist groups like Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Arab Spring protest, called by a Facebook page named “Syrian Revolution 2011”, started on March 11, 2011 which met with a violent crackdown. To appease the demonstrators, Assad dissolved his cabinet, formed a new cabinet, ended the 50-years-long state of emergency, closed the only casino in the country, and promised citizenship to tens of thousands of Sunnis and Kurdish people residing in Syria. However, he started regulating the demonstrations directly and by the end of May, 1,100 civilians were killed. Following the brutal resistance against the demonstrators, the European Union bans import of Syrian oil. However, because of the use of veto power by China and Russia, the countries that likes to preach sovereignty in all scenarios, the UN failed to impose any sanctions against the Assad regime. Beefed Arab League suspended Syria and imposed various sanctions in November 2011. In April 2012 a cease-fire was brokered by Kofi Annan, the UN envoy to Syria, but it was violated by both government and opposition parties. By the end of June 2012, several military personnel, ambassadors and government officials including the ex-Prime Minister, Riyad Hajib, defects to join the revolution. An estimate of 57,000 people was already killed in the conflict by the time the U.S. troops started combat from the cities near Syria-Turkey borders in early January 2013.

In the previously discussed second temporal period, the contentions between the U.S. and Russia made international intervention feeble, resulting in about 1 million Syrian refugees by March 2013. Following the U.S. intervention in Syria, the Russian naval forces gathered around Syria in confrontation almost immediately leading to a long-drawn standoff. About 1,400 Syrian escaped from Syrian territories daily according to CNN (Yan, n.d.). Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebels created a religious council to administer the Eastern Syria in March 2013. The Syrian unrest had already spilled over Turkey and Lebanon when Shiite’s leaders and Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader vowed to propel Assad. By then, Turkey and Israel had already escalated material combat against the Assad regime while Iran and Russia were supporting the dictatorial regime. “The death toll reaches over 100,000 on June 25, 2013”, largely comprising of civilians and the fighters loyal to the Assad government (Syria death toll tops 100,000, says UN chief, n.d.). The US-Russia stalemate protracted the conflict. ISIS, the Sunni extremist group which was formed in April 2013, promoted extreme interpretations of Islam through gruesome brutality globally and shadowed the Syrian civil war for a long time. By mid-August 2013, ISIS gained control over the major oil and gas fields in Syria, signaling its rise as the most successful rebel group. After long withdrawal from aggressive combat in Syria, the U.S. President Barak Obama authorized airstrikes against the ISIS in September 2013, which escalated the mass exodus. The Syrian civil war came to the limelight again in the early 2015 when the Syrian refugees started flocking to Europe after Syria’s neighbors like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan fail to accommodate the needs of Syrian refugees owing to their huge number.

The third temporal period discussed in this narrative pertains to the influx of Syrian refugees to Europe and the recent cease-fire promoted by the UN Security Council and bartered by the US-Russia coalition. About 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, almost one-third of them taking refuge abroad and the other two-third within Syria itself. The number is a small fraction of 550 million, the Europe’s population. However, the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe has been gravely unaccepted by the xenophobic Europeans. The Syrian refugees have sought refuge in various countries, especially in the geographically proximal nations – precisely 1.6 million Syrian refugees reside in Turkey; a million each in Lebanon and Jordan, and a few hundred thousand more in Iraq and Egypt (UNHCR Global Appeal 2015 Update – Syrian Arab Republic, 2015). “As of October 2015, the death toll in the conflict reached more than 250,000 people including over 100,000 civilians and more than 640,000 people live under long-term siege in Syria” (Syria, 2016) .

A short documentary named “If the Dead Could Speak” sheds some light on the overwhelmingly horrific accounts of the tens of thousands of detainees who either died unnatural deaths, or were killed in the government custody. One of the defectors, code named Cesar, smuggled 28,000 photographs of the carcasses of detainees and uploaded on the internet in March 2015 (Human Rights Watch). It was the first time Syrian families could find out the cruel truth about their loved ones who died or were killed in detention. A narrative of the released detainee described that his hands used to be tied together with rope and he would be lifted to the point that his body is completely straight and he used to be beaten mercilessly until he coughed some blood. Such gruesome torture over a significant period of time damaged both of his lungs. His story elaborates the panic of the distressed Syrian refugees who are fleeing persecution.

On the other side, the xenophobic people are concerned that the refugees might prove a menace to their security, socio-economic stability and ethnic cultures. However, such dilemmas should not shroud the notions of humanity that makes us bound to help these refugees. Accommodating the needs of these refugees will require a lot of investment; however, the rich nations should not give in. In a heart-wrenching TED talk, Melissa Fleming (2015) shares the story of 19 year old Syrian girl who was one of the only 11 people who survived a wreck of the 500 while illegally planning to enter Europe through the Mediterranean Sea route from Egypt. This was a horrific case of mass murder at sea by the refugee smugglers; however, the incident was never probed (Fleming, 2015).

On the brighter side, a private organization named Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) has already rescued thousands of refugees who were stranded in the Mediterranean Sea (AJ+, 2015 May 31). In contrary to this heart-warming initiative of a private organization, the EU cut off its budget for the search-and-rescue process, leading to massive surge in death toll. As per the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 1,011,700migrants arrived by sea and about 34,900 by land to Europe, and “over 3,770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015” (Migrant crisis: Migration to Europe explained in seven charts – BBC News, n.d.).

In the neighboring countries, the Afghan refugees are unable to avail legal status and employment opportunities, while they are largely unaccepted in Europe. The female refugees, LGBT refugees and the lower class refugees are especially assaulted, harassed and humiliated at the host countries, often by the members of the refugee communities. Owing to the massive destruction of infrastructures in Syria, repatriation of these refugees may not be viable in the near future. This is why all the host countries need to be generous in addressing their problems and securing their shelter, health and prosperity.

IDPs and people under seize are starving as the delivery of humanitarian aids is deterred by the ongoing conflict. Due to lack of proper health services, people are dying of trivial diseases like polio in Syria. With rise in insurgency, women are violated both by the fighters of Assad and opposition rebels. Shelter, drinking water, safety, health centers and schools are the most important infrastructures that must be installed for repatriation of refugees and IDPs.

“The planned cessation of hostilities in Syria” came into effect at midnight on 27 February after ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition rebels, except the IS and al-Nusra (Syria conflict: US-Russia brokered truce to start at weekend – BBC News, n.d.). If the Assad regime brings about desired constitutional reforms and acceptable governance, holds probable elections over the next few years, and opts for prisoner exchanges; the peace, security and stability in Syria is possible in the near future. However, the IS and al-Nusra should still be dealt with. But before that, the utmost priority should be given to dispensing shelter and humanitarian aids to the distressed refugees, the IDPs and the people under siege.


When any nation-state fails, the international communities and the global bodies should stand together in solidarity and combat dictatorship, terrorism, genocide, gross human rights violations and calamities; as failure of any nation-state can create chaos globally. The most prominent humanitarian crises of the present time could be prevented if the elite nations had provided optimum amount of humanitarian aids to the refugee communities, and combated terrorism as a coalition. With the most awaited ceasefire, there is a glimmer of hope that the current Syrian refugee crisis will settle down in the near future. The Afghan refugee crisis and Afghan conflict should similarly be intervened by global power to broker the cessation of hostilities. All nations – rich or poor – should not turn their back on these people in distress.

In summary, the refugee crisis in Afghanistan and Syria spawned from the resistance of dictatorial regime that wielded extreme hostilities against the civilians to protect their dictatorship. The Taliban in Afghanistan became insurgents once they were ousted from the national government in 2001, after six years of dictatorship. Similarly, Bashar al-Assad resorted to brutal resistance when the civilians demanded his ouster in 2011. While the ruling power is trying to crush the opposition rebels in both countries, the civilians are bearing the greatest brunt. The civilians are mostly affected by the insurgencies as they are coerced by the war-mongers to help them reach their brutal goals. The overall panic and gruesome hostilities are making Afghans and Syrians bound to flee the war and persecution. The refugees often resorted to risking life and monies in pursuit of good future in foreign land. Overall, the mass exodus has manifested ripple effects all across the globe, which is why the refugee crises have become not only the concern of the refugees, but one of the gravest global issues.

Delving through the Afghan refugee narratives and the Syrian refugee narratives, a substantial degree of congruency can be traced out. In both contexts, the dictators have resorted to indiscriminate killings of the civilians to either gain supreme power over the subjects of their nation or to resist ouster from the power. Similarly, the fate of refugees is almost similar in both contexts. Both refugee crises also pinpoint to the tendency of elite nations to be goaded by self-interests, rather than mutual interests. In addition, both narratives point out the huge discrepancy among the people of developed and developing countries when it comes to acceptance of the refugees. The overall narratives make it evident that people of developing countries are more liberal in accepting in refugees than the people of developed countries.

There are also few differences in these narratives. For instance, Afghan refugees are more likely to voluntary repatriate than the Syrian refugees, which might be the effect of temporal heterogeneity. By temporal heterogeneity, it is meant that the Afghan refugee crisis took off in the late 1970s, while the Syrian refugee crisis started in mid-2011. In addition, there is a difference in the number of extremist groups in these two crises. The Taliban is the only significant extremist group in Afghanistan while Syria is infested by numerous rebel groups. This pinpoints the fact that the conflicts in Syria are more complicated than in Afghanistan.

The narratives should be examined and studied for the accurate, balanced and holistic observation of intricate issues like refugee crises. The big picture of international affairs cannot be precisely extrapolated merely by analogy, simulation, application of theories or academic notions. For example, the same set of ideas cannot be applied to the refugees who are fleeing the war and the ones who are repatriating. We can imagine how inconvenient it will be if a person who is fleeing the war meets up another person who is returning back to the scene of war. In a similar fashion, there are multiple perspectives through which international affairs can be studied, and the individual observations may not coincide. Case in point, through the study of temporal variations in the narratives, the refugee crises can be systematically examined and learned. Similarly, other heterogeneity of subject-matter like spatial variations could also be examined and learned through the study of narratives. Consequently, the study of various narratives is of paramount importance in the examination and learning of international affairs. Especially when studying the refugee crises, it is difficult to learn the stories of the dead refugees; however, we can turn friendly face to the refugees in emergency and give heed to their narratives. Dead refugees cannot speak; listen to the ones in distress!


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Written by Roshan Adhikari

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