The New Era of War and Occupation:
War, Occupation, Destruction, Poverty & Refugee Crisis
What is the Future?
By Nita Palmer
The body of a once-smiling toddler washed up on a Greek beach. A father crying and embracing his family after completing the perilous journey to Greece. Young children, terrified, pushing through a wall of riot police in Macedonia. These are the victims of the new era of war and occupation in which we live. After a decade and a half of bombing, destruction, and destabilization by the US and NATO throughout the Middle East and Africa, humanity's suffering can no longer be contained within the borders of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, or so many other countries. Refugees are landing on Europe's shores by the thousands, bringing with them the painful, vulgar, horrible truth of the US/NATO wars in their respective homelands.
The journey for refugees, whether by land or by sea, is incredibly perilous. Thousands die along the way, of drowning, dehydration, or injuries. Many pay thousands of dollars to smugglers only to be turned back by authorities in the countries in which they arrive. Yet between 800,000 to one million refugees have arrived in Europe this year alone. Globally, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons has reached 60 million – the highest number since the Second World War.
Why would so many risk their lives for an uncertain future in a foreign land? Not for a better life, but for any life at all. As one young Syrian woman stated in an interview with al-Jazeera, “drowning was better than being beheaded”.
No Home Left in Syria
Thousands of Syrians share similar stories – of fleeing towns taken over by ISIS, of neighbourhoods destroyed by bombs, of a happy life suddenly halted by the war. Over 250,000 people have died in Syria, whether in bombings by foreign forces or caught in fighting between the Syrian government and ISIS or so-called 'moderate rebels' with ties to both the US and al-Qaeda.
This story of destruction and tragedy, of shooting and bombing and terrifying men wielding guns is the only story of Syria that many know. But before the war, Syria was a beautiful and diverse country, shaped by ancient and beautiful Roman, Egyptian and Persian architecture. It was a country of diverse people and religions. This is the Syria which has been lost.
Before the war, Syria had one of the most advanced education systems in the Middle East, with nearly 100% school enrolment in primary school. Today, enrolment is below 50% across the country, and as low as 6% in some areas, according to a report by Save the Children. Nearly a quarter of school buildings have been destroyed by bombing, according to the same report.
Syria also had one of the best health care systems in the region, with a life expectancy of 79 years – about the same as the United States. The majority of health problems in the country were comparable with those in the West – cancer, diabetes, and so on. Since the war, childhood vaccination rates have dropped from 90% to 50%, resulting in the outbreak of numerous diseases. In just four years, life expectancy has dropped by more than two decades (United Nations Relief Agency). It is not only bombing and fighting that are killing people, but a desperate lack of medications and medical care due to destruction of hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities.
Syria is not a country which 'has always been at war' but was a thriving, modern country until just a few short years ago. The US intervened in 2011, supporting the so-called 'rebels' of the Free Syrian Army to fight against the independent Syrian government. Many of these 'moderate rebels' went on to join ISIS. Since then, the country has collapsed into chaos and civil war, forcing more than 11 million people to flee for their lives. In response to this terror which they created, the US and their allies – including Canada – began bombing ISIS targets in Syria, killing at least hundreds of innocent men, women, and children.
Tragedy in Afghanistan: Made in USA
In Afghanistan, nearly four decades of foreign intervention and civil war have left the country fractured and in chaos. Many Afghans today cannot remember a time when there was peace in their country. However, this is not to say, as many political pundits do, that Afghanistan is a savage or irredeemable land. In fact it was only a generation ago that Kabul was known as the “Paris of Central Asia”. The country was a destination for tourists, hippies, and adventurers, who were awed by the beautiful gardens and towering, snow-capped mountains. Women attended university and became doctors and engineers alongside men. The country was poor, yes, but on a path to a bright future.
The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan from 1979-1989. In response, the US began training and funding backward and fundamentalist elements in the country to fight the Soviet troops. The US Agency for International Development even produced books for schoolchildren "filled with talk of jihad and [featuring] drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers, and mines" according to the Washington Post. Some of extremists they supported in fighting the Soviet Union later went on to form the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The US then invaded Afghanistan in 2001, under the pretext of bringing a better life to Afghans and ridding the country of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which the US itself unleashed on the country. However, nearly a decade and a half later, there have been no fundamental improvements to basic human rights. Nearly three-quarters of the country remains without basic sanitation facilities. Another 22% have no access to clean drinking water. While some schools have been built, many of them are closed, understaffed, or falling apart.
Not only have the US and NATO failed to meet even the most urgent needs of Afghans, however, but they have brought the tragedy and horror of war as well. Fighting between the Taliban and other armed groups and NATO forces has forced hundreds of thousands from their homes. Afghans live in fear of deadly drone strikes on wedding parties and family celebrations, terrifying house raids in the dead of night, and shootings at military checkpoints.
It is not just stability and security which have been taken from Afghans, but their very homeland; their heart and soul. As one man interviewed by al Jazeera said “I'm not interested to go to Europe. Europe is not better for me. Afghanistan is better for me; but they took Afghanistan away from me.”
Iraq: Torn to Pieces
The once modern and secular state of Iraq has been torn to pieces by the US invasion. After a decade of seeing nothing but images of bombed-out buildings, ruined cities, and violence, it is all too easy to forget that Iraq is also home to some of the world's first libraries, oldest universities, and most important museums. The Iraqi government had prioritized both health care and education, becoming a regional leader in both these fields.
Today, Iraq is a shadow of its former self. Much of the country has been torn apart by US bombings, which have not only destroyed infrastructure, but also caused a massive health crisis due to the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus munitions. Iraqis have been left with a plague of horrible cancers, birth defects, and other health problems which will haunt the country for generations to come. This has placed additional strain on Iraq's health care system, which is suffering both from the destruction of hospitals and the flight of doctors. According to MedAct, half of the country's doctors left between 2003-2007.
Not only have the country's health and education systems been destroyed by the war, but the entire country is in shambles today. Twenty-eight percent of Iraqis live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Two hundred and fifty shanty towns have cropped up around Baghdad, each housing 2,000 to 17,000 people who live without running water or electricity.
The once peaceful country has been torn apart by sectarian violence, culminating in the rise of ISIS, which now controls much of the country. This violence was fueled not only by the poverty and desperation created by the war as well as the US supporting the division of the country along sectarian lines.
In order to “solve” the situation which they created, the US and other NATO countries, including Canada, began bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. But the air strikes have hit not just ISIS targets but innocent civilians as well, although the actual number of deaths is unknown since the US for the most part refuses to acknowledge civilian casualties.
Among the refugees, there are far more tales of tragedy to be told than just those from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. From Yemen to Libya to Pakistan, Somalia and beyond, millions of people are fleeing the violence which has wreaked their countries as a result of US and NATO wars and occupations. As one Pakistani man said pointedly in an interview with a British journalist: “In Pakistan we can't work freely. Because of you, and because of the Americans.
However, it is not just safety and security which have been stolen from these refugees, but entire lives and homelands. Said one young man interviewed by al Jazeera “Syria is my life, my home. I love Syria. But I lost Syria.”
Refugees in their own Country
The number of refugees arriving in Europe seems staggering. However, there are millions more who are internally displaced – refugees in their own country. Nearly one million Afghans live in makeshift refugee camps around the country, often without access to clean drinking water, food, or basic sanitation facilities. Many children and elderly die in these camps during Afghanistan's cold winters.
More than 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Half of them are children. Nearly five million of those displaced are in ISIS-controlled areas and cannot be reached by international aid organizations, according to the IDMC.
Across the region, the number of people who are displaced in their own country, hoping that they will one day be able to return home, only increases: nearly one and a half million displaced in Yemen. Four million displaced in Iraq. Over four hundred thousand displaced in Libya. More than a quarter of a million forced out of their homes in Palestine (IDMC statistics).
Beyond the borders of their own countries, there are millions more refugees that we don't see. In fact, the vast majority of refugees are hosted by developing nations. Pakistan and Iran together host around 2.5 million Afghan refugees. Lebanon, a country of just four million, hosts one million refugees, most of them Syrian and Palestinian. This means one in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. Turkey and Jordan have taken on millions of refugees as well. In fact, third world countries host 80% of the world's refugee population.
Refugees and Migrants: Both Victims of War and Occupation
It is almost impossible to comprehend the sheer number of refugees in the world today, each of them with a name and a story to tell. However, the 60 million refugees in the world today are only a small portion of the world's total migrant population of 232 million. Although governments worldwide are quick to draw a line between 'economic migrants' and 'refugees' the truth is that the vast majority of those leaving their countries are fleeing the same thing: violence, poverty, and a life which has become no longer livable. The United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 defined refugees as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. This is the international standard generally used to determine admissibility of refugees – but what if you are one of the millions of people who are fleeing not persecution, but the violence or unliveable conditions brought by war? By this definition, you may not be eligible for refugee status, even if you were fleeing a country where your home had been destroyed, family and friends killed, and where there was no job or hope for your future. Sadly, this is the situation that many have found themselves in. A number of countries, including Germany, have begun sending back Afghans who they classify as 'migrants' rather than refugees.
In the end, does it matter whether a human life will be lost by murder or by starvation? By bombs or by lack of shelter? The poverty, unemployment, and lack of basic necessities created by more than a decade of war and occupation are as deadly as bombs or terrorism.
The international response to this refugee crisis has been divided, especially in Europe and North America. Some governments have taken an outright hostile stance towards refugees. Slovenia and Hungary erected razor-wire fences along their borders in an attempt to prevent refugees even passing through their countries. Republican presidential candidates in the US have spoken out against accepting refugees, or have called for only those who are Christian. Several governments have placed ads in Middle Eastern newspapers, telling asylum seekers that they will be turned away. These xenophobic government policies and unfounded accusations of terrorism by both politicians and media have fuelled a rise in Islamophobic attacks and anti-refugee sentiment in many countries, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris earlier this month. Anti-Muslim and anti-refugee demonstrations have cropped up across Europe and the US, and several mosques have been vandalized or deliberately set ablaze.
On the other hand, there has been an incredible outpouring of support for refugees from many people around the world. Citizens in Europe have formed grassroots organizations to give food, clothing and blankets to refugees as they make their trek to safety. Many have volunteered to take refugees into their homes or offered them employment. German soccer fans made their support for refugees public with huge “refugees welcome” signs at soccer matches, and millions have expressed their support for refugees on social media.
Several governments have agreed to take in refugees, but far too few to make a significant impact in the crisis. The US has pledged to take in just 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 – but is unlikely to even come anywhere close to that number, as they have only taken in 2,000 Syrian refugees in the last four years due to a screening process that bars nearly all refugee candidates from the country. The UK is taking in just 20,000 in the next five years. Germany is taking in the most – 800,000 this year alone. Sadly, the decision on how many refugees to take in is being made not based on human need but political calculation. Even Germany has admitted that its more welcoming stance on refugees, while better than many other countries, is based on their need to increase their shrinking population and workforce.
While these commitments to take in tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees may seem generous, they are really a small contribution from such wealthy countries when it is poor countries bearing the brunt of this mass exodus of humanity.
Of course, we must also remember that it is many of the countries who are today closing their borders to refugees who are themselves responsible for this crisis to begin with. Yes, there have been previous waves of refugees from wars and natural disasters, but the massive scale of the recent crisis is a direct result of fourteen years of war and occupation carried out by the US, UK, Canada, and other European countries. It is no accident that the highest refugee populations in the world right now are from Syria and Afghanistan.
The new federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. However, they have since stated that only 10,000 will arrive in Canada by the new year, with 15,000 more to arrive by the end of February. They have claimed this is to ensure bringing refugees in is 'done right'. But refugees who are waiting in cold, crowded and sometimes dangerous camps cannot wait until the government of Canada is ready to have their system 'right'. Their lives are at risk right now, and they should be brought to Canada without delay.
While Trudeau's Liberal government may be more welcoming to refugees than their Conservative predecessors, still too little is being done to save lives and relieve the immediate suffering of those who no longer have a country to return to. The Canadian government should offer to accept 50,000 refugees immediately, and welcome them to the country with full legal and human rights.
Destroying Lives for Profit
The current wave of men, women, and children fleeing their countries is a direct result of the new era of war and occupation which began following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Could we expect any other result from a decade-plus campaign of bombings, occupation, and support of corrupt politicians and even terrorist organizations?
The US and their allies have claimed repeatedly that they are 'defending human rights' and 'fighting terrorism' in each of the countries they have invaded. Yet in each country they have occupied or bombed, the human rights situation has only deteriorated. Today, the people of the region are now faced with ISIS - the largest and most ruthless terrorist organization yet, which came to rise as a direct result of US intervention in Iraq and Syria.
Today it is clear that the intention of the US and their allies - including Canada - was never to stop terrorism or create a better life for people in the Middle East or North Africa. If their intentions are truly so good-hearted, why have they now turned their backs on refugees from the countries which they are claiming to help?
New Era of War and Occupation and the Reorganization of the Global Economy
The new era of war and occupation which defines our world today is a move by imperialist countries, led by the US, to avert a global capitalist crisis and remap the international market in their favour. This movement began after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, opening a new era in global politics and economy. In the early 1990s, the Pentagon and several important US think-tanks began calling for the US to assert its military dominance in order to maintain or gain control over key economic and strategic areas of the world.
There are three main components to this plan: firstly, they aim to reorganize global markets in their favour by regaining control of trade markets and resources lost to them in the anti-colonial uprisings of the twentieth century. Secondly, they aim to control and maintain an upper hand over Russia and China, which are two of the biggest potential competitors for the US. Thirdly, they aim to maintain control over Iran, which has maintained its independence and been an important source of support for anti-imperialist movements in the region for the last three decades. In practice, this plan involves installing puppet governments in third world countries and invading or occupying countries whose governments refuse to comply with US demands.
Although this plan is led by the US, other imperialist countries such as Canada, the US, UK, France and Germany have joined in this unholy alliance in order to ensure their respective corporations and capitalist classes get their share of the global economic pie.
The fact that the 'war on terror' has now dragged on for a decade and a half is not simply a matter of ineptitude or misguided policies on behalf of the US or their allies. It is part of a carefully crafted plan to ensure that the world's power remains in the hands of a small, powerful minority.
While the current refugee crisis is primarily a result of the new era of war and occupation which has opened since 9/11, it is only part of a larger crisis which has existed for decades. Hundreds of millions have been driven from their homes not only due to war but also due to poverty, unemployment, and insecurity. Recent years have seen an increasing number of people forced to leave their homes due to ongoing droughts and rising sea levels as a result of climate change. All of these crises find their roots in the capitalist economic system, which privileges a small, wealthy elite while condemning the vast majority of people – in the rich countries as well as in the third world - to starvation and injustice. The new era of war and occupation is an attempt to rebalance the capitalist system at the expense of humanity.
What Can We Do?
As I was conducting research for this article, I came across two heart-wrenching stories of refugees which I feel compelled to share. The first is the story of Samira, a young girl living in the Moussa-Taleb refugee camp in Lebanon. She says:
“My name is Samira. I am 8 years old and I come from Aleppo... Five months ago we had to flee from Aleppo because our home was destroyed by the bombs. There were many bombs in Syria. I still remember how a bombs’ splinter went straight into my friend’s heart. I don’t remember how it happened, just that I found her lying on the street bleeding. I miss my home country and I want to return one day because I love Syria. There is nothing here in the camp that makes me happy... My message for Europe is: Please end the war in Syria.” (Caritas interview)
The second story is that of Rasha Alsayed, an English teacher from Damascus who was with her family on the Serbia-Hungary border:
“Even if they won't let us pass... take my kid to Germany, or any other safe place, it doesn't matter. Take our kids to Germany and I will go back to Syria. My right to live a safe life? I don't want this right for myself. I want it for my kids. To be able to go to school. This is a simple right, no?” (SkyNews interview)
As people living in the relative comfort of Canada, we must ask ourselves: how can our consciences allow us to live another day without acting to help Samira, whose young eyes have already seen more horror than most of us could imagine? How can our consciences allow us to turn our backs on Rasha, who is so desperate to save her children as to give up her own right to safety? If as mine your heart cannot take one more day of this suffering, then we must act together, now.
The most immediate step that must be taken to alleviate the refugee crisis is for governments in wealthy countries around the world to take in a truly fair share of refugees, immediately and without bureaucratic sidestepping and delays. We must call on the government of Canada not only to meet their promise of bringing 25,000 refugees by the end of 2015, but to increase that number to 50,000.
However, simply bringing in more refugees is not enough - we must call for an immediate end to the wars, occupations, and bombings which are the source of this acute crisis. This requires not just intentions but action - joining or organizing rallies, forums, petition campaigns, and other creative actions to educate, organize, and mobilize ourselves against war, occupation, and injustice around the world. In this way, perhaps we can take the first step to ending the capitalist system which is destroying so many beautiful lives and begin building a world of justice, peace, and equality for all. Humanity's future depends on it.
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