Imagine being forced to flee your home and everything you know, making the perilous journey to safe shores only to be marched onto a “floating prison” where, days later, Legionella, a potentially deadly bacteria, is found in the water system. Or imagine escaping the threat of gang violence with your family only to be ripped away from them by border officials. Or try imagining running for your life with only the possessions you can carry only to be assaulted and robbed by the very people who are meant to give you asylum.
These are just a handful of some of the stories that have taken place so far this year around the world.
At the end of 2022, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and climate-change induced natural disasters, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that globally over 108 million people around the world were forcibly displaced, almost 20 million more than the previous year.
In 2022, Eritrea crossed the threshold of 501,000 refugees, meaning that almost 14% of the country’s population have been displaced due to violence and political instability. The humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic reached its tenth anniversary in 2022, a period marked by bouts of sectarian violence that have displaced nearly 2 million people. Over 4 million South Sudanese have been forced from their homes. Over 12 million Syrians remain forcibly displaced in the region. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
You might have thought that these record numbers would have prompted wealthier, more politically stable countries to rise to the challenge of the global refugee crisis. Instead, receiving countries such as the US and across Europe have dug in their heels, with a rush of anti-immigrant policies and a surge in anti-migrant rhetoric, paving the way for the systematic dehumanization of asylum seekers. This high-level discourse has trickled its way down to the lived experiences of displaced people and the stories detailing their severe mistreatment are streaming in.
Behind each headline and number is someone’s mother, father, child, or friend, making impossible decisions, facing dangerous journeys, and, increasingly, facing hostility from those they are seeking refuge with. No matter their circumstances, displaced people should be treated with respect, fairness, and dignity.
Here are just a few of the stories that you should know about.
1. The UK’s Floating ‘Prison Barge’ for Asylum Seekers
These asylum seekers were told boarding the barge was "not a choice" and those who refused would no longer receive government support.
Granted a tour of the inside of the floating accommodation, the Guardian reported that it was “basic and functional.” Single-person cabins had been fitted with bunk beds to double their capacity, included non-functioning TVs, and windows that gave residents views of “high metal fencing and naval work units.”
The BBC also reported that the Bibby Stockholm has 24/7 security and that asylum seekers were issued with ID swipe cards and have to pass through airport-style security scans to get on and off. An Afghan asylum seeker residing on the barge said: "The sound of locks and security checks gives me the feeling of entering Alcatraz.” With this description, no wonder it’s being described by some as a “floating prison.”
The barge is the government's solution to reduce the need for hotel accommodation for migrants and asylum seekers in the UK, which it claims is costing the taxpayer almost £6 million per day. Reclaim the Seas and One Life to Live estimate, however, that the barge is "extremely unlikely to reduce the cost of hotels" and would "in fact be an additional cost."
It’s hard to believe the government’s intention is to save cash and not to deter migrants when the Home Secretary, Suella Braveman, has described the arrival of asylum seekers as an “invasion” while the Conservative deputy chair, Lee Anderson, said that people seeking asylum in the UK “should f**k off back to France” if they did not want to be housed on the Bibby Stockholm.
“It seems there’s nothing this government won’t do,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director “to make people seeking asylum feel unwelcome and unsafe in this country.”
Moreover, public health concerns regarding living conditions were proved right when the barge had to be evacuated due to Legionella bacteria being found in the water system.
2. Displaced Families Face Oven-Like Conditions in Displacement Camps at the Syrian-Turkish Border
In addition, this scorching heat is making living conditions unbearable for displaced families living in Syria’s displacement camps in tents made of nylon fabric, which intensify reflected heat, and a total lack of cooling options.
Hamida Dandoush, a 62-year-old woman living in the camp, told Al Jazeera: “We live as if we are inside an oven, struggling to breathe due to the heat inside the tent. If it weren’t for the water we sprinkle on the tent, we would have died from the intense heat.”
Indeed, a 1-year-old girl tragically passed away in a displacement camp in Idleb, Syria, after her health deteriorated due to extreme heat.
The Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, have sent out warnings to people not to expose themselves to the sun for prolonged periods. They also advised increasing water and fluid intake to avoid dehydration and cautioned against placing gas cylinders in the sun to prevent fires.
Although the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has a plan to move displaced people in north-west Syria out of tents and into dignified shelters, it’s not happening fast enough and living conditions remain harsh for the 800,000 people still residing in these tents.
3. Greek Officials Try to Cover Up Their Role in Deadly Shipwreck
A fishing trawler carrying 750 migrants from Pakistan, Egypt, and Syria capsized in the Central Mediterranean on the night of June 13, 2023. At least 78 people died and hundreds are missing, according to We Are Solomon, an independent public interest journalism platform.
Only 104 people — all men and boys — survived the shipwreck, while the rest, including women and children, drowned in one of the deepest parts of the Mediterranean. The incident has been referred to as one of the deadliest shipwrecks recorded in the Mediterranean in recent years.
The most shocking part of this story, however, is Greek officials’ attempts to cover up their role in it.
You may be wondering how they did this. Reports and witness testimonies obtained by media outlets including Lighthouse Reports and Reporters United give evidence that “the Greek coast guard tampered with official statements to conceal their role in the wreck.”
In addition, the boat was being tracked by the Hellenic coast guard who claimed that those on board refused their assistance repeatedly, and that people on board said they wanted to continue to Italy. For this reason no active rescue took place, according to the coastguard.
Yet, We Are Solomon reported that international law experts refute this argument and revealed that migrants on board had sent out an SOS – which was ignored.
Several human rights groups have criticized Greek authorities' response to the incident, including Alarm Phone, an emergency hotline for refugees in distress in the Mediterranean, that confirmed Maltese and Italian authorities were also aware of the vessel’s situation.
“European authorities could have sent out adequate rescue resources without delay. They failed to do so because their desire to prevent arrivals was stronger than the need to rescue hundreds of lives,” said representatives from Alarm Phone.
According to the BBC article, the UN has called for an investigation into Greece’s handling of the disaster. Yet, nearly two months after the incident, relatives of the victims from the shipwreck are still waiting for answers and searching for loved ones among the missing and dead.
4. Families Are Being Forcibly Separated by Texas Troopers on the US-Mexico Border
Since July 10 of this year, Texas border officials have separated at least 26 migrant families on the southern US-Mexico border, a cruel tactic led by Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star border initiative.
This isn’t the first time this tactic has been used to deter asylum seekers and migrants from crossing the border. The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy in 2018 took children from their mothers and fathers.
According to Democracy Now, a non-profit independent news organization, this practice violates Abbott's own border enforcement guidelines and advocates are calling on the Biden administration to intervene and immediately reunite the families.
This is not the only example of mistreatment migrants and asylum seekers crossing the US and Mexico border face. In July of this year, an email from a Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper-medic to a supervisor stated that DPS troopers had been instructed to push migrants back into the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass and deny them water. The email also blew the whistle of another inhumane practice: deliberately placing razor wire along the river. Texas leadership has denied any such orders were given.
Marisa Limón Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said: “We’re calling for an end to the use of all of these detractions that are getting in the way of people being able to seek protection.”
The US-Mexico border is now considered the deadliest migration land route in the world. The UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) released a report on Tuesday, Sept. 12, revealing that at least 686 migrants died or went missing on the US-Mexico border in 2022. The IOM believes that the real number is even higher due to a lack of official data, including information from Texas border county coroner's offices and the Mexican search and rescue agency.
5. Tunisian Authorities Leave African Migrants Stranded on a Desert
Since July 2 of this year, Tunisian security forces have collectively expelled several hundred Black African migrants and asylum seekers, including children and pregnant women to a remote, militarized buffer zone at the Tunisia-Libya border, according to Human Rights Watch.
Abandoned in the desert in relentless heat, with no food and no water, by August 9, at least 27 migrants had died, as reported by Al Jazeera.
The number of migrants and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa migrating internally within neighboring African countries has increased over the years, due to factors such as civil strife, persecution, environmental disasters, oppressive regimes, and economic despair in their homelands, according to the UN.
Tunisia's eastern coast, notably the port city of Sfax, has become one of the African countries where sub-Saharan migrants and refugees have congregated, because of its clandestine sea routes towards Europe’s shores.
In this town, as in others, however, Black African migrants have been met with racism from locals and a blatant disregard for their human rights, which can be traced back to the anti-migrant agenda set at the top.
Tunisian President Kais Saied became the face of anti-migrant and xenophobia against Black African migrants and asylum seekers when he made an incendiary speech earlier this year which saw a surge in racist violence against sub-Saharan migrants.
Tunisia’s Ministry of the Interior denies dumping refugees and migrants in the desert and President Kais Saied has described the reports as misinformation aimed at discrediting the country, as reported by Al Jazeera.
Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch said: “Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law.”
Last month, the UN raised concerns about Tunisia's alleged mistreatment of sub-Saharan migrants and urged authorities to end collective expulsions and protect all migrants' human rights.
6. Greek Authorities Robbed Asylum Seekers for Years
Greek authorities don’t have the best reputation for their treatment of asylum seekers. But this doesn’t even hold a candle to shocking revelations earlier this year that Greek authorities have stolen over $2 million in cash or valuables from them over the last 6 years.
The investigation, conducted by We Are Solomon, detailed how valuables including mobile phones, rings, bracelets, and more were taken from victims.
As well as theft, many asylum seekers were taken to military barracks or empty warehouses and subjected to physical violence before being sent back to Turkey in inflatable boats.
Reacting to the findings from this investigation, Eva Cossé, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Greece, said: “When you confiscate their phones, you eliminate any evidence that they were there. When you confiscate their money, you make their lives more difficult. When you strip them naked, another trend that’s on the rise, you humiliate and demoralize them.”