Refugees are not the Villains

By Aminata Sy, Special Contributor for Refugee-related Issues

In recent years, refugees have been treated as a political football. In both the U.S. and Europe, they have been the subject of political candidates’ talking points. Some candidates are calling for a “get tough on refugees” policies, while few are insisting that these displaced individuals are valuable to the fabric of their respective countries. Unfortunately, the reasons behind refugee crises are often ignored in the debate. What creates refugee crises? Economic disparities, natural disasters, and conflicts are among the main causes of refugee crises. The focus of this article is conflicts, and thus few countries come to mind: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. All of these countries have been plagued by refugee crises for years. In the case of Libya, since 2011 citizens have been mostly internally displaced due to the country’s manmade turmoil. According to the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 434, 869 people in Libya are currently displaced, and 9,305 are refugees. The dire conditions of these Libyans are the result of politicians’ miscalculations.

Like the Iraqi and Afghan wars, Libya’s political instability was completely avoidable.

In 2011, the U.S. and its allies tried to forcefully install a democratic system in Libya by removing its president of 42 years, Muammar Gaddafi. He was killed soon after by militants. Gaddafi had succeeded in improving many societal services in Libya, including education, health, and housing. According to the World Bank, in 2010 Libya had the sixth highest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in Africa, and its population’s life expectancy ranked number one. In his 2011 remarks on Libya, while Gaddafi was still in power, President Obama said, “Of course, there is no question that Libya – and the world – will be better off with Gaddafi out of power. I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means.” Unfortunately, Libya has been standing on shaky grounds ever since the U.S and its allies removed Gaddafi from power and failed to provide the Libyan people with another alternative. Six years later, Libya is described as a "failed state," a country where democracy has yet to take hold. Instead, different militarized groups are fighting over its control. As journalist Ruth Sherlock states in her 2015 report on Libya, "The hope for freedom [in Libya] lies in the ashes." In his 2016 interview with Chris Wallace, president Obama said his worst mistake was “probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya.”

Garikai Chengu, a scholar at Harvard University, accuses the U.S. and its allies of purposefully turning Libya into a chaotic place. He writes, "In 2011, the West’s objective was clearly not to help the Libyan people, who already had the highest standard of living in Africa, but to oust Gaddafi, install a puppet regime, and gain control of Libya’s natural resources." The U.S and its allies have arguably transformed Libya from a country where citizens lived relatively normal lives to one in which they live in fear and uncertainty for their future. Many Libyans have become refugees or internally displaced individuals at no fault of their own. Libya's case shows that refugee crises are often created by politicians, yet these displaced individuals rarely hear welcoming voices like that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Rather, in the U.S., President Trump has attempted to block refugees’ entry into the country with his “travel bans,” which are presently stuck in courts. In France, National Front presidential candidate Marine Le Pen has also promised a strong anti-immigrant agenda if elected. Politicians cannot have it both ways: manufacture conflicts and blame it on innocent citizens. When politicians create conflicts, like that in Libya, they have to be held accountable to restoring normalcy to those countries and to welcoming displaced individuals in their respective nations if necessary. When there is a refugee crisis in any given nation, we need to first ask how did the situation came to be? Politicians should not have the option of characterizing innocent citizens as the villains, when they themselves are the ones to blame for these individuals’ suffering.

Aminata Sy is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies International Relations with a minor in English and is a Perry World House Student Fellow.