Most refugees who drown in the Mediterranean are never identified. They are simply given a number before being buried in an anonymous, unmarked grave. Perhaps it’s easier for us to turn a blind eye.
Ke Huy Quan choked back tears, recently, as he stood on the stage at the Oscars to accept his award for Best Supporting Actor. “My journey started on a boat,” he said, “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage.” Quan arrived in the US with his family as a refugee from Vietnam. He was one of the thousands of Vietnamese who fled the country in unseaworthy and over-packed boats during the 1970s. Many drowned or suffered dehydration on the way.
While Quan stood on Hollywood’s glittering stage, the bodies of adults and children were washing up on beaches in southern Europe, after more than 70 refugees drowned in the waters off the Italian village of Stecatto di Cutro. Like Quan, they were seeking shelter from war, but they will never stand in a smart tuxedo holding an Oscar. Neither will they do anything as simple as go to school, play, sing, or get a hug. We heard about the tragedy, but not about the people involved. Their stories will never be told.
In the UK, yet another celebrity has rekindled the debate on boat refugees. The British football hero and sports commentator, Gary Lineker, was controversially taken off the screen because he tweeted that the government’s new, more stringent policy against the rapidly increasing numbers of boat refugees crossing the Channel was “an immeasurably cruel policy aimed at the most vulnerable people in a language not unlike that of 1930s Germany.”
People are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and in the English Channel every day, and in ever increasing numbers, and yet it takes a football hero or an Oscar winner to open our eyes to the situation. And even then, the debate ends in stardust and football rather than the plight of the refugees. Perhaps it is because we all know the celebrities, but we have no idea who the refugees are.
Sixty-five percent of people who drown on European borders remain unidentified. Nigerians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Iranians and many other nationalities are buried without a name in a remote corner of a cemetery somewhere in Italy. They are merely a number on a crude metal plate stuck into a dry sandbank.
So, who were those who drowned in the tragedy off the Italian coast? In my investigations as a migration researcher I have found that they are celebrities in their own right—women from Afghanistan, those we say we will rescue from the Taliban. The Danish newspaper, BT, writes of a woman “tagged” KR16D45: KR, because she was found near Crotone; 16, because she was the 16th victim found; D for donna (woman); and 45, her estimated age.
I have seen similar coding at cemeteries in Sicily. Standing by a grave is always sad, but being aware that not a soul knows who is lying there is desolate. That a family somewhere in the world has no idea of the whereabouts of their relative adds to the desolation. The number system in itself is witness to the refugees’ anonymity. If you are a number, you are just part of a faceless horde.
However, the woman “tagged” KR16D45 has a name, Abiden Jafarin. She is a 28-year-old women’s rights activist from Afghanistan. One of the women who likely marched on the streets and cried: “Women, education, freedom.” Many in the West shared videos of tough, Afghan women like Abiden.
Another “tagged” woman is Torpekai Amarkhel, a 42-year-old Afghan journalist and UN worker. She drowned with her husband and two of their three children. Her third child, a 7-year-old daughter, is among the approximately 30 people still missing, presumed dead. Torpekai Amarkhel fled Afghanistan with her family because of the persecution of women by the Taliban, says her sister, Mida, who has reached Rotterdam.
In 2021, when the West pulled out of Afghanistan, I thought, along with many others: “Will we continue to help women when they soon move from being oppressed women in Afghanistan to refugees at European borders?” We now know the answer is “No.” Especially if they are arriving by boat.
There is something tragicomic in our tribute to the Oscar winner. For we are not only applauding his magical acting; our accolade is also for his story, his struggle to escape war and oppression. We are also, indirectly, applauding his fight to enter our society; that he has won the battle to cross our guarded borders, overcome our ever-tighter refugee policy, and our prejudices.
By giving Ke Huy Quan his well-deserved ovation, we are also pointing a finger at ourselves. The question is whether we see it. For when someone like Ke Huy Quan is no longer miserable and wretched, but becomes a success, then he’s one of us. Proof that our society works.
And still, the Afghan women drown, unknown.