Sunday, January 27, 2019

Unheard Voices, Lost Humanity

Trapped: Inside Libya’s Detention Centres, UNICEF

Unheard Voices, Lost Humanity.
Angela Kan, MPA Student

“I escaped Somalia because I am gay, but now I’m trapped in Libya. At home they will shoot me because in Somalia, it is not allowed to be LGBT. In Libya they will also shoot me, because it’s like Somalia. Maybe it’s even worse...” If you continue to read Ali Ibrahim’s story, a first-hand account of the torture he experienced at the hands of people smugglers in Libya, you will learn that he attempted the perilous sea crossing from Libya to Italy twice, only to be intercepted and returned to Libyan detention centers. In detention he was unsafe to disclose his sexual orientation, even to UNHCR staff, based on a well-grounded fear of discrimination and violent recourse. Libya remains an extremely dangerous place for people of foreign origin, women, men and children alike, and especially dangerous for LGBT people. According to Amnesty International’s report entitled Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, “refugees and migrants [in Libya] are routinely exposed to horrendous abuses by Libyan officials, armed groups, and criminal gangs. They suffer torture and other ill treatment and arbitrary detention in appalling conditions, extortion, forced labor and killings – inflicted with total impunity.” Despite this, the EU and Italy continue to pursue cooperation with the Libyan Coast Guard and other Libyan actors to intercept asylum seekers crossing by boat, with the goal of returning asylees to Libya and reducing the number of arrivals in Europe. What this is actually achieving, however, is it to ensure that women, children, and men are trapped in an endless cycle of abuse.

Ali Ibrahim’s story is a stark illustration of some of the issues facing refugees and asylum seekers around the world, issues I learned about in Rome, as a student of the USF’s Academic Global Immersion program on refugee service management. Throughout our time in Rome we reflected on the intersection of storytelling, culture, systems and power. From how storytelling can be a valuable tool to create empathy and spark action toward change. To how conservative efforts have successfully built a narrative around fear and exclusion; how the media has perpetuated these damaging narratives; and how this has impacted public opinion and ultimately public policy. Policies that stand not only in the way of human rights, but in the way of human dignity. The Ethical Journalism Network, a global campaign promoting good governance and ethical conduct in media, reported that journalists often fail to tell the full story and routinely fall into propaganda traps laid by politicians. Others have discussed the lack of preparedness among journalists to accurately and ethically report on the issues faced by refugees and asylees, including UNESCO’s article that suggests unprepared journalists often reduce refugees to one of two stories, a (male) threat or a group of victims, perpetuating a limited and divisive narrative.

Through first-hand stories like Ali Ibrahim’s, we vividly and immediately understand the intersection of vulnerabilities that exist – such as asylee and sexual minority – and how these vulnerabilities are exacerbated by policies such as the deal between Italy and Libya. Hearing directly from refugees can help emphasize the urgency in the work without fueling a sensational “crisis” narrative that perpetuates fear and an increasingly conservative approach. While it is important for journalists to understand that media coverage shapes refugees’ daily experiences, at an individual level, you and I must seek and support the voices of refugees and asylees to build compassion and understanding, and perpetuate change. I believe we can challenge ourselves and our circles of community to dig deeper, learn more, and listen better. After all, it is our shared humanity and the voices of the most vulnerable, that are at grave risk.