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Peter Bouckaert of HRW: Shutting the Door on Refugees Would Be Propaganda Victory for Islamic State

Web ExclusiveNovember 18, 2015
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Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, has spent the last few months in the Balkans and Greece speaking to refugees coming mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Posting messages on Twitter, Bouckaert has helped expose the realities of life for refugees fleeing violence at home. He was one of the first people to share images of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned off a Turkish beach.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our conversation on refugees with Peter Bouckaert, who is the Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, has spent the last few months in the Balkans and Greece speaking to refugees coming mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s in New York for two days, headed right back to the front lines of where refugees are coming in and what is happening to them.

It’s great to have you with us in Part 2 of this conversation. Tell us the stories of people. I don’t think people care about refugees when you say 1 million, when you say 1,000, until you hear the story of one person.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yeah, I’ve met so many people with their own tragic, and at times inspiring, stories. I’ve met many Syrians who made this boat journey and then actually stayed in Greece to help their fellow Syrians when they arrived. But one person who touched me quite a bit is a doctor from Syria, Dr. Ali Jabbour [phon.]. He made this journey, and I met him about two months ago in Hungary, where he was sleeping on the streets. And just imagine you’ve spent four years in Syria, digging people out of the rubble and saving their lives at the hospital—you’re a hero, really—and you end up on this journey of utter humiliation. I wrote about him, and my last line of the piece I wrote said he’s now in Austria, one step closer to achieving his dream of continuing his medical studies in Germany. And he contacted me from Germany and said, “Actually, the last line is not right, because my dream is to be back in Syria.”

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the journey he took. Explain how people go from Syria.

PETER BOUCKAERT: So, for most of these people, they have to sell their land and their house and borrow very heavily from neighbors and from family to make this journey, because they have to pay smugglers incredible amounts of money. Then, they have to cross the border into Turkey, often illegally, over razor wire fences, and then they have to make their way to the smugglers, who they pay about $1,200 at least, sometimes much more, to be pushed onto these boats. And all of them are being told the journey will be safe, there will be 30, 35 people on the boat. But when they arrive on the coast, up to 55, 60 people are pushed onto these boats. And the smugglers have guns to force people to take off. There’s nobody to guide these boats. One of the refugees is given the handle of the engine on this rubber boat, and then they set out at sea. Many of the boats break down at sea and drift for hours. We’ve talked to people who have been at sea for as long as two days. Sometimes the boats are attacked by vigilantes.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do they go in this boat journey?

PETER BOUCKAERT: They go from Turkey, from the Turkish coast, to the Greek islands. And the numbers have been growing exponentially. In July, 24,000 people arrived on the island of Lesbos. In August, it was up to 50,000. And by September, it was 111,000.

AMY GOODMAN: So how many a day?

PETER BOUCKAERT: It can be up to 5,000, 8,000 people a day. So that means a hundred boats.

AMY GOODMAN: A hundred boats.

PETER BOUCKAERT: And you just do the math. I did the math, and the smugglers are making over $100 million off the plight of these people.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what happens when they end up in Lesbos? What happens then?

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, for many, they think that their journey—the worst part of their journey is over when they arrive in Lesbos. But actually, their suffering is just about to begin. When they get on the beach, wet and often cold, they’re helped by the volunteers. They are given dry clothes, if dry clothes are available. And then they end up in these horrible camps, completely overcrowded with very little shelter and food, where they have to wait for days just to get a registration paper to get onto the boat to Athens. And then they continue, sleeping out in the open with their children—it’s stunning to see how many babies are on this journey, and toddlers—for day after day after day, until they ultimately reach Germany.

And, you know, I think the real scandal is that we’re now five months, a year into this crisis, that keeps growing, but there still is no organized EU response, both in terms of coherent refugee policies, but also in terms of saving lives at sea and meeting the humanitarian needs of these people. This is not an insurmountable task. I mean, OK, we’re talking about a maximum of 8,000 people a day, which seems like a huge number, but we handle those kind of crowds every day at rock concerts, at soccer matches. We do have the capacity to address these people’s needs and to make this journey a lot more humane, but we’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: How have the Paris attacks complicated this whole situation, the horror for refugees? I wanted to turn just in the United States to Donald Trump, the—one of the leading presidential candidates, Republican candidates, speaking Monday after the Paris attacks.

DONALD TRUMP: [And then we have a president,] with all of the problems—and you probably heard that at least one, and probably more, of the killers, the animals, that did what they did in Paris, came out of the migration, right? They came out of the migration. So we have a president that wants to take hundreds of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people and move them into our country. And we don’t—you know, think of it. And we don’t even know who they are. There’s no paperwork. There’s no anything.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Donald Trump. Peter Bouckaert?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I normally make a policy not to respond to such idiotic statements. But in reality, every Syrian refugee who reaches the United States has gone through four levels of security review. These are the most carefully screened refugees anywhere in the world. And there have been no incidents with the hundreds of thousands of refugees that the U.S. has taken in over the years.

The United States’ values are built about being welcoming to refugees. And it’s our most powerful tool in the war against Islamic extremism, are our values. It’s not our military planes and our bombs. The only way we can fight against this brutality, this barbarism, is with our values. And if we’re going to shut the door on these refugees, we’re giving a propaganda victory to ISIS. And I think that’s exactly why they left a fake Syrian passport at the scene of their attacks, because they would love it if we shut the door on the people who are fleeing their so-called Islamic caliphate.

AMY GOODMAN: What happens to Afghan refugees?

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, I think a lot of the focus has been on the Syrian refugees and their plight, but as one Afghan refugee told me, “The Syrians have had four years of war, now coming onto five. We’ve had 40.” And we should not ignore the plight of the people fleeing Afghanistan. The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. The Islamic State is also targeting people there. And there’s many abuses being committed by the Northern Alliance.

But the Afghan refugees also are fleeing from Iran. There’s millions of Afghans who live in Iran, and one of the reasons they’re fleeing from Iran, which is a very little-known fact, is that Iran is actually forcibly recruiting them to go fight in Syria. They’re rounding up Afghan refugees and giving them the choice between being deported back to Afghanistan, a country many have not lived in for decades and fear, or being forced to go fight for Assad in Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to continue on this track, this idea of what has caused people to flee and what our responsibility is, not just as human beings that are not attached except that we’re humans and care about other human beings, but our responsibility for the cause of the refugee crisis.

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, I do think it’s important for people to understand that the 2003 Iraq invasion, and especially the very irresponsible policies which were put in place by the Bush administration, played a very direct role in creating the Islamic State. It ripped apart the Iraqi state and allowed for the rise of Islamic extremism. The only way we can respond to that is not just with a military strategy, and certainly not with brutality. I mean, we’ve seen that the kind of brutal policies pursued by the Bush administration and Rumsfeld and Cheney utterly failed. They failed on the ground. They achieved nothing in terms of stabilizing Iraq or dealing with the threat of Islamic extremism. So, you know, I certainly understand that in the aftermath of the Paris attacks people want to respond, they want to go strike against the Islamic State, but we have to be smart and learn from our own history. And actually, our values, respect for human rights and welcoming refugees is an important part of fighting against the kind of Islamic extremism that the Islamic State represents.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, you were one of the first to tweet the picture of the three-year-old boy. Talk about his case, Alan Kurdi.

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, Alan Kurdi came from the city of Kobani, which is completely destroyed, partly by the Islamic State, but also by U.S. airstrikes in response to their takeover of the city. He set off—

AMY GOODMAN: The city of Kobani—


AMY GOODMAN: —in Syria.

PETER BOUCKAERT: In Syria. And he set off on one of these rubber boats and drowned alongside his mother and his brother. Every day, two Alan Kurdis die on this journey. And, you know, the picture of Alan Kurdi certainly drew a lot of attention. It horrified us all. And for a brief moment, it united us in a sense that we have to do something about this crisis. Well, we still have to do something about this crisis. And part of what we need to do about this crisis, the most important part, is making safe and legal ways for people to seek asylum, to get out of the horrors of war, to provide them with the opportunity to educate their children, because those children represent the future of Syria. And there—just in Turkey, there are 400,000 children, Syrian children, out of school—


PETER BOUCKAERT: —missing out on an education, having fled from Syria. So, we need to address this real crisis in the region. You know, even with the projections of the European Union for 2015, 2016 and 2017, the refugees reaching Europe would represent 0.4 percent of the population of Europe. That’s one out of 250 people. You know, in Lebanon, one out of four people is a refugee, a Syrian refugee. So, Europe is not being flooded by refugees, and certainly the world is not being flooded by Syrian refugees. We can—this is not a capacity problem. It’s a political problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what the U.S. should do. What are the numbers of refugees the U.S. has taken and should take?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, the U.S. takes 70,000 refugees a year, and many of them come from places like Syria and Somalia and Iraq. President Obama has now promised to take 10,000 more Syrian refugees a year. Those people will be carefully screened, and I am certain that they will contribute to American society. You know, I’ve been stunned by the number of doctors and engineers and business leaders that I’ve met on this journey. These people are not coming to take welfare. They want to come and contribute to our societies. They want to build a new future for themselves and for their children. And even in Germany today, the people in the camps, the one thing they ask me for is language books. They want to learn the German language, get out of these camps and start their new lives.

AMY GOODMAN: More than two dozen U.S. state governors have refused to accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks. This is one of them. This is Texas Governor Greg Abbott.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT: The database on the Syrian side simply does not exist. As a result, to the extent any Syrian refugee is allowed into the country, we are playing the same game of risk that Europe played, with regard to the individual who entered Europe, who then participated in the terroristic bombing of Paris. As governor of the state of Texas, I will not roll the dice and take the risk on allowing a few refugees in simply to expose Texans to that danger.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Governor Abbott of Texas. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I think the facts speak for themselves. There’s 70,000 refugees coming to the United States every year, and not a single one has been involved in a terrorist incident. The situation in Europe is different. There is chaos right now in terms of the procedures, and Europe does need to put together a coherent refugee policy to deal with these people and to screen them for security reasons. But the reality is that the U.S. has screening procedures in place and a coherent refugee policy, and that these people present no threat to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Governor Bentley of Alabama.

GOV. ROBERT BENTLEY: And I think the thing that I want to do as governor is to make sure the people of Alabama are safe. And if there is any—if there’s even the slightest risk that the people who are coming in from Syria are not the types of people that we would want them to be, then we can’t take that chance.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. Peter Bouckaert?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Look, I can assure the governor that the people who are going to come from Syria to the United States are exactly the kind of people that we will want to welcome to the United States. I’ve met many people on this journey who I would have loved to have as neighbors. They’re people who are fleeing from conflict. And it’s part of a long-standing U.S. tradition to welcome people who need refuge.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, I was wondering if you can talk about your own work. Just a few of the media descriptions of you, from ABC in Australia, saying, “Many argue [that] Bouckaert is single handedly changing the face of human rights. Traditionally NGOs went into a country after a war, but Bouckaert is one of the first to arrive on the scene, often even before the journalists.” And The Intercept says, “Bouckaert has reported on just about every major war and conflict in the past 20 years. He represents a new type of human rights worker—part journalist, part researcher, full-time producer of the images and words that tell us what’s happening in the stricken places we’d rather not look at.” Tell us what you do.

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, my job at Human Rights Watch is to draw attention to some of the most ignored crises in the world, in places like the Central African Republic and also now on the refugee crisis. I’m blessed working for an organization which has incredible people dedicated to this work. It’s never done alone. And we do make a difference. I mean, it’s really important that we humanize these stories, that we give the people affected by these crises a voice, whether they’re in the Central African Republic or in the refugee crisis in Europe right now. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I’m an activist, and my job is about saving lives and protecting people, not just about writing about their deaths later on.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Luther King used the quote—he was quoting someone else [Theodore Parker]: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Do you think it’s bending toward justice now in any way in the long run?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Well, I think we are living through very difficult times, in the Middle East and many other parts of the world. But we cannot give up on the struggle for justice and human rights. The many, many people around the world depend on us carrying on the struggle, even in the darkest of times, and we have to stand with them. We have to tell their stories and to continue to fight the struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: Would you say that war is the cause of this surge in refugees?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Certainly war is one of the major causes, why so many people are fleeing, but also repression and corruption. You know, I think it’s important to link these different concepts. You know, the situation in places like Eritrea and Egypt and Syria and Libya also has a lot to do with corruption and the fact that some people are profiting from the suffering of others.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, you are from Brussels, from Belgium. That has been under intense scrutiny now with the Paris attackers. Explain Brussels to us.

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, several of the attackers have come from a marginalized suburb of Brussels called Molenbeek, where the attack appears to have been planned and where many other prior terrorist attacks were also planned. It’s also a weapons shipment—a place where weapons are very easily available.

And I think there’s two lessons to be drawn from this aspect. The first is that it’s—and that’s an important lesson for the United States. When we do take refugees—or migrants, for that matter—it’s very important to integrate them into our societies, to give them the language skills and the support they need to become productive members of our societies. And one of the gravest mistakes that Europe has made, several decades ago, is to put people in these marginalized ghettos, basically, where extremism has built. So that’s why it’s so dangerous, the policies that U.S. governors are adopting, because they cannot stop these refugees from coming to their states—that’s a federal decision—but they can stop them from having the support they need to be integrated into their communities, and that could actually present a threat in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about Molenbeek.

PETER BOUCKAERT: So, it is a neighborhood where weapons are easily available.


PETER BOUCKAERT: Because Belgium has been a center for the illegal weapons trade for decades. It’s where shipments to conflicts like Angola traditionally have taken off. And that commerce has led to the easy availability of weapons. And that is a very dangerous development, because for just a few thousand dollars, you can buy Kalashnikovs and other weapons of war on the black market in Belgium.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised when you heard about this connection between the Paris attackers, some of them, and Molenbeek in Brussels, Belgium?

PETER BOUCKAERT: I was not really surprised, because I’ve been working on the Syrian conflict for many years, and we have seen many people from these areas of Belgium and France heading to fight in Syria. And, you know, there’s been this focus on this fake passport, when Europe really should be focusing more on the marginalized Muslim communities at home and try to better meet their needs, make sure that young people are educated and have jobs available, because the reality is that the majority of these people who carried out the Paris attacks were French citizens—some of them resident in Molenbeek—who have been living in France all of their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the solution to the conflict in Syria?

PETER BOUCKAERT: You know, the conflict in Syria is a very difficult conflict to resolve. It ultimately needs a political solution. And one of the aspects which is really important is to reassure various minority communities, including the Christians and the Assyrians and the Yazidis, as well as the Alawites, who are the power base of President Bashar al-Assad, that there is a future for them in Syria, because many of them are supporting the Syrian government not because they like the policies of Assad, but because they’re fearful for the future. And they have every reason to be, because if we look at what happened in Iraq, many of these communities were wiped out. The Yazidis and the Christians just in the last year lost most of their villages.

But there’s other aspects, as well. You know, two years ago, I helped organize a conference for women from Syria in Geneva, together with women’s rights activist Madeleine Rees. And it was really the first time that women had had a voice in the peace process. You know, we brought this proposal to the diplomats, and they were like, “That’s a great idea.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the proposal?

PETER BOUCKAERT: It was to have a conference of women to talk about what their vision was for the future of—

AMY GOODMAN: And what was their vision?

PETER BOUCKAERT: Their vision was that women had to be around the table, that we could not just have men with guns around the table. But up to that stage, 50 percent of the population of Syria, their voice had been completely ignored in the peace process for Syria. And that happens time and time again. We need to make sure that not just the people with guns are around the table, that they don’t just buy their chair at the table with blood, but that the moral voices from the community and women, civil society leaders, who have such much more of a vision for the future of Syria—and the Congo and all of these other conflicts—are around the table with a voice.

AMY GOODMAN: You have said that you believe that this fake passport that was planted next to one of the gunmen in Paris, that said they were from Syria but in fact they weren’t, was actually, you believe, a plan of ISIS to make the link.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. You know, ISIS wants people to flock towards its Islamic caliphate. So, it really is a rejection of the ideology of ISIS when people are fleeing from the Islamic caliphate. And I’ve met many people from Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa and Mosul who are fleeing the terror of ISIS. So ISIS does want to get Europe to shut the door in the face of these refugees. It really helps ISIS a lot when Muslims are being seen humiliated on the streets of Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response of France and the United States to bomb Raqqa after the Paris attacks, the incessant now bombing, and now Russia is joining in bombing, after the Russian jetliner, it’s been shown, had a bomb on board. Raqqa, hundreds of thousands of civilians live there still.

PETER BOUCKAERT: Yes. You know, there certainly, unfortunately, has to be probably a military component to confronting ISIS. But I think we constantly need to remind ourselves that we have a lot more in our arsenal than just planes and bombs. And it’s very important to understand that our values as a society, values which are radically opposed to the barbarity of ISIS, values of human rights and respect for people’s dignity and their lives, are our most important tool to fight against this kind of extremism. And what concerns me is that there’s been so much focus on a military response, when actually this is a fight for the hearts and minds of people. And respect for human rights and dignity are fundamental to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Bouckaert, I want to thank you for being with us, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director, has spent the last few months in the Balkans and Greece speaking to refugees, documenting their plight, refugees coming in from places like Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, is here in New York for a day and then headed back out. We thank you for gracing our studios. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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