“Exiled dissidents no longer feel safe in the West” #WorldRefugeeDay2021

This World Refugee Day 2021, UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, announced that the number of people forced to flee their communities or countries has doubled in the last decade. Of the 84.2 million who flee conflict and other emergencies each year, many find a new home in Europe.

But the Western destinations for these refugees, especially those who flee for intellectual and political freedoms, is becoming increasingly unsafe, with many of them being attacked, harassed or even killed in the countries of refuge, which were once thought to be safe havens,

Blogger and political refugee Mahmmad Mirzali from Azerbaijan is one such recent example who has survived multiple attempts on his life since he fled home five years ago and settled in France.

This March, as he was walking in the downtown area of Nantes city, he was surrounded by a group of men armed with knives who started to beat him. He was stabbed 16 times. He was critically injured but survived, and now reportedly lives under French police protection.

“French authorities should swiftly investigate the knife attack on exiled Azerbaijani blogger Mahammad Mirzali, find the perpetrators and those who ordered it, and bring them to justice,” said Gulnoza Said, a representative of the international media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists. “French authorities must ensure that Mirzali and other exiled bloggers and journalists can exercise their right of free expression without having to fear for their lives.”

Mirzali runs a popular Youtube channel and frequently criticises the president of Azerbaijan. Last year in October, he had also been shot at by unidentified men in Nantes.

Another case is of Safa Al-Ahmad, a dissident from Saudi Arabia who left her home country soon after filming her documentary for the BBC ‘Saudi’s Secret Uprising’ in early 2015. It became increasingly clear to her after the film’s release that going back home would not be feasible.

Speaking with the DISSIDENT club from an undisclosed location, Safa says she continues to feel unsafe despite not returning to Saudi. “I knew that the Saudis had no problem harassing people abroad, but as time went by it became clear I needed to be more careful in my travel and what countries I could go to or even transit from. They were all calculated risks.”

The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in a Saudi Consulate in Turkey sent further shockwaves within the exiled dissident community. It led to an international outcry initially but soon after, things went back to normal. “Within the Saudi context and especially after Jamal’s murder it has become clear to the world how unsafe we are anywhere. And the impunity of governments when they do murder us no matter how loud was the outcry at the beginning.  It is now business as usual with Saudi,” says Al-Ahmad, the Saudi exiled journalist.

But in some cases, the attackers are not so obvious and hostile agencies may not leave footprints behind. Example of such are two cases of political dissidents from Pakistan, who had sought asylum in the West and were found mysteriously dead after going missing.

Karima Baloch, an activist from the insurgency-hit region of Balochistan was living in exile in Canada since 2015. In December 2020, she went out for a walk and never came back. Next day, her body was found in a local lake. The police ruled out foul play but her family alleges otherwise. Earlier, another Pakistani journalist in exile Sajid Hussain went missing in March 2020 from Sweden while traveling from Stockholm city to Uppsala city. His body was found two months later from the local river. Like Baloch, Hussain had left his home after facing threats from the Pakistani military establishment.

“Pakistan is copying the same tactics that other repressive regimes use to silence dissent abroad. Like the Saudis, the Chinese and the Russians, Pakistan is also targeting its dissidents abroad. I have faced surveillance, and received threats in France. My family back home has been told by military authorities that they can reach me wherever they want,” says Taha Siddiqui, Pakistani journalist in exile, who runs the DISSIDENT club. Siddiqui fled home in 2018 after surviving an abduction and possible assassination attempt in Islamabad, where he worked with international media.

“Europe and the West must ensure safety for us, and deliver on their commitments of human rights, and not be pressured by economic or other geo-strategic interests that authoritarian regimes lure them with,” Siddiqui adds.

The issue of safety of exiled dissident’s safety has come under renewed focus since the dramatic hijacking of a commercial airliner last month, by the Belarusian government, to arrest Raman Pratasevich, a prominent Belarusian journalist and opposition activist who was travelling in the plane, prompting reactions from exiled dissidents around the world that they are unsafe even in Europe, despite the European Union (EU) claiming otherwise.

For political dissidents living in the West to feel safe, these host countries must do more than just pay lip service to the plight of such refugees, and take concrete steps to ensure their safety, as risks of threats from their home countries intensify. Concrete action and steps must be taken against any hostile activity by authoritarian regimes in the West, otherwise their actions against their dissidents abroad will only become bolder.

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