In line 3 of the epic poem the Aeneid, Vergil describes his hero, the refugee Aeneas as multum ille et terris iactatus et alto (thrown about both on land and sea). Twenty boats were filled with Trojan refugees when Aeneas led them out of their captured homeland. A storm at sea sinks and kills the passengers and crew of all but seven of them. Aeneas, a Trojan prince who lives by the Bronze Age code of kill your enemy or be killed by him, had to swallow his pride and escape. Vergil pictures him in the middle of the terrible storm at sea:
Extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra:
ingemit, et duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas
talia voce refert: ‘O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere! (I.92-96A)
Immediately Aeneas’ limbs are loosened by the cold
He groans, and stretching his palms to heaven,
he cries out, “O three and four times blessed
are they who happened to die before their
parents’ eyes, under the high walls of Troy.
(Find out more about Vergil, the Aeneid, and Augustus.)
This is the first time we see Aeneas in the epic. A hero, who fearlessly fought and killed many Greeks during the ten year Trojan War, must, as a refugee, face a situation over which he has no control, one so devastating that he wishes he had died in the honorable warrior way. Aeneas is not only a literal refugee, he is figuratively displaced– a hero (not unlike his Greek counterparts, Achilles and Odysseus) forced to cry out with the voice of a victim.
The storm blows his and six other ships to the coast of Libya (the exact same port from which so many Syrian refugees are setting sail for Europe). Once landed, he feigns calm and confidence, and addresses the Trojan refugees in a manner so unlike his earlier frenzied soliloquy:
O socii—neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum—
O passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem.
Vos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantis
accestis scopulos, vos et Cyclopea saxa
experti: revocate animos, maestumque timorem
mittite: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
Per varios casus, per tot discrimina rerum
tendimus in Latium; sedes ubi fata quietas
ostendunt; illic fas regna resurgere Troiae.
Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis.’
My people you’ve suffered worse; god will grant an end to this
You’ve approached rabid Scylla and the resounding cliffs
You’ve experienced the Cyclopean rocks
Recover your courage, and dismiss fear
and sadness: perhaps it will be pleasing even
to remember these things. Through many misfortunes,
through so many changes, we head to Latium; where
the fates show peaceful dwelling; there it is
right that the kingdom of Troy rise again.
Be strong! Save yourselves for better times
Fortunately for him, Dido Queen of Carthage respects international law (ius gentium) and welcomes him and his people. Still, the sight of all the many building projects going on in Carthage makes him nostalgic for Troy: ‘O fortunati, quorum iam moenia surgunt!’ (So lucky, whose walls now rise!) Dido encourages them not to be afraid, and if they want, they can remain as citizens in her city:
Tros Tyriusque mihi nullo discrimine agetur (Trojan and Phoenician will hold no difference for me)
This mythic tale of refugees at sea is highly relevant to events in Asia and the Middle East.
With the dual crises of the war in Syria and the destitution of the Rohingya people in Burma, the Andaman and Mediterranean Seas have recently been the scene of massive suffering by refugees. The problem is exacerbated when smugglers take money from refugees or extort money from their families, then abandon the boats leaving hundreds of men, women, and children to fend for themselves, pray for assistance and a place to land. For the Rohingya people, the usual ports in Malaysia, Thailand, or Indonesia have been denied them. The Rohingya are people without a homeland. Since the 1970s those in Burma have been victims of repressive policies by the Burmese government. No less that 25,000 have fled in the first quarter of 2105.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports over 800,000 stateless people and nearly 500,000 refugees. It also demonstrates the Myanmar’s/Burma’s disregard for international law.
Many Syrians are fleeing to the coast of Libya from which port they set sail over the Mediterranean Sea for Europe. Italy and Greece are providing asylum for thousands of Syrian refugees many of whom were rescued at sea. Since 2012, over 100,000 refugees have set sail for Europe.
The United Nations Commission for Refugees reports nearly 4 million Syrian refugees and over 7.5 million Syrians displaced within their own country. .