The European Refugee Crisis. You’ve seen the headlines, you’ve heard the anecdotal evidence, you’ve probably got an opinion. Before I start a lengthy piece ensuring you understand mine let’s make one thing clear; this is the worst named humanitarian disaster in a long time. There is no European refugee crisis. There’s a Syrian refugee crisis, there’s an Afghan refugee crisis, an Eritrean refugee crisis, an Iraqi refugee crisis but there’s no European refugee crisis. At worst there’s a slight European infrastructure problem and a massive European public compassion deficit but when people are fleeing the worst kinds of murder, torture, war, extortion and oppression the ones in the country they flee to don’t get to claim a crisis. And while the name may be the least worrying thing about the situation, language is an important tool in the way we frame issues in our mind and it is important not to promote the image of a European crisis. The crises are elsewhere.
We know the statistics. Over 50% of the Syrian population are now refugees or IDPs. Secular, liberal Afghans who we were told would be shaping their country are now fleeing in great numbers from exactly the type of oppression political leaders once told us we were militarily destroying. All around the world the desperation to escape from the worst kinds of intolerable living situations are motivating all kinds of people to take extraordinary risks to seek safety for themselves and their families amongst the relative haven of peace we have spent the best part of 75 years attempting to forge in Europe.
All of this leads to the single question a lot of people have been asking for months: What can I do to help? I think it’s worth addressing the question on two levels. On the broader, collective level of what we, as a European community can do and on a more specific, individual level – which is often what we mean when we ask what there is to be done. The two are hugely interconnected, though.
What we can do as 500 million Europeans living in one of the most pluralistic, peaceful and prosperous moments in our continent’s history seems fairly simple. We can, and should, be working tirelessly to accept, resettle and support the thousands of refugees arriving with us every day, often by perilous means and almost exclusively with harrowing and unsettling stories to tell. Stories that we should all be listening to. You will hear some commentators say that the problem is beyond the shores of Lesbos and the jungle camp at Calais, that these situations are mere symptoms of war, human rights abuse and failed states elsewhere in the world. They are right, but it is important that we reject the false dichotomy that attempts to force us to choose between dealing with the symptom and the cause. It is imperative that we do both. The solutions far away are complex, multi-faceted and often impossible to implement in the short term. The solutions here are blindingly obvious and thoroughly achievable. Both should be pursued with vigour and determination.
What we, as individuals, can do relates to this and should be viewed within the framework of achieving these goals. Providing immediate material support is vitally important and, channelled through existing agencies who are able to best understand needs on the ground, can be remarkably effective. Donations have played an important role, though it is important to highlight the impact of the well-intentioned chaos caused by vigilante donor-ism that seeks to prioritise one’s personal saviour fantasy over the actual needs of the situation and the refugees in question.
It’s rare in political discussions (and despite the attempts to de-politicise the refugee issue it is, by its very nature, a political one. Our actions here relate to how we choose to define ourselves collectively. If that isn’t political, nothing is) to have an opportunity to genuinely persuade people of your point of view using common sense, logic and evidence. It shouldn’t be, but so often political discourse becomes a horrendously adversarial butting of heads closer resembling opposition fans at a sporting event than a genuine meeting of minds but on this issue we have already seen some movement. Media coverage has certainly shifted in tone since the tragic photographs of three year old Alan Kurdi’s body emerged, with a noticeable softening of the inhumane rhetoric that previously seemed so acceptable amongst certain agencies. We must go further.
And this is where I see one of the most accessible and truly vital actions that we can collectively take in responding to this ongoing and widespread tragedy. We can help to shift the narrative, we can demand to create the lens through which this crisis is seen and, for once, it’s plausible to imagine that such a reframing of the way in which this issue is discussed could have a tangible impact on policy.
Polling data suggests there’s still a lot of work to be done. Although a heavily reported Populus survey reported that over 30% of Britons had offered support to refugees in some way, figures on support for accepting and resettling refugees still suggest a divided nation. A Sky Data poll suggested as few as 15% of the population believed that Britain should be accepting more refugees and while that number may grow to as much as 40% it still suggests a lot of work to be done in order to frame this issue in the appropriate humanitarian terms. An encouraging statistic, I believe, is the 56% of respondents who told YouGov that they didn’t know what number of refugees the country should be taking. This suggests a widespread ignorance of the actual numbers and facts involved and thus, space for the presentation of these facts in a clear and demonstrable way.
This is the mission of the present moment, I am convinced. To wrestle the narrative of these hundreds of thousands of displaced people away from the xenophobes and fearmongers and to give a voice, as much as is possible, to the refugees themselves. Some fantastic examples are already starting to emerge in support of this. Stories like that of Khebez Dawle, the Syrian refugee band who are playing their way across Europe. Humans of New York, the popular photoblogging movement with over 15 million followers on facebook, is currently working from European shores, providing a remarkable forum for the transmission of some individual stories to a huge audience. These efforts combine to contribute to the slowly changing way in which we choose to view the situation, and the people involved.
And there must be some change. History will not judge us kindly when the current situation is looked back upon. When Greece and Italy are refused the assistance required to help them deal with the influx of refugees arriving on their shores, when a common EU agreement is so underwhelming and when only Germany seems to be undertaking a serious effort to offer resettlement on the scale that is required, even at the cost of some genuine political capital at home, it is clear that we are falling well short of what we should demand of ourselves as human beings. A recent Human Rights Watch report on the treatment of refugees migrating through Macedonia is a horrific collection of evidence that serves as a reminder that the suffering of these people’s journey is often far from finished when they reach the continent they once imagined would offer sanctuary.
So be a part of helping to shift this story. Speak to people, write to people, refuse to let the terms of this discussion be set by the kind of illogical and often racist rhetoric that dominates certain parts of our society. Share the stories of individuals as much as you speak in numerical terms about the scale of the crisis. Highlight the paucity of the British government’s offer to take 20,000 refugees and discuss openly a response that would serve the needs of the desperate people who make it this far. Promote the economic and social benefits of immigration where humanitarian necessity falls on deaf ears.
And, of course, the discourse must take in more than just Europe. Aside from the conflicts and oppression that motivate people to take such desperate measures to escape it should be more widely realised that Europe is dealing with a fraction of the refugees of other countries and, indeed, that some states are failing miserably to offer adequate assistance. There’s a wide discussion to be had here, but we need to be having it, and not just with people who agree with us.
So the next time you’re in conversation with someone who espouses the Daily-Mail-headline ignorance of dehumanising rhetoric, don’t let it go uncountered. Don’t let it stay there, hanging in the air without an answer as the only explanation of events. Even where the immediate urge is just to punch them in the face – that’s OK! Don’t do that, obviously. Use your words, instead, to highlight the absurdity of their argument to anyone within earshot which will likely contribute infinitely more to the effort to shift the narrative than physical violence. But it’s OK to want to punch them. Their words create the mandate for inaction, abuse and inhumanity – they promote far more violence than a punch to the face and as counter-productive and ethically questionable as it would be the urge is valid.
None of what I’ve said here is revelatory, it’s nothing that hasn’t been said before and it’s certainly not an innovative new solution but it’s worth saying again. And again and again because it’s one of the best tools we have to effect any kind of change in the way we collectively decide to deal with the biggest refugee crisis in history. Not a European crisis, but a global one. A human crisis, and one we should feel compelled to address both as a species and as individuals. That process can’t start until we start telling the story correctly.