Can Europe Make It?

‘So long as we’re safe in our beds’ – a turning point for Spain on refugees

Pressure from Spanish society has forced the Rajoy government to accept almost 15,000 refugees - the third biggest recipient in Europe.

David Blázquez
14 September 2015

Few could have predicted, some months ago, such a response. The fact that in less than 24 hours more than 100,000 people signed a petition to welcome refugees advanced by (a petition website) or that thousands of people twitted #YoSoyRefugiado (I am refugee) or #RefugiadosBienvenidos (Refugees Welcome) is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of stories of people trying to help in one way or another.

Two days ago, Manuel, a banker from Madrid was moved by the news and decided to send an email to his friends (some of whom are severely affected by the crisis or unemployed). The day after more than 20 of them were having dinner at his place thinking about how to help: some offered their houses, a couple of them to teach Spanish language to refugees, others committed to buy food for one family. What explains such reactions?

With our economy slowly recovering and one in four still unemployed, Spanish society had all the numbers to embrace a “Thanks, but no thanks” approach to the refugees crisis in Europe. That was the policy initially adopted by Mariano Rajoy’s government and just recently amended, Spain will be the third biggest recipient of refugees in Europe, taking almost 15,000 out of 120,000. Pressure from Spanish society factored in the executive´s decision to overturn its initial policy.

Together the 71 refugees found in a lorry abandoned on a motorway in Austria and Aylan’s lifeless body lying on a Turkish beach were a tipping point. We could perfectly picture Manuel, the banker, in a mid-august day in a fancy beach in the Mediterranean reading Goethe’s Faust: “On holidays there’s nothing I like better / Than talking about war and war’s display / When in Turkey far away / People one another batter […] Let them go and break their heads / Make the mess they often do / So long as we’re safe in our beds.” Back from holidays however, in early September, the images of the deadly lorry and Aylan made us all, not just Manuel, fall out of our Mephistophelian beds: we realized that that “mess” had Aylan’s face and had to do with us. 

Anyone interested in understanding the positive reaction of a great portion of the Spanish public to the refugees crisis should also have in mind Spanish history, go back to the years of our Civil War (1936-1939) and picture (perhaps with Frank Capa’s help) thousands of Spaniards fleeing towards France, Belgium, or Latin America.

In the summer of 1936 alone, between 15 and 20 thousand Spaniards entered southern France from the Basque Country. Black and white pictures from the thirties next to 2015 pictures from Lesbos, Turkey or Hungary crowded twitter in the last days with Raquel Martí, UNRWA Spain’s executive director asking whether we had forgotten our own history.

Another important factor in Spain has been the example of other European countries. Over the past weeks, several articles pictured Spain as an unwelcoming country unwilling to share the burden of the crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s widely praised leadership and the examples from governments and important sectors of civil society in Northern European countries “shined” as models to follow and became ammunition for Spanish public opinion against the Spanish government, initially reluctant to accept its quota. Merkel, often portrait as heartless and cold by Spanish media, is now praised as humanitarian and heartwarming, as a model of solidarity.

However, the openness provoked by any of the above reasons – moving and praiseworthy as it is- will not be enough to face the medium and long-term challenges posed by this crisis. Opening the doors of European countries to refugees is not only an obligation under international law, but also a basic movement of humanity.

However, that necessary first step has to go hand in hand with a serious discussion –both from social and political standpoints– about the challenges of massive arrivals of refugees. Spain should prioritize improving a notoriously dysfunctional asylum system and advancing integration policies. However, no system designed in an office can generate the desire to embrace the different, when the difference becomes blatant.

As ICADE Professor of International Law Cristina Gortázar put it: “The problem in Spain –and everywhere in Europe- is not welcoming refugees, but integrating them.” Preserving today’s openness towards refugees when the emotion of seeing the pictures of little Aylan will be gone from memory is the real challenge for Manuel, his friends, and every one of us.

This article is written in support of People's Armada, a crowdfunding campaign to raise $3,000,000 in 10 days to buy Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) another search and rescue boat. Our initial target is enough for MOAS to buy and refit one ship, but ultimately we aim to raise enough to send an armada of crowdfunded ships to save thousands of lives. All money raised goes directly to MOAS. Please join us here:

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